I’ll admit it. As a life-long ADHD-haver, some aspects of accountability have always been challenging for me. I can absolutely relate to organizations and people that struggle with accountability. It’s one of the reasons I’m so insistent that we focus on it.
At Stokefire being accountable requires just two things, neither of which is found under “accountability” in the dictionary. Most definitions I’ve found mention being responsible for our actions and results, and being able to justify and accept the consequences for them. It’s a good place to start from, but not (in my view) where we need to be. In Stokefire’s universe, the first requirement for accountability is ‘shared understanding.’ Think about it for a moment. How can we reasonably expect to hold someone accountable if we don’t have the same understanding about what it is they’re supposed to deliver? There are many reasons why defensible legal contracts and effective legislation tend to be lengthy, but this is one of the big ones. All those words help to ensure that everyone signing their name to the document has exactly the same understanding about what’s to come.
How about a well-known counter-example? What happens when we just assume that people will understand what we mean? Like, say, deciding that twenty-seven words were enough to ensure agreement on the meaning of the Second Amendment, perhaps?
If you have a strong belief that your interpretation of the Second Amendment is the right one, you can be sure that there’s someone else with the opposite interpretation who believes in their own just as strongly. And there’s little chance of a mutually acceptable compromise, largely because we’re not starting from shared understanding. We read the same exact words, yet come up with entirely different explanations of what they mean.
Shared understanding is a precursor to agreement, which is itself required to reasonably hold someone accountable. When shared understanding is missing it becomes almost impossible to make meaningful progress or even effectively defend one’s actions. None of which tends to be the sort of thing we like to see in our organizations or people who lead them. Stokefire’s second and final requirement for accountability is ‘honoring our commitments.’
I’ve heard people paraphrase this as, “do what we say we will do”, and while it hits some of the same notes, it is very much not the same thing. ‘Doing what we say we’ll do’ demands perfection, and that’s just not realistic. If humans are involved in the process in any way, then so is imperfection. Which means that, for whatever reasons, sometimes we aren’t going to be able to do what we say.
Demanding accountability is not demanding perfection, it’s about acknowledging the potential for flaws and doing what we can to own our mistakes and make things right when they make an appearance.
It might sound like 'honoring our commitments is a cop-out'1, but it’s not. It’s more meaningful, beneficial, and versatile than doing what we say. It allows us to focus on the shared understanding of purpose, and not the specific steps we might take. What’s wrong with focusing on the steps? Nothing, if the goal is to just walk through the steps. The problem shows up when the promised steps don’t lead to the outcome the client wanted. We’d be able to say we’d done what we said we’d do, but not honor our commitment. That’s not a path to long term success for us or our clients. It also gives us flexibility to deal with evolving circumstances and life’s surprises. The meaning of ‘honoring our commitment’ doesn’t change when there’s a leadership change on either side of a contract. Nor when the competitive landscape changes, or, hypothetically... there’s a pandemic. Billions of people and organizations around the world had made commitments to do very specific stuff in the months leading up to the pandemic. There were face-to-face meetings, conferences at convention centers, sporting events, concerts, and more. If accountability was only about doing what we said we’d do, then we (as an entire species) lost all claim to it. But that’s not what happened. Most of us figured out that there was a need to deliver on the commitments we’d made, even if we couldn’t do it exactly as we’d planned. Meetings and conferences went virtual, employees worked from home, and even athletes and artists found ways to deliver promised value in a locked-down world. The goal wasn’t the steps. The goal wasn’t perfection. It was honoring commitment.
That honored commitment, combined with the shared understanding mentioned before, is exactly the kind of accountability that Stokefire promotes and embraces. That’s it for this edition of Tate’s stream-of-consciousness wordifying about Stokefire’s values. Tune in next time to learn about value number four.