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not like Radical Candor, this is not about being rude and get away with it
The simplest way you can think about accountability is to answer the question “who do I fire if this goes wrong?”
Then if that goes wrong you fire the person and hire a new one, or if you are a Japanese general that lost the battle of Okinawa in WW2 you choose Seppuku.
However on average, even if you are an army general, not everything is so black and white: What does “wrong” even mean? Could you have avoided this failure or you were never given a fair chance to succeed? Was there an external factor (like a global pandemic) that influenced the outcome?
At the same time, if there are no consequences for your actions then what’s stopping you from doing absolutely nothing?
This is a question that needs to be resolved in a very nuanced way.
Clarity on what good looks like
They say that “Success has many fathers but failure is an orphan”, that is why you will never hear too many discussions on a succesful projects. Nobody is going to complain about it. This is very similar to operational toil, is very hard to define “what is toil” but very easy to define “what is not”.
That is the first step to accountability, create clarity on what good looks like, what you expect to happen.
Clarity cannot be absolute, there will always be unknowns and details that are overlooked, that’s fine. You need to aim at 80% clarity, because you should work with people that are smart enough to understand nuances.
The way I ultimately chose to deal with this problem is by giving clear (but not too granular) job expectations (how we do things) and annual objectives that focus on what needs to be delivered for the company (what we deliver).
Tying success to actual tangible business goals that need to be achieved by doing your job properly. Not the highest bar, but that’s not the point of this exercise.
Will this be enough? The jury is still out on that, but only this action isn’t enough..
Being accountable is table stakes
Decoupling accountability and reward is important. Someone who is accountable and achieves what they set out to do isn't someone to be admired, they're someone who knows how to do their job.
There cannot be “stretch goals” because that would break the assumption that we all agree on what success looks like, and therefore you cannot be promoted or, more in general, rewarded by being accountable.
You can be fired for not being accountable of course, that is the point.
The bucket needs to stop
But what if everything above fails? What if a huge disaster happens and everyone did their best but you still lost 50M$ in a ransonware attack?
No blame culture and everything, still someone gotta tell the CEO why we lost that money.
So you need to be ready to stop the bucket yourself, that is the meaning of Radical Accountability: keep people accountable but take accountability for your work and your direct reports’ work every step of the way.
This is the hidden social contract of any organization: a leader is not the person who tells people what to do, it's the person who comes forward when everything goes wrong.