A video on the topic of Accountability with Collaboration can be seen here.

A few years back I spent some time with a major retailer who had a problem with the compartmentalisation of their business. Each element of the business appeared to be working well in itself, but the silo walls between the elements seemed impenetrable.

A sensible solution seemed to be to work on collaboration. Consultants were duly brought in (not us!) to develop “socialisation”. The idea was that decisions and prospective actions needed to be “socialised” with all those who might be impacted by the consequential changes. This was designed to get involvement and to build commitment. In practice, there were lots more meetings, discussions and debates, the result of which meant that communications improved and many more staff felt they knew what was going on. As so often, it was the unintended consequences that killed any potential value created. Everything seemed to take longer; importantly no one seemed accountable for any decision. When actions were late, “we’ve still not fully socialised the idea” came the response and the result – paralysis.

So is the price we pay for increased collaboration the weakening of accountability, reduced speed of action and general ineffectiveness?

So often when others are involved in making decisions, the accountability slips off the shoulders of one person and ends up in the middle of the table with no one feeling that sharp need for delivery.

This is a particularly pressing issue in complex global businesses; local decisions have to be made, actions taken, but we need local managers to take wider global or regional issues into account too. Equally well, we need local managers to buy into and implement decisions that are being driven globally. To lead these issues, we put in place global managers who try to engage and collaborate with local managers, who in turn may see such attempts as a remote intrusion from people who don’t understand their world. So who is accountable for what? Global leaders take global accountability for categories, product streams, technologies or functions. Country managers take accountability for local results. Neither can achieve their goals without buy-in and collaboration with the other and at the interfaces the trade-offs are between global consistency and local sense.

We need accountability with collaboration.



Figure 1.  Accountability and Responsibility

Accountability is an often-misunderstood word. There are different meanings but the one that works for me is:  You are accountable for an outcome. Literally it means “liable to be called into account to others, for things”. It doesn’t talk to how you do things or what you need in order to do those things, you are accountable for the result.

At OE Cam, we make a distinction between accountability and responsibility. The two words are often used interchangeably, but for us, responsibility is having direct control over people, money and resources. It is control over those things that you have in your team, your organisational unit. You will have direct responsibility for some of the resources and people to deliver your accountabilities, but in all probability not all. As Figure 1 illustrates, the customer has a need and expects to be listened to, hence “hear me!” and he expects it to be delivered, hence “deliver what I want”. Accountability for delivering the chain of required actions is likely to cross several people’s responsibilities, particularly in a functional organisation. So is anyone accountable for the entire process?

If we take a customer process then few decisions are entirely within one person’s direct authority to make, and the implementation of those decisions may involve many more outside your direct responsibility. As a retail store manager you are accountable for sales. There is much you can do to drive up sales but what you can’t do is tell the customer to buy your merchandise, you can only influence. It’s the same inside the organisation, you may want others to act in certain ways but you have no control or authority to make them do so.

But why do I need to collaborate? If I’m accountable then I should be allowed to get on and make the thing happen, if I’m accountable then I need the authority and the resources to make it happen.

The complication is that particularly in a complex organisation your accountability will have an impact on others in different parts of the business. For example, if you are in charge of buying then it is obvious that your decisions and actions will hugely impact store sales. In fact, you will need others’ active support for your thing to happen. If you don’t then your thing will be stillborn and you will be accountable for a failure.

Therefore we have to combine accountability with collaboration. One becomes impossible without the other. The question is not around sharing the accountability; it is about you being accountable while working with a multi-disciplinary, often multi-cultural and multi-geographical team to deliver a result. In turn you will be invited to participate in the delivery of others’ accountabilities. If you only do what is required to deliver your own accountabilities you will soon find little co-operation from others. It is a reciprocal arrangement based on trust and mutual respect.


The Singularity of Accountability and the Plurality of Collaboration

As far as possible, accountabilities should be singular, in other words one person has the accountability to deliver a particular outcome. Teams may need to be involved to gain input, ownership and commitment (see Figure 2 below). This does not mean that the accountability or the decision-making is necessarily shared.

How do I make this happen? How can I be made accountable for things where I do not have direct responsibility? This is the essence of the distinction between the two meanings. You are accountable for making the right decisions, for gaining the commitment of others, to socialise the ideas, but you are also accountable for the time it takes and accountable for delivering the result.


Figure 2.  Collaboration and Decision Making

So often when others are involved in making decisions, the accountability slips off the shoulders of one person and ends up in the middle of the table with no one feeling that sharp need for delivery. For some, having a meeting is a problem shared, others can see how complex the issue is and the fact that the meeting does not make as much progress as it should allows acceptable reasons and excuses for non-performance to come into play.

In our concept of accountability, no meeting, no involvement of others can dilute your single point of accountability. You need the collaboration of others to deliver your accountability. It is up to you to make this happen, within performance plans and timeframes.

Telling people what to do in your own team is one way of getting things done. When it comes to others outside your direct control, using direct and positional power and authority is unlikely to work. (It may not work too well with your own team either!). It is through assertive influencing that you align a disparate group of people to deliver your customer promise.

As the accountable person you need to consider the nature of getting things done whether you are a global or local manager. There are three main ways:

  • Direct and positional – “I’m the boss, do as I say” (the problem is in the situations you are confronting – you may not be the line boss of everyone whose support you need)
  • Expert or sapiential – the power that comes from being the recognised expert, the fount of knowledge and experience. Others will recognise your expertise and defer to your judgements and decisions
  • Persuasion and influencing – getting others to buy into a common goal, through reasoning, maybe through reward and punishment (”if you do this, I’ll give you that”), through setting an example, through inspiring and energising others and exercising leadership skills.

So the main way we have of getting stuff done when neither the people nor the resources are directly under our command is through influence and persuasion.

  • Know your accountabilities, make sure they are defined as outcomes, deliverables, measures
  • Understand whose support you need to build to deliver those accountabilities – who are the stakeholders, who do you need to change to get this done
  • Plan for doing and persuading
  • Don’t let the collaboration dilute your accountability, you still have to deliver the result
  • Change the “they” to “I”. “They refused to cooperate with my plans” needs to change to “I failed to persuade them”
  • Challenge yourself if you can’t get that support
  • Develop your skills of persuasion.

If after all reasonable attempts you still get nowhere, then we have to question the alignment of the goals of the business. If the global managers are so out of line with local management then there is a bigger conversation to be had. Heads need to be knocked together and the principals (the bosses of the units) need to agree what they want and the priorities. In other words, the issue has to be rapidly escalated to someone who is accountable for the trade-offs between the two.


This accountability I speak of is singular, determined, gets stuff done, limits the chatter to focus on the issue…


And finally, a cautionary note on collaboration. Undirected and without purpose it is sclerotic, it clogs up decision-making, freezes innovation… I have just read “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” 1. As an introvert myself I do think we have become too obsessed with talking, involving everyone in everything so that accountability becomes a mush – sweeping waves of intention displacing the last lot of intentions and all giving the impression of activity.

My colleague, Chris Legge talks about “Social Loafing – Collaborative Consequence or Individual Neglect?” which explores individual effort when individuals work together on a collective task, compared with when they work on an individual task.

This accountability I speak of is singular, determined, gets stuff done, limits the chatter to focus on the issue… where there is no place for histrionics…

The culture in which this works best:

  • Low blame, high resolve
  • Performance measurement
  • Performance management
  • Trust and confidence in others
  • Breadth of perspective
  • Confidence in others and real confidence in self
  • Prototyping, experimenting, being prepared to do before exhausting analysis…

Let the delivery of the thing do the talking!


  1.  “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking” (2013) Susan Cain