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Before and After the Fact: How to Boost Accountability at Your Organization

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RISMEDIA, October 11, 2010—Got an accountability problem at your organization? There are two main ways to tackle it. First, you need to forestall excuse-generating problems upfront by creating conditions that make it more likely people will follow through. Second, you need to help and encourage people to take responsibility after mistakes have already been made—without making them feel worse than they already do.

Here, excerpted from Rick Lepsinger’s Closing the Execution Gap, are a few before and after accountability boosting suggestions to help keep you, your team, and your projects on track:

Before-the-Fact Accountability Booster: Set People Up for Success

The best way to manage accountability is to ensure that people follow through in the first place. Three techniques can help you dramatically increase the chances that people will follow through and keep their commitments: 1) clarifying actions and expectations, 2) agreeing on due dates for deliverables, and 3) establishing checkpoints. The acronym ATC can help you remember the techniques.

Action. This is the starting point for both setting people up for success and being able to hold them accountable after the fact, so it is critical to get it right. This is where you clarify expectations (what “good looks like”) and identify who is accountable for which parts of the work. Regardless of how good an idea someone has or how sincere his intentions, nothing happens until someone commits to taking some action to produce a specific deliverable.

Timetable. Just as important as clarifying actions and expectations, establishing an agreed upon due date is critical to ensuring everyone is on the same page. Due dates like “as soon as possible” and “by next week” lay the foundation for misunderstandings, because your “as soon as possible” may not be anywhere near theirs. (Does “by next week” mean before next week? Does it mean Monday of next week or Friday of next week?) In addition, commitments that don’t have a time frame frequently do not get attention and usually fall by the wayside.

Checkpoints. One of the biggest mistakes people make is waiting to check in until the action or deliverable is due. Although the pitfall seems obvious—waiting until the due date to check in does not leave time for problem solving—it is surprising how many people stumble into it. One explanation leaders offer for this self-defeating behavior is that they’re afraid of communicating a lack of trust in the other person’s ability—or of being labeled a micro-manager.

The simple, yet powerful, solution is to establish periodic progress checkpoints before the due date. The frequency of the checkpoints will depend on the difficulty of the task and the experience of the person. This technique simultaneously solves both problems: the implied lack of trust and the micro-managing.

Agreeing on checkpoints with the other person makes follow-up and progress checks a shared and mutually endorsed activity. The check-ins are now part of project management, and they also provide opportunities for you to coach if there is a problem and recognize and reinforce behavior when things are going well.

In addition, because you’ve outlined the milestones you are comfortable with and built in time to get things back on track if you discover there is a problem, you don’t have to give in to the temptation to make spontaneous or surprise visits or to call when you get nervous about whether the project is on track.

After-the-Fact Accountability Booster: Three Accountability Questions

Sure, prevention is better than an after-the-fact remedy. But in the real world, people will drop the ball from time to time. Rather than berating a person for her failure to deliver results, reinforce her accountability and focus on problem solving.

Three questions will encourage the person to think about how she contributed to the current situation, what she can do to get things back on track, and what she can do to prevent it from happening again. In addition to asking these questions directly yourself (which might come across as accusatory), you should coach the person to pose them to herself as a way to manage her own accountability. The three questions are:

Present: “What can I do now to get on track?”
Future: “What can I do to prevent this problem from happening again in the future?”
Past: “What could I have done to prevent the problem? What, if anything, did I do that might have possibly contributed to the problem?”

The first two questions are less likely to evoke a defensive response, but the third one might very well push that button. Be prepared to deal with defensive behaviors. One way to do so is to show empathy. Try something like: “I know you’re as concerned as I am about this and I realize it’s not the way you wanted things to turn out. This conversation is not about assigning blame. It’s about solving the problem and ensuring that we keep it from happening again.”

About the Author:
Richard Lepsinger is president of OnPoint Consulting and has a 25-year track record of success as an organizational consultant and executive. His client list includes Bayer Pharmaceuticals, Citibank, Coca-Cola Company, ConocoPhillips, Goldman Sachs, Johnson & Johnson, NYSE Euronext, PeopleSoft, Prudential, and Subaru of America, among many others. In addition to writing Closing the Execution Gap, he has coauthored four books on leadership, including Flexible Leadership: Creating Value by Balancing Multiple Challenges and Choices, The Art and Science of 360° Feedback, The Art and Science of Competency Models: Pinpointing Critical Success Factors in Organizations, and Virtual Team Success: A Practical Guide for Working and Leading from a Distance, all published by Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer. For more information, visit www.onpointconsultingllc.com.

About the Book:
Closing the Execution Gap: How Great Leaders and Their Companies Get Results (Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint, June 2010, ISBN: 978-0-4705313-0-3, $45.00, www.onpointconsultingllc.com) is available at bookstores nationwide and from major online booksellers.

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