Accountability is a term that is used often in organisations all over the world, across all manners of industry. The meaning however can be, and is, vastly different.

Over the course of several posts, I’ll attempt to define how I view accountability for an individual or a team within an Agile organisation, outline some ways to ensure the most beneficial and appropriate application of accountability between product stakeholders and a team is undertaken, and finally discuss how accountability relates to an individual within a team.

So what does it mean? To be accountable for something is having the obligation, the expectation, that you are willing and able to share, discuss and explain the actions taken to achieve some result. To openly articulate the decisions made, the consequences considered, and ultimately justify those individual actions that both were and weren’t undertaken as part of that process. Accountability has less to do with the actual result, and more to do with how you get there.

Oftentimes, it is thought of in terms of blame and punishment – this occurs where accountability is misunderstood, and applied from the paradigm of an assured result, of having a promised outcome that wasn’t completely or exactly met. In this situation, the result has not been separated from the actions that led to it – which is where real accountability should be measured.

How then should accountability be applied, and what are the benefits of espousing it as a value within your Agile team or organisation? Applied from the correct perspective, accountability should foster teamwork and collaborative effort. It should provide direction and focus, and remove the need for meeting after meeting where no real outcome or alignment is achieved.

In order for accountability to be truly effective in this manner, there are certain prerequisites that must be met. The team or individual must have the goals and what will be considered success and failure clearly defined by them, and agreed to by the stakeholders, as well as the consequences of not achieving them. They must understand how and why transparency and visibility into the progress of the team will be achieved, and how external feedback and input will be given throughout the process.

Most importantly, they need autonomy. Autonomy and accountability go hand in hand, and to desire or attempt to apply one without the other is misguided and will lead to discord and a lack of trust. A team needs the ownership and the ability to make decisions on how they are to achieve the agreed upon measures. To have this dictated to them undermines the very notion of empowerment the autonomy seeks to provide, and will ultimately lead to a lack of drive and motivation to work towards the goals of the business. Conversely, without accountability, the focus and alignment with the needs of the stakeholders and business can become unclear, and lead to the team or individual working endlessly to a solution that doesn’t satisfy any immediate need of the organisation.

Applied correctly, accountability coupled with autonomy fosters wider collaboration and an alignment between teams and the organisation’s goals, and that initiative and ingenuity are encouraged and celebrated in achieving them.


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