The Truth About Accountability

Apr 26, 2004

It’s one of those certainties, like death and taxes. Managers are supposed to hold those who work for them accountable to reaching certain goals or achieving certain performance metrics. It sounds good to say, “I am a manager. I hold others accountable for their performance. THAT is what I, as a MANAGER, am SUPPOSED to do.” It’s easy to hold people accountable if their role is to sell encyclopedias door-to-door or to make so many widgets per hour. You either hit your numbers or you don’t. But when it comes to A/E and environmental firms, instilling accountability is, like many other aspects of management, not quite so simple. Here are four questions that must be answered, sequentially, if accountability is going to mean something more than just a word that management junkies amongst our ranks bandy about: Can someone really be held accountable for something? This is the first question that must be answered satisfactorily, and is one of the big reasons that accountability is a joke in firms in this business. For example, if a project manager is supposed to be held accountable for meeting certain quality standards on a complex multi-discipline project, and no one on the project team was picked by the PM for the job, nor do any of them actually report to the PM on a permanent basis, how can the PM be responsible for controlling their performance? They can’t. Or how about the marketing director and the marketing budget— can he or she be held accountable for staying within it if anyone in the firm is allowed to charge their time to marketing whenever they want to? I think not. Being able to honestly answer this first question with a “yes” is essential to any attempts to get employees feeling more accountable for their performance. What exactly are you going to measure and how can you measure it? This is another important question. Take my first example of the PM on a complex multi-discipline project being held accountable for quality. What is the measure of quality? Is it the amount of money spent on rework after the job has gone to the printer? Is it the claims that eventually result on the job? Or is it the end users of the project and their responses to a specific questionnaire that goes out to all clients of the firm? These measurements must be established, consistently collected, and reliable for accountability to mean anything at all beyond being a feel-good buzzword for engineers who acquired their MBAs later in life. Who gets to see the performance results? So, we have established that the person can be held accountable for doing something, and we are measuring their results to see if it’s actually happening. Who gets to see that information is the next question that has to be answered. And as far as I am concerned, in general, “The more, the merrier,” is my response. There’s a big problem when only the boss and the employee themselves see how the employee is doing. The boss may not care that the employee is underperforming. That makes it easy for the manager to not hold the employee accountable. But it’s much harder to shirk that responsibility when everyone else in the firm sees how all individuals are doing compared to each other. This actually makes the boss’s job easier, though they don’t all see it that way! What happens to those who don’t measure up? So, we have decided that we can hold someone accountable for something, we are measuring it, and reporting to the whole firm on how well they do. But that doesn’t mean the numbers look good! What happens to those with a bad scorecard is critical for this accountability stuff to mean anything. The bottom line is that they either need to be confronted and helped or simply helped out the door. Management has to close the loop. Without this step, all of the gains toward instilling a culture of accountability accomplished by answering the first three questions go out the window. There must be consequences. And, once again, A/E firms have a problem here. We seek to avoid confrontation. The whole issue makes many of our managers uncomfortable. Maybe now is the time to finally get honest with ourselves about accountability. What do you think? Originally published 4/26/2004

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