Delegating Responsibility is not Abdicating Accountability

Organisational behaviour trends are rapidly moving towards structures that favour autonomy over hierarchical or command and control. The value of this approach for scaling teams and departments, particularly when combined with agile and lean processes, has led to widespread acceptance. As the ‘rubber hits the road’ with these approaches, we are starting to see some cracks appear. One of the most common areas where challenges are regularly encountered is in the area of delegation.

Traditional organisational structures have always encouraged delegation of authority as an approach to empowering and growing leaders. When overlaid with agile approaches, delegation is necessarily taken to an extreme level. The result? Leaders of all experience levels can struggle to balance appropriate responsibility and accountability between themselves and those they manage.

Accountability vs Responsibility

Debate, and often misunderstanding, rages around these two terms. For the sake of clarity, the person who has responsibility for a task completes the work. There may be only one person or there may be many responsible for the task. Responsibility can be shared and delegated to others.

By way of contrast, the person accountable for a task owns the outcome. They have decision making authority and make yes / no decisions in relation to the task. In well structured organisations there is a single line of accountability that is clear, well understood and most importantly well communicated.

The accountable person may also be the responsible person, but there can be many responsible people who are not accountable for the ultimate outcome. From what I’ve seen over the years, wherever there is ambiguity over accountability or where more than one person is identified as accountable the net result is that nobody is accountable in any real sense. This causes a ripple effect where questions are escalated up the chain for a decision which will introduce bottlenecks and roadblocks to progress.

The organisational structure is a representation of accountability, and to a degree responsibility, but as we move into increasingly agile ways of working the correlation between organisational structures and operating structures is becoming more tenuous.

The Agile Perspective

Agile in all its forms seeks to push responsibility closer to the team. This is not a misuse of the word, the team is responsible for delivering an outcome, but ultimately it is the business owner who is accountable. The roles within agile teams or squads are designed to focus very specifically on the business goal. So the team cannot be accountable for the outcome but they are responsible.

The challenge of course is in the desire for ‘self organising’ teams. This makes accountability very difficult to establish. In the final equation though, it is for the leadership to define accountability as it is they that the organisation as a whole will be holding accountable for the results.

So what works? Well it depends on your preferred approach.

Put a squad together, then the architect is accountable for producing a design that fits into a wider system; the product owner is accountable for ensuring that the priority of features meets the business owners needs and the scrum master or similar role is accountable for coaching the team to bring transparency and structure to their operations.

In a slightly more traditional organisational structure, you might have a development manager who is accountable for the performance of their team.

So, horses for courses, but it’s vital that accountability is clearly defined and communicated. If you’re going to insist on an outcome (and if you’re not, then I guarantee that you haven’t heard your organisation’s leaders) then you better understand your own accountability and that of others.

You Delegate Responsibility not Accountability

At the heart of the issue is leaders misunderstanding the nature of delegation. I’d like to be able to say that this problem is limited to new managers and leaders who have not received appropriate coaching, but I’ve found that this issue emerges at all levels

The Nature of Delegation

When you delegate a task the onus is on you to ensure that:

  • The required outcome is clearly defined and that there is a shared understanding of the outcome
  • The priority of the task is clear in relation to other tasks
  • The operating conditions under which the task is to be performed are understood
  • The constraints for the task are clearly communicated including timescale, budget and resourcing to name a few
  • The desired degree of transparency understood including frequency of updates and modes of communication

Delegation is not a simple matter of offloading a task onto another; when done properly delegation establishes a partnership with a specific focus on the desired outcome.

As a leader you must recognise that the nature of that partnership must be comfortable and clear for the person to whom the task is being delegated, but is likely to be a source of some discomfort for you. You are accepting that you are relinquishing control over the task; that you are trusting someone else for work that you must answer for.

The Training Dimension

My experience with organisations leads me to believe that, as a general rule, we don’t train new managers well enough. The area where that is most pronounced is delegation. We assume everyone knows how to tell others what to do – this assumption is reinforced no doubt by the fact it’s likely nobody trained us.

As people are promoted to management positions, they must be coached to understand that while they are now in a position to partition and divide work amongst those they are leading, this does not make them any less answerable for the result.

Management is the art of getting things done through people

Mary Parket Follett

That coaching must strike the delicate balance between continuing to own the outcome, but not on the one hand abandoning those to whom the task has been delegated nor on the other managing them to the point where they have no space to achieve the task independently.

It’s not an easy ask of managers, but it is one of the most important skills they must learn.

The Leadership Dimension

Coaching for accountability is a similarly challenging task for leaders of all experience levels. Consistently holding people accountable is hard and we should not underestimate the effort involved.

How many times have you seen leaders accept the statement “well I asked this person or that person to do it”? How many times have you seen a leader stating “well they weren’t involved in that particular project so it would be unfair to hold them accountable”? Unfortunately this is simply weak leadership, and it is far more prevalent than it should be.

Leaders lead by example. Accountability must be consistently applied and there should be no circumstance where it is not. If a leader is seeing one of their team abdicating accountability, they must deal with that immediately. Not doing so undermines the role of management at all levels, and has a direct impact on the integrity of the leader permitting the behaviour.

Wrapping it Up

Responsibility and accountability are frequently confused. Where that confusion is at the leadership level, it’s often the quality of the delivery that suffers.

We want everybody on a team or squad to feel a sense of responsibility for the overall outcome. They must also be held accountable for their work, but there must be a single point of accountability – without it decision making will be slower; there will be less ownership and work and team morale will suffer.

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