Tag Archives: accountability

Accountability for Wrong Decisions

“You have talked about managerial systems and organizational structure,” I started. “Those are well-worn labels, but the devil is always in the details.”

Pablo nodded. “Yes, the detail of structure is simply the way we define the working relationships between people. The success of any organizational structure rests on its effectiveness to define two things – in this working relationship, what is the accountability and what is the authority?”

“But, isn’t it second-nature, that especially in a hierarchy, the manager has the authority and the team member is accountable to carry out the decisions of the manager?”

“Not so fast,” Pablo said slowly. “Each has the authority to make decisions within an appropriate span of discretion. And it is the manager accountable for the output of the team member.”

“But, if the team member, within an appropriate span of discretion, makes the wrong decision, how can you hold the manager accountable?” I asked.

“Because the manager selected the team member, trained the team member, assessed the team member and then delegated the decision to the team member. If the team member makes the wrong decision, that outcome is the accountability of the manager.” Pablo stopped to let that sink in.

“When we are clear about accountability, behavior follows,” Pablo continued. “When we accurately define the accountability, people know what to expect and they behave accordingly. If the team member is held to account for a wrong decision or underperformance, there begins a mistrust about whether the manager was clear in their instruction, whether the training was adequate, the right tools available, the circumstance not anticipated. If the manager is held to account for the team member’s wrong decision or underperformance, there begins a supportive relationship to ensure the training was adequate, the working conditions conducive, the selected project appropriate, within the team member’s capability.

“You see,” Pablo said, “the manager cannot allow the team member to fail. In a punitive context, that is why the manager often snatches back the authority for the decision and simply assigns the task. In a trusting context, the manager has to make sure all the variables around the team member are adequate and conducive to success. And, that includes the manager’s selection of that team member in the first place. The success of the organization starts with being clear about managerial accountability.”

To Stay Green

“You continue to use the term managerial system,” I started. “What do you mean?”

“In the beginning, in a startup, every company is haphazard, organizing the work around the people they have. At some point, there is still work left over and the founder realizes work can no longer be organized around the people, we have to organize the people around the work. Specialized roles emerge. And, then those roles have to work together.”

“And the system?” I asked.

“Roles cannot be haphazard, working together cannot be haphazard, too much friction against profitability. I have seen companies work extremely hard and never make a profit. Eventually, they have to make a profit or the company dies (a long slow death exasperating death). For a company to survive and be profitable, they have to create a managerial system, what we call structure.”

“Structure?” I prompted.

“Organizational structure is simply the way we think about, often on paper, the accountability and the authority in the working relationships between people,” Pablo stopped. “Two types. Vertical managerial relationships and horizontal cross-functional relationships.”

“And this structure is important for profitability?” I clarified.

“Yes, and, this structure is important for the sustained creative output of the people who work in the company. Because without that, the company will also die, become a corrosive institution where no one wants to work.” Pablo paused again. “To stay green and growing, the managerial system has to be vibrant and well-thought-out.”

The Delegation Paradox

“But, it seems to me, that accountability is already fixed,” I replied. “The manager makes the decisions and the team member carries it out. Isn’t that the pervasive understanding for everyone?”

“You might think that, but you would be mistaken,” Pablo ventured. “For a company to grow, it cannot be so. If the manager makes all the decisions, eventually, what happens to the speed of decision making?”

“Well, it begins to slow down,” I observed.

“Or stops, when the manager becomes overwhelmed with all the decisions. As the organization grows, there are too many decisions to be made by one person.”

“And?” I prompted.

“For the organization to grow, the manager has to delegate,” Pablo flatly stated.

“But, every manager already knows they have to delegate, happens all the time,” I said.

“No, every manager knows they have to delegate, and they think, what they have to delegate are task assignments. In the delegation of a task, the manager also has to delegate appropriate decision making along with the task.”

“But, shouldn’t the manager reserve the authority for the decisions to be made?” I wanted to know.

“Only, if the manager wants to slow things down, or bring things to a crashing halt,” Pablo chuckled. “Appropriate decision making has to be delegated along with the task assignment. Most managers, at the end of a delegation meeting, ask ‘Do you understand what to do?’ A more relevant question would be ‘As you work through this task, what decisions do you have to make?’ Every level of work has appropriate decision making.”

“Well, that should get some things off the manager’s plate,” I said.

“Not exactly,” Pablo had a hint of a smirk on his face. “You see, the manager is still accountable for the output of the team member. If the team member underperforms or fails, it is the manager who is accountable. And that changes everything.”

Fix Accountability

“All well and good,” I said. “If we want to build managerial systems based on something other than greed, status and power, where do we start?”

“All at once, and all over,” Pablo chuckled. “Look, the first place we start is by clearly defining the working relationships people have with each other. There are two types, vertical managerial relationships and horizontal cross-functional relationships. When we look at those two types of working relationships, we most often fail to define the accurate placement of accountability and exact scope of authority.”

“Accountability?” I prompted.

“All too often, we fix accountability one level of work too low in the organization, and it plays into the blame game,” Pablo explained. “Between the team member and the manager, it is the manager accountable for the output of the team member.”

“How so?”

“Simple,” Pablo said. “The manager selected the team member, trained the team member, provided the tools for the team member, selected the project for the team member, created the working environment for the team member. The manager controls all the variables around the team member, it is the manager accountable for the output of the team member.”

“But if the team member underperforms, doesn’t that point the finger at the team member?” I countered.

“See, you fell right into the blame game,” Pablo smiled. “The team member does have an accountability, and that is to show up to work each and every day, to bring their full potential, to exercise their best judgement, in short, to do their best. It is the manager accountable for the team member’s output. The first place to start is to fix clear accountability.”

Sidelined by the Team

Nathan, a new manager, had been sidelined by his team. “What happened?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I was giving orders for the day and a couple of the guys wandered off and before you know it, I was in the room by myself.”

“What do you think happened?” I continued.

“Well, Troy had been on my case since I was first made manager. Seems he thought he was in line for the job. But the company picked me.”

“So, now, what do you think your challenge is?”

Nathan was quiet, then finally spoke, “Somehow, I have to get them to trust me.”

“Nathan, it’s a long road, to get your team to trust you, even if they have known you for a long time. Where do you think you will start?”

Nathan was still quiet. I poked my head out the door. His team hadn’t abandoned him. They were all at their workstations, doing their work, but it didn’t seem like Nathan was having his way.

“Nathan, I think your team will work okay for the rest of the day. The schedules that were posted yesterday haven’t changed that much. Let’s take a hike down to the coffee shop and talk about a new strategy. It’s tough being the new boss.”

System Solution

“So, the Supervisor’s solution to fuel pricing cost more money in overtime and extra travel distance to the cheapest pump?” I nodded. “What would have been a Manager’s solution? You’re a Manager, what would you have done?”

“I actually did step in. It took us three months to figure out the problem was getting worse. The solution wasn’t in finding the lowest pump price for the day. We had to look at our system and think in a longer time frame. The Time Span for this task wasn’t a day, or even a week, it was 12 months.”

“What was the long term solution?”

“I got a fuel price, not the cheapest one, but one I could lock in on a 3 month contract for a tanker to be parked in our truck yard. I got three options going forward that capped a price escalation. That sets us for the year.

“We have a night security employee in the yard who now has something to do at night. He drives the tanker around and fills the trucks with fuel. The drivers come in at their regular time and the truck is all ready to go.

“The Supervisor’s solution about find the cheapest fuel price wasn’t the answer. It was looking at our system of fueling trucks.”

Not Looking for a Quick Fix

“What could you have done to test him before the promotion?” I asked.

Before the promotion? But it wasn’t his job before the promotion.” Gerald protested.

“That’s the point of testing. Find a task with a longer Time Span and test him. Test him before the promotion.”

Gerald was thinking. “Okay, here’s a task we gave him after the promotion. Fuel prices are up. We need some solution to get fuel costs down. We need someone to look at the way we purchase fuel and come up with a better system.”

I stopped him. “What is the Timespan associated with this task?”

“We are not looking for a quick fix, in fact, his quick fix cost us more money. He looked at the internet every night for the lowest fuel prices, had his guys show up fifteen minutes early everyday so they could drive there. Often, it was a little out of the way. But the price on the pump was cheaper.

“That’s what I mean. He is a great scrambler,” Gerald continued. “I know he searched every night and indeed came up with the lowest price.”

“What was the problem?”

“It was a Supervisor’s solution. Actually cost us more money. Every day kicked in 15 minutes of overtime per driver and the extra distance to the pump burned more fuel than the savings.”

Works Well in Chaos

“What is different about being a Manager?” I asked.

Gerald was quiet. His new Manager had been a great Supervisor, but was having difficulty.

“You have a great employee, team player, always shows up, works well under pressure, your go-to guy in a pinch. What is so different about being a manager?”

Gerald began slowly, “The things he is failing on, are things that go more slowly. He works well in a bit of chaos, but as a Manager, I would expect him to prevent some of that chaos. It’s almost as if he allows the chaos to emerge, so he can show off his stuff. I want him to work on a system, so things are anticipated, projects get routed automatically, conflicts are resolved on paper before they happen.”

“And did he demonstrate any of that behavior before you promoted him?” I asked.

“Well, no, but we thought he would be able to figure that out.”

“Did you ever assign him tasks, management tasks, to test him on his capability to handle those assignments?”

Gerald narrowed his eyes, before his short answer, “No.”

“So, you promoted him to a Manager level, without evidence of Management capability, based on his success at a Supervisor level?”

But, He Was Always a Team Player

“Are you having fun with all this?” I asked, smiling behind a very serious intent.

“Hell, no,” Gerald replied. “I’m ready to just ditch the guy. But he has eight years of good performance in his file, easy enough to get along with, always shows up as a team player. I don’t know how I would document his deficiencies to fire him. I can’t even get his production reports.”

“Let’s think about the problem, again. Let’s go over the facts. You have an eight year employee, always a team player, positive attitude that you promoted to Manager.”

“Yes,” Gerald agreed.

“Before you promoted him, did he ever display behavior that demonstrated competence as a Manager?”

Gerald’s face turned puzzled. “What does that mean? He was one of our best supervisors. He could make things happen in a heart beat. My top pick if we ever got in a jam. He could handle two walkie-talkies, a cell phone and drive a fork-lift at the same time.” Gerald stopped. “Well, not that we allow people to talk on the phone and drive fork-lifts, but you know what I mean.”

“So, in a pinch, when things get hectic, he’s your guy?” I confirmed.

“What is different about being a Manager?”

The Trouble with Benchmarks

“When did it start?” I asked. Gerald stopped to think. A long time employee, recently promoted to Manager, had gone zombie, mentally absent in the role.

“The timing is a little tough. When we promoted him to Manager, we knew there would be a learning curve, so we gave him a little space and the benefit of the doubt. But after four months, my patience is wearing thin.”

“Why have you let it go so long?” I asked.

“Well, we figured it would take a quarter to get up to speed, so we set some benchmarks that he needed to hit by the end of six months. I don’t know if we can wait until then.”

“So, this is management by results?” I pondered.

“Yeah, that’s the way we normally do things. But he’s not even close, and when we do try to pin him down, there is always some excuse about something not being in his control, and that we should wait for the six months we agreed to measure the benchmark.”

“How are you liking your approach?”