Tag Archives: authority

Accountability and Authority

I made sly reference to these two concepts last week. Accountability and authority. These are inseparable.

To be accountable for an output, one must have the authority to determine the variables around that output. Do not hamstring a team member by handing them accountability without the authority to control variables. Bifurcating the two leads to well articulated excuses and blaming behavior.

Simultaneously, do not give someone the authority to control variables without the concomitant accountability. Government oversight committees are famous for wanting to have all the authority without accountability.

These two concepts go hand in glove, not either-or, but AND-and.

Fixing Accountability

Elliott Jaques’ framework gets to the heart of work. In the pursuit of any worthy goal, work is – making decisions and solving problems. As time goes by, headcount increases and soon we have an organization, with organizational problems. Who makes the decisions? Who is accountable for those decisions? Who decides methodology, problem solving? Who is accountable for solving the problem?

Finger pointing and blaming behavior are not quirks of personality. They are symptoms of an organization that failed to define accountability and authority. Who is accountable?

I had a client in the carpet cleaning business. Every once in a while, thank goodness only every once in a while, a carpet technician would ruin a customer’s carpet. Who did my client want to choke up against the wall?

Elliott assumed that carpet technician showed up for work that day with the full intention to do their best. It is the manager Elliott would hold accountable for output.

Elliott assumed the manager hired the carpet technician, trained the technician, provided the tools for the technician, coached the technician, selected the project for the technician. The manager controlled all the variables around that technician. It is the manager that Elliott would hold accountable for output.

We typically place accountability one level of work too low in the framework. It’s the manager who is accountable.

Water Flows Downhill

It’s a plumbing analogy, but demonstrates a law of physics.

Hierarchy is a value sorting process to bring order to the chaos of the world, order being what we know, chaos being what we don’t know.
Hierarchy, in a functional organization, is a value stream characterized by competence. We build the organization based on the competence required in the roles in our design. A visual picture of our design, on a piece of paper, looks like our organizational chart, our organizational structure.

Organizational structure is the way we define the working relationships between roles, related to accountability and authority. The way we define the value in the hierarchy determines the energy flow and whether that organization is functional or dysfunctional.

If the value is power, the organization will be a hierarchy of power and its energy will flow based on power. If the value is command, the organization will be a hierarchy of command and its energy will flow based on command. If the value is control, the organization will be a hierarchy of control and its energy will flow based on control.

And, if the value is competence, the organization will be a hierarchy of competence and its energy will flow based on competence.

Water still flows downhill. 

Who Has the Power?

“Okay, here is what I want to happen,” Gordon explained. His description was thorough. He painted a good picture.

“I can see your vision,” I replied. “How do your people see this?”

“That’s the problem. I think I explained it well, in the memo I sent out, but they don’t seem to get it. For some of my team, I don’t even think they read it, and I get a little heartburn from that.”

“So, you haven’t figured it out, yet?” I asked.

“Figured what out?” Gordon’s head tilted.

“As interesting as I think I am, I finally figured it out. Nobody listens to me. As interesting as you think you are, nobody listens to you.”

“But, I’m the boss! They have to listen to me.”

“Gordon, you have a kid at home, right? Do you, as the parent, have the authority, at dinner, to demand that broccoli be eaten?”

Gordon sat up. “Well, yes I do.”

“But your kid has the power to determine whether broccoli will, in fact, be eaten.”

Leadership Charisma

Leadership is a billion dollar business, yet all around us, we rarely see effective leadership. There are books, seminars, groups and programs to build better leaders (that’s the billion dollar business), yet much of that effort is wasted and fruitless.

The effectiveness of an organization is based on its structure and the role of leadership is to design and build that structure. Effective leadership has less to do with charisma and personality, more to do with building an organizational system to get work done.

Structure begins with the founder, a structure of one. There is work to be done and the founder is doing the work. There is always work left over, so the founder hires three or four people. These people do a little bit of everything. The work is organized around the scarce resources of infant structure. At some point the founder realizes the work can no longer be organized around the people, the people have to be organized around the work.

Organizing the people around the work requires that specialized roles be defined, tasks, activities and expected outputs from those activities. This is the emergence of roles.

This organization is no longer a structure of one, but a structure of many. It is not enough for each person to play their role, the roles have to be designed to work together, more complex than a structure of one, a structure of many. And, organizational structure is born.

Organizational structure is simply the way we define the working relationships between people. The two things that must be defined are –

  • In this working relationship, what is the accountability?
  • In this working relationship, what is the authority? Authority to do what? Make decisions and solve problems the way I would have them solved.

And, so the structure of one becomes the structure of an organization. I don’t care about your personality or charisma as a leader. I only care whether you can design and execute the structure, to get some work done.

Communication Problem Only a Symptom

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
Hi Tom. In the seminar I attended, you said something about communication not being an issue in an organization, and I was surprised at that, as I believe communication is often a problem in organizations. Maybe I misunderstood. Will you please elaborate?

Response:
Communication breakdowns are often a symptom of a deeper darker problem.  Companies believe they have communication issues, so they conduct a communication seminar that RARELY solves the problem.  Whenever a client reports a communication problem, I start with accountability and authority.  The identified communication problem is a symptom of an accountability and authority problem.  Communication breakdowns can help us locate the problem, but not to resolve it.

Most communication problems are between two people who have to work together, but are not each other’s manager.  This is the dotted line phenomenon on most org charts.  The problem with the dotted line is the undefined accountability and undefined authority.  As managers, we hope the two will be able to figure it out, which is where the communication breakdown begins.  Technically, these are cross-functional role relationships (two people who have to work together, but are not each other’s manager).  When we define the role relationship, we have to define the accountability and the authority in that relationship.

Example –
Would it be a good idea for sales to coordinate with marketing and marketing to coordinate with sales? Yes.
 
But, is the Marketing Manager the manager of the Sales Manager, and is the Sales Manager the manager of the Marketing Manager?  No.  

But, do we require they work together in a coordinating relationship?  Yes.  That sounds great until one begins to complain about the other, and so, we think we have a communication breakdown (or worse, a personality conflict).  What we failed to define in that working relationship is the accountability and the authority.

In a coordinating relationship between the Sales Manager and the Marketing Manager, who each are accountable for their respective budgets, can we require they consult with each other and coordinate their budgets to leverage that working relationship?  Yes.  Why?  

Because we said so, by virtue of a coordinating cross-functional role relationship.  They are required (accountability) to schedule meetings with each other to consult, share information, resources and tactics.  Each has the authority over their respective budgets, but they are required to coordinate.  When we make the accountability and the authority clear, the communication breakdowns disappear almost overnight.

What’s Wrong With My Org Chart?

“What’s wrong with my org chart?” Ron wanted to know.

“You tell me,” I said.  “An org chart is just a piece of paper with a picture of the way you think.”

“What do you mean?”

“Organizational structure is simply the way we define the working relationships between people.  Org structure is a mental construct, your mental picture of the way people ought to get on together at work.  You drew the picture.  What did you have in mind?  You tell me where the friction is?”

“Okay,” Ron started.  “Just this morning, the sales manager called a meeting with the marketing manager to talk about their expenses to date related to the budget each submitted at the end of last year.”

“And?”

“And, the marketing manager said it wasn’t the sales manager’s business to see how marketing dollars are spent.  She tactfully refused to attend the meeting.  She said the sales manager was NOT her manager and declined to go.”

“What was your response?” I asked.

“I had to admit, the marketing manager has a point.  The sales manager is not her manager.  When she took the position, we were very clear that it was her department.  She has very clear objectives and unless she is off track, we expect her to run things without interference.  But, still, declining to go to the meeting seemed a little insensitive.”

“So, when you think about their working relationship, how do you see it?  Clearly, neither is each other’s manager.” I said.

“Well, they seem to get along fine, at least until this meeting thing,” Ron shook his head.

“Let me be more specific in my question,” I replied.  “How do you see these two questions? –

  • In their working relationship, what is the accountability for each of them?
  • In their working relationship, what is their authority?

“Well, when you put it that way, marketing should coordinate with sales, and sales should coordinate with marketing.  We have significant trades shows we attend that eat up a lot of marketing budget.  Our trade show booth is generally staffed with people from the sales department.  So, the two departments need to coordinate together.  The company has a high vested interest in their coordination.”

“And, in their working relationship, what is their authority to make what decisions?”

“Each department has a department budget, submitted each year and approved by their manager?”

“Same manager, between the two of them?”

“Yes, our VP of business development is the manager of both,” Ron clarified.

“How clearly have you spelled out their accountability and authority in the work they do together?  You just explained it to me, how well have you explained it to them?”

“But, they are supposed to work together, shouldn’t they be able to figure it out?” Ron asked.

“Apparently not.  You think you understand their working relationship, in fact, on your org chart, you drew a dotted line.  So, the situation looks like insensitivity, when the friction is because you failed to define the accountability and the authority in that dotted line.  You put the dotted line there for a reason, but failed to define it.”

Not a Communication Problem

“I think I have a communication problem with my team,” Jordan explained. “It seems like I have to constantly explain, interpret, assign and reassign, clarify, all to come back and do it over again. I think my team needs a communication seminar.”

“And, what would you hope the outcome of this seminar to be?” I asked.

“That the team understands,” Jordan simply put.

“And, what if I told you I don’t think you have a communication problem?”

“What do you mean? It sounds like a communication problem to me.”

“My telephone rings for two reasons,” I replied. “Most people call to tell me they are in the midst of a communication crisis, or have an unresolvable personality conflict on their team.”

“Like me, a communication problem.”

“In my experience, in the throes of explaining and clarifying, you fail to establish two things. I don’t think you have a communication problem, I think you have an accountability and authority issue. You failed to establish, in the task, in the working relationship, what is the accountability, meaning, what is the output? The second thing missing, in the pursuit of that output, who has the authority to make decisions and solve problems?”

“So, I need my warehouse crew to move material, according to a list, from the warehouse to a staging area for a project. I explain what needs to be done, give them the checklist and then they get stuck.”

“Stuck on what?” I asked.

“The material to move is blocked by other material, the forklift aisle isn’t wide enough for the material, or the forklift is down for maintenance,” Jordan shook his head, “so I have to come back and solve those problems before the team can do their work.”

“Not a communication problem. It’s an accountability and authority problem. What is the accountability (output)? And who has the authority to shift materials, find an alternate forklift aisle or fix the forklift?”

Accountability and Authority

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
You talk about setting context, that context is the crucible in which management behaviors exist. How do you more specifically define that context and where should managers begin?

Response:
Every role in an organization exists with other roles. Individual action, more specifically, individual accomplishment is a myth. No one is an island. Every organizational behavior affects another part of the organization. Context is the way we define those working relationships.

The two most critical elements to be defined in a working relationship are accountability and authority. To be effective in any role relationship requires that each person understands the accountability (output) and authority in that relationship.

In a given relationship between a manager and a team member, who has the authority to make a decision about the way a problem should be solved? If you suggested the manager, you would be correct.

But, might that lead to autocratic decision making, where a manager might run rough-shod over the team?

It might, were it not for a specific accountability. The manager has the authority to make the decision, but also the accountability to collect relevant data around that decision, which, in many cases will come directly from the team. Theoretical conditions must be matched with actual conditions. Theoretical materials must be matched with actual materials on hand, available consumables, machine uptime, even temperature and humidity. Along with every authority, must come accountability.

Editor’s note – this is not usually the case with a government oversight committee, who would like to think they have all the authority with no accountability. Every authority comes with accountability.

Inside the Function

“Take your most important internal function,” Pablo instructed. “In the beginning, likely will be operations. What is the work most closely related to producing the product or delivering the service? Especially in the beginning, that is mostly short-term work, 1 day to 3 months. Most production roles have a supervisor, with longer term goals and objectives, 3 months to 12 months. The supervisory role is to make sure production gets done, completely, on time, within spec.”

“So, every production person knows they have a supervisor?” I added.

“And, every supervisor knows they have a manager,” Pablo smiled. “This is the beginning of structure, nested goals and objectives related to successive roles (context), a production role, to a supervisory role to a managerial role.”

“The roles are distinguished by longer timespan goals and objectives?” I suggested.

“Yes, the roles are different in that way, but also in the way they relate to each other. Organizational structure begins with nested timespan goals, but also includes the way we define two things associated with those role relationships.”

“Accountability and authority?” I chimed in.

Pablo nodded. “In this working relationship between the team member and the supervisor, what is the accountability? What is the authority?”

My turn to show off. “The accountability on the part of the team member is to apply their full capability in pursuit of the goals and objectives agreed to by their supervisor, in short, to do their best. It is the accountability of the supervisor to create the working environment that makes those goals and objectives possible (probable). It is the accountability of the supervisor for output.”

“And, the authority?” Pablo prompted.

“The authority to make decisions and solve problems appropriate to the level of work in the task.”