Tag Archives: authority

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.”

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.”

Is it a Personality Conflict?

“You would think at their age, they would know better,” Phil complained.

“What makes you think that?” I asked.

“The sales manager calls a meeting with the marketing manager, and the marketing manager refuses to attend. I ask why? And, all I get is how the sales manager is pushy, always with opinions about the way sales runs and it’s not even his department.”

“So, what is the sales manager to do?” I prompted.

“It’s annual budget time, and I told the two of them to get together,” Phil continued. “I need sales and marketing to coordinate. What I get is a big, fat personality conflict.”

“What would you say, if I told you, I didn’t think you had a personality conflict,” I replied. “But, rather an accountability and authority issue?”

“What do you mean?” Phil looked skeptical.

“Do each of them have an accountability to publish an annual budget coordinated with the other?”

“Yes,” Phil nodded.

“Is coordination something you would like, or is it a requirement?”

“It’s something I would like, but I don’t want to be pushy. They should be able to figure it out,” Phil defended.

“And, if they don’t coordinate, then they miss the accountability?”

“Well, yes,” Phil looked puzzled.

“I don’t think you have a personality conflict, I think you have an accountability and authority issue.”

Bring Value to Decision Making

“So, you believe, when your manager left you to solve the problem, simply by asking you questions, that brought value to your thinking. Are you sure your manager wasn’t just being lazy, maybe indecisive herself?” I asked.

“Oh, no. Quite the contrary,” Kim replied.

“Are you sure?”

“Absolutely, my manager was clear about decision making. We even had three meetings together just to make a list of all the decisions that needed to be made in our department. Then we grouped the decisions according to who had the authority. Here is the list –

  • Decisions I could make, and didn’t even have to tell my manager.
  • Decisions I could make, but had to tell my manager, after the decision was made.
  • Decisions I could make, but had to tell my manager, before the decision was made.
  • Decisions I had to discuss with my manager, but the decision was still mine to make.
  • Decisions I had to discuss with my manager, but the decision was my manager’s.
  • Decisions my manager would make without discussion.

So, my manager was clear about decision making authority in our working relationship.”

What Are You Working On?

“What are you working on?” I asked.

“Just trying to finish this project,” Andrew explained.

“What’s the hold-up?”

“Things always move slower than I want. You know, getting my team to push things along.”

“And, when things don’t move fast enough, how does that make you feel?” I pressed.

Andrew smirked. “A little annoyed, impatient, anxious.”

“Anxious, about what? It’s just a project.”

Andrew nodded. “Yes, it’s just a project. But, it’s my project. I know I have to work through my team to get it done, but ultimately, it’s up to me.”

“So, it’s not just a project? It’s about you?”

“Yep, on the face of it, the project has a spec, it has a budget, it has a deadline. But the project is also a test about me. Can I organize it? Can I gain the willing cooperation of the team? Can I put a sequence together to keep us on track? If we get off track, how quickly do I see it? Will I know what to correct? Can I keep the team pulling in the same direction? It’s more than just a project. It’s more than just the team. Do I have what it takes to be effective?”

Structure and Creativity

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Enjoyed your presentation yesterday, have a question. In your model, whose job is it to balance structure and innovation? (or structure that permits innovation?) How is this implemented? Is it a time span issue vs. a creativity/mindset issue? I worry about calcification and lean against structure which prevents innovation.

Thank you very much for your questions. Remember, yesterday, we only scratched the surface of Elliott’s research. You have many questions (not just one).

Let me first talk generally about structure and creativity. You are fearful that structure will stifle creativity, when in fact, Elliott believed quite the opposite.

Specifically, organizational structure looks rigid on a chart, with its neat boxes and circles and arrows that point the way. Off the paper, organizational structure is simply the way we define working relationships. And, there are two types.

On a chart, we see managerial relationships in a vertical fashion, and we have an intuitive sense how that works. In a moment, I will attempt to shift your intuitive sense in a way that opens up the creativity you cherish (all organizations cherish). But, before that, the other type of working relationship is horizontal. People have to (required behavior) work with each other, but they are not each other’s manager. On a chart we typically represent these with a horizontal dotted line. It’s the dotted line that gets us in trouble. Again, we have an intuitive sense of this horizontal working relationship (cross-functional), but we rarely define it with any more clarity than the dots in the line that connect.

What is missing are two A words. Accountability and authority. In a managerial relationship, we get the authority part, but fail to understand the accountability part. A client of mine, Mike, owned a carpet cleaning business. Every once in a while, thankfully not very often, a technician would ruin a customer’s carpet. Who did Mike want to choke up against the wall? The technician, of course.

You see, Elliott assumed that technician showed up for work that day with the full intention to do their best. And it is the manager Elliott held accountable for the output of that technician. The manager hired the technician, trained the technician, provided the tools, the truck, selected the project and created the working environment for the technician. The manager controlled all the variables around the technician, it is the manager that Elliott held accountable for the output of the technician.

In this vertical managerial relationship, we get the authority part, without understanding the accountability that goes with it. Only when the manager understands the accountability-for-output is placed on them, that the shift takes place. Elliott was very specific, he called this an MAH (Management Accountability Hierarchy). The org chart is no longer an org chart, it is an accountability chart. And, that chart now illustrates who is accountable. This small shift changes everything we understand about management.

We casually call them reporting relationships, when reporting doesn’t have much to do with it. It is an accountability relationship where the manager is accountable for the output of the team member.

It’s all about context. It is incumbent on the manager to create the context. Remember, Elliott assumed the technician showed up for work that day with the full intention to do their best. It is incumbent on the manager to create the context in which each team member can do their best. It is in the creation of that context, that creativity flourishes. I know you have more questions, but, enough for today.

Escalating Emotions

“I didn’t mean to raise my voice, but I guess things just escalated.” Karyn described this latest blowup with one of her team members. “I am only her supervisor on the weekend, so I feel a little helpless. Her weekday supervisor lets her get away with leaving early. I talked to Rick about it. He just doesn’t want to confront her.”

“And when you stopped her from leaving early, the conversation turned grisly and she left anyway?”

Karyn nodded her head slowly. “And next Saturday, I don’t know what to do or say. I can’t just pretend nothing happened?”

“Oh, you could. Hope is a strategy. You could hope she doesn’t blow up again. You could hope she doesn’t leave early again. You could hope she gets all of her work done. But if hope doesn’t work, what are you going to say and when are you going to say it?”

Karyn scrunched her face, “I don’t want to wait until she tries to walk out the door again. Then it will be Groundhog Day all over again.”

“So, when would be a better time to talk to her?”

“I think early in the day, perhaps at the very beginning.”

“Good, then there won’t be the drama of her trying to leave at that moment. Now, what are you going to say?” Karyn struggled with the question. No response.

“Karyn, I want you think about this. You cannot stumble into this conversation. You have to be prepared. Think about this and we will talk again. Think along these lines. I want you to be both straight AND sensitive. What will you say?”

Do I Have the Authority?

“But, I am the manager, shouldn’t I have the authority to make some decisions around here?” Amber asked.

“Ah, yes. Authority,” I replied. “You must understand, however, that authority comes with accountability. Neither comes first. You cannot have the authority to make a decision without the accountability for the outcome of that decision. Conversely, you cannot be held to account for the outcome unless you have the authority to make the decision.”

“So, just exactly what decisions do I have the authority to make around here?” Amber pressed on.

“To know that, you have to examine your goals and objectives.” Amber had an unspoken question on her face. I continued, “Your goals and objectives, agreed upon by you and your manager, set the context for your accountability (output) and the authority you have to make decisions to reach those goals.

“In the beginning, that authority may be unclear. That is why you meet with your manager more frequently, to clarify the context, define the accountability and determine your authority. As time goes by, your confidence will increase and so will your understanding of the discretion you have to make appropriate decisions.

“The most important understanding, where you have authority to make decisions regarding the output of your team, you also have accountability for that outcome. Do not think you can have the authority without the accountability.”

Accountability and Authority

This is a series on Teal and Levels of Work. Here is the backstory for the series in case you are interested in the context. The purpose for the series is to explore the tenets of Teal through the lens of Levels of Work.
My last post on Hidden Hierarchy, took a close look at Buurtzorg, where nurses in self-managed groups of 10-12 make decisions related to intake, scheduling, planning, holiday and vacation coverage. These are all decisions well within the timespan capability of each team. This slice of the organization has clear accountability for those issues and with that accountability must come the authority to make those decisions.

Laloux describes the authority exists because there is no managerial hierarchy with oversight that might question or reverse a decision made collectively by the team. Elliott Jaques, in the schema of levels of work would describe the authority as “timespan of discretion.” Each team has full discretion to make decisions and solve problems related to tasks identified at that level of work. The authority doesn’t exist in the absence of management, the authority is expressly assigned to the team.

With authority must come accountability. Laloux describes the nursing teams as accountable for their own output, without managerial oversight. This appears to work well, until it doesn’t.

When, it doesn’t, there are “coaches.”

Elliott would always be looking for “who is the manager?” He would not be looking for the mandated manager, but the observable manager. Who is bringing value to the problem solving and decision making of the team? At Buurtzorg, there are coaches who provide facilitation along defined problem solving models (I am reminded of Eli Goldratt’s Conflict Resolution Cloud).

It is incumbent on the coach to set context (in the form of questions), seek clarity in the issue or problem and bring the team to its own resolution. I think we just found the manager.

In short, the founder of Buurtzorg, Jos de Blok, found a way to grow the organization by driving decisions down to the appropriate level of work, organizing small teams to do that work. The design is perfectly scale-able to the current tune of approximately 10,000 nurses.

There is a hierarchy, not a hierarchy of power, but a hierarchy of accountability.