It’s time to stop being scared of accountability

By now most people in America are aware of the mass automobile recall issued by General Motors. This recall was triggered by a faulty ignition switch on the Chevrolet Cobalt but has now spread to several other models totaling over 2.6 million vehicles (and counting). It would appear these faulty switches have contributed to numerous deaths which, understandably, has led to several audits and a raft of legal proceedings.

Amongst the various audit reports which have been produced was an internal review conducted by former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas. While this review was wide ranging and highlighted several areas in which GM failed to act, one of the recurring elements of the review is GM’s culture of excuse and lack of accountability. The Valukas report, running over 300-pages, identified systemic cultural issues of avoidance and inaction.
The Valukas report reads like a dissertation on how not to structure an organization or its culture. However while the Valukas report is exclusively written about GM, I wonder how many large corporations can honestly claim to be so different.

Let me ask you a question: have you ever sat through a meeting or been on a group email with your colleagues to address a specific issue, and then two-weeks later you’ve got no idea what the outcome of that meeting was? Does it usually result in another meeting to recap on the first meeting?

Whatever happened to that? Haven’t we done this before? When did we decide to do that? Based on the findings of the Valukas report I’m sure these questions are asked at GM every day. However I’m also sure these same questions are asked in almost every company in America.

Most companies are not only poor at making decisions but, more importantly, poor at ensuring everyone knows what was decided and who is accountable for the next steps. Think of how many meetings are required to get anything moving, or worse, how many “Reply All” emails flood your inbox, most of which you’ll probably never read. This behavior leads to miscommunication, painfully slow decision making and huge losses in productivity (the McKinsey Global Institute reports that 70% of employee time is spent writing emails and searching for old information).

If companies literally live or die by the decisions they make, why is this stuff so hard? It’s not usually one issue but a combination of reasons that creates these problems. However there are two factors which are particularly common; having too many players in the decision making process and a negative view of accountability.

Reaching clear decisions is often difficult because there are so many business units who need to be involved in the process. The more stakeholders involved, the greater the chance of confusion and things slipping through the cracks. Needing to involved procurement, legal, compliance, engineering and marketing in a decision usually means needing five different meetings. This not only slows things down but dramatically increases the chances of miscommunication and finger pointing.

Over the last few years much has been said about enterprise collaboration, and breaking down silos within companies. While substantial progress has been made in recognizing the need for collaboration, little has been done to structure collaboration in a productive way. Between the company intranet, email, instant messenger, meetings, text messages and tablets there is no shortage of ways to collaborate with your colleagues. However, collaboration without a definitive outcome is just noise. Unless a tangible, transparent decision is reached all this collaboration is just busy work.

Which leads two the second, sadly, scarier issue; accountability. The A-word is the source of great fear in most organizations. No one wants to be accountable for anything.

While this seems understandable, it is people’s avoidance of accountability that so often leads to things going wrong in the first place. By attempting to avoid accountability teams often exacerbate the problem by not taking definitive steps to fix it when it is first noticed. GM’s ignition switch issue is a prime example of this. From the preliminary findings it appears the problem could have been addressed years earlier if someone had taken accountability for the issue and fixed it.

CEO Mary Barra has vowed to change the culture of GM. She could start by showing her employees that accountability should not to be perceived as a negative thing, but can actually bring positive change, because accountability gets things done. By assigning accountability as part of the decision making process productivity can be dramatically increased because tasks actually get performed. If there had been a greater emphasis on accountability perhaps GM could have fixed the faulty switches before the loss of life. Sadly, they will never know now.

Corporate America can learn a lot from GM’s misfortune. While their problems have been made public, many companies struggle with the same issues everyday: too many unproductive meetings and emails, no clear outcomes and a fear of accountability, all of which leads to inaction.

In the digital age there is nowhere to hide. Simply shedding documents does not cover things up anymore. Past emails, documents and meeting minutes will be found. So instead of avoiding accountability perhaps it’s time to embrace it. With everyone trying to not be the person that drops the ball, often no one catches it.

Instead of trying to hide from accountability we need to acknowledge that this is becoming impossible, therefore accountability should be embraced. Project managers and team leaders are constantly frustrated by the finger pointing that occurs when things go astray. And this often happens because staff are confused about exactly who is accountable for what. Teams should focus on making clear decisions, with clear outcomes AND clear accountability. When everyone knows who is responsible there is less chance the ball will be dropped.