Project Management

Why ask for accountability when what we really need is ownership?

From the Easy in theory, difficult in practice Blog
My musings on project management, project portfolio management and change management. I'm a firm believer that a pragmatic approach to organizational change that addresses process & technology, but primarily, people will maximize chances for success. This blog contains articles which I've previously written and published as well as new content.

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Accountability is a popular word in delivery.

It is one of the four classification categories in roles and responsibility tools such as R.A.C.I. charts. The underlying intent is sound. If multiple people are responsible for contributing to the completion of an activity or deliverable, we still want to have a single person who has overall responsibility for ensuring it was completed as promised.

Merriam-Webster defines accountability as "the quality or state of being accountable". This is an unhelpful operating definition for our needs but it is further qualified as "an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one's actions".

I've highlighted two words from the previous quote which reflect how many managers think of accountability. When you hear an executive say "We need to hold our people accountable", they are rarely referring to rewarding staff for a job well done. More likely, they are indicating whose throat they will want to choke when something goes awry.

For those who are held accountable, rarely do they perceive the upside of accountability if things were to go well. And, going back to the first word I highlighted in the definition, rarely is it full willingness to accept only accountability. More often than not, it is an offer that you can't refuse.

Continuing our grammatical journey we find that the top synonyms for accountability in a Google search are responsibility, liability, answerability, reporting, and obedience. Again, the majority of the connotations of the word are negative.

Accountability which inspires fear erodes psychological safety.

But is this what we really mean when we ask someone to be accountable?

I'd argue that we want to create a sense of ownership. Search for the synonyms for that word and the majority will arouse positive feelings.

Ownership implies rights. It implies opportunities for benefit. It also implies a degree of autonomy which is not always present when we are being held accountable. And as autonomy is one of the levers for unleashing intrinsic motivation, true ownership might lead to greater engagement in the work being done.

You might complain that I'm arguing over semantics, but words matter.

Just as we shouldn't refer to people as "resources" why not use ownership in place of accountability? After all, if we define roles such as Business Owners, Solution Owners and Product Owners, is it not reasonable to have Activity or Deliverable Owners?

"Ownership and control is important, because if you don't own what you do, all sorts of stupid stuff happens to it, and people spend good money on garbage." - Kevin Shields

Posted on: March 07, 2021 07:00 AM | Permalink

Comments (8)

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Dear Kiron
Very interesting the theme that brought for reflection and debate
Thanks for sharing
I had access to a study on this topic.
About 80% of people blame time, the crisis, the government, the company, the management, etc ... for what happens to them
that is, to put it another way, when something goes wrong they are never responsible for what led to that situation.
The book written by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin: "Extreme Ownership" is a reference for me.
How and when are we going to get people to take ownership for all the situations in which they are involved?

Very interesting topic! Kiron.

I totally agree with you.
I recently asked the team members for ownership and explained to them that I'm not looking for the term accountable as it gives the impression that I'm looking to blame one of them. Something that has a direct impact on psychological safety.
Unfortunately, I've heard many managers kind of "menacing" when using the term accountable!

Yes, very interesting, Mr. Kiron.

Far from simple

Some people "want" to own the task/activity but don't want to be accountable for the outcome because that have afraid of not fulfilling the expectations.

Roles clarification is a must, e.g. between development team (owns the action of development) and the outcome of it (Product/Business owner, accountable for the success of the product/business).

RACI-VS, adds the person who owns the action of verify (testers) and Sign off the work (Managers)

Thanks Soha - would agree with the "menacing" stance as I've witnessed the same more than once over my career!

Thanks Tiago - I believe there is a "chicken and egg" effect here. If people were punished in the past for owning an activity which failed, how eager will they be to own work in the future?

Thanks Luis - is this an innate weakness of the folks who behaved in this blaming manner or was it the outcome of many successive bad experiences?


Dear Kiron
Interesting your question
In my opinion, it is always acquired and, of course, a consequence of many successive bad experiences
It is important (fundamental) to change this culture

Maybe the semantics come from the fact that projects/programs are temporary in nature, congruent to renting. Renters are accountable for paying rent.

Operations on the other hand are more permanent in nature akin to owning your home.

All program management is doing is temporary in journey towards permanence hence accountable to delivering something towards more permanent.

Thanks Gurpreet - that's an interesting insight. The challenge with the analogy is that while tenants have rights to accompany their responsibilities, project team members are sometimes treated as if they have no rights!

Couldn't agree more

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"Nearly every great advance in science arises from a crisis in the old theory, through an endeavor to find a way out of the difficulties created. We must examine old ideas, old theories, although they belong to the past, for this is the only way to understand the importance of the new ones and the extent of their validity."

- Albert Einstein