For the last few posts, we’ve been covering the various phases of my Getting Stuff Done system. These are Collect, Think, Plan, Action and Review.

At the center of all this is Accountability.

We all need to be accountable for our actions. Unfortunately, accountability is often either skipped or only just touched on. It’s rarely used to its full potential. Often when we’re trying to be held accountable we only look at the obvious issues, the ones that are on the surface. We never bother to dig deeper and that’s where the value of accountability comes in.

Without accountability, you’ve got nobody who’s helping you to stay on track. You’ve got no one to turn to when things aren’t going as well as you’d like. You’ve got no one to turn to for that little bit of advice, that little bit of help.

It also means you’ve got nobody there to pat you on the back and say “that was a brilliant job you’ve done.” Accountability isn’t just about being negative. Accountability is about praising people. It’s about fetching the best out of yourself and others.

Having the right person to keep us accountable helps to maintain our focus, keep us on track, and help us to deliver results.

I’ve split this up into two sections. The first one is “why to be accountable.” In this, we take a brief look at some of the benefits that you can get by having somebody hold you accountable. The second section I call “how to do it.” As the name suggests it’s some tips to help you to be either held or even to hold someone else accountable.

Why be Accountable

Increase chance of success

A few years ago there was a study done by The American Society of Training and Development. They released the following statistics:

You have an idea – 10%
You decide when you will do it – 40%
You plan how you will do it – 50%
You commit to someone else you will do it – 65%
You have an accountability appointment with the person you have committed to – 95%
This means you are doubling the chance of hitting your goal you have decided to perform from 40% to 95%

This means by having somebody holding you accountable and meeting with them regularly you’re almost guaranteed to succeed.

Identify Issues

We’re going along and we hit a problem. It may be we’re struggling with something. We try and solve it ourselves. We find that we can’t.

By having a regular accountability review it means that you’re looking at your work with someone else. You’re taking that separate point of view. You’ve got somebody there that you can ask questions to. You hit an issue, you can ask them for advice.

Another common issue is assumptions. As we go through our day we tend to make assumptions. We read something, it’s a bit ambiguous. So we assume what it means. Sometimes those assumptions aren’t right.

As part of the accountability meeting, you discuss your assumptions. You get your accountability partner to challenge them. You discuss them and go deeper into what they mean. Quite often that leads to a slight change to the way you’re doing something. If you hadn’t had that accountability meeting, if you hadn’t reviewed what you were doing, you’d have carried on going down the wrong path.

The aim is to explore what you’re doing. You want to identify issues or blockers. Then identify and put in place steps that you can take to address it. This allows you to move forward consistently and successfully.

Maintain Focus

I don’t know about you but I find it’s easy to get bogged down in details. You spend so much time focusing on a single issue that you lose the big picture.

Sometimes it’s easy to go down a rabbit hole. It’s easy to see something and just keep going but it may not be moving you towards the solution.

I don’t know about you but I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I want everything to be done before I release something. I want it to be perfect.

This is a bad thing. It causes me to focus on the wrong things. Concentrating on delivering perfection means I don’t deliver anything. I need to instead concentrate on “good enough.”

There are times when you do need perfection. If you are fixing a gas leak, you want that to be done properly. You don’t want someone to come in and only do 80% of the job. If you’re writing a book, you may fret too much about an individual word or phrase. You never finish the book. That’s where perfectionism can hit you.

The other thing with focus, and again I do this all the time, it’s so easy to go down a rabbit hole. How often do you see that shiny thing and you chase after it? By having an accountability session it means you’ve got somebody independent to pull you out of that rabbit hole. They can say to you “no you don’t need to concentrate on that come back and look at the main issue.” They can also say to you “this is good, yes it’s not perfect but it’s good enough.”

Your accountability partner is there to help you to move away from always chasing perfection and to realize that quite often good is enough.

Problem Solving

This is another area where accountability can help you. How often do you get stuck trying to find a solution to something? I’m not sure about you but I would say multiple times a day.

You try different ways to work it out. You search for guidance on the internet. Whatever you try, you’re going nowhere, you’re not getting to the solution.

The accountability session lets you talk to someone else. It lets you bounce your ideas off them. It lets you get different points of view.

I often find that the act of explaining the problem to somebody else is enough to trigger that aha moment. It’s enough that I can work out the solution myself. I don’t need input from the accountability partner. What I need is for them to be there as a sounding board. To slow down my thinking.

How To Do It

This is not as difficult as it sounds.

Who Holds You Accountable

We all need someone to hold us accountable. It could be a formal or an informal arrangement.

In a lot of cases, your accountability is very clear. If you’re employed, generally you’re accountable to a supervisor or a manager. If you’re running a company, you’re accountable to a board and shareholders.

But if you’re a small business owner, you’re working for yourself. It’s not so clear who you’re accountable to.

Some people think “I’m accountable to myself.” In most cases, this doesn’t work. You’re too close to the problem.

You need an independent accountability partner. If you’re looking at yourself, you can’t be objective.

You may “can I use my life partner?”, “can I use a family member?”, “can I use a close friend?”

You certainly can, but bear in mind, the majority of family members and friends want to see you succeed. They don’t want to upset you. They’re not going to ask the hard questions. They’re not going to challenge you. They’re going to tell you what you want to hear.

Using a family member or a friend is possible, but be aware there are downsides.

Ideally, you want somebody independent. You want someone who’s going to help you. They might need to give you some advice. They might need to give you some help on some technical challenges.

You don’t need an expert to hold you accountable but it can help when you’re working on a very technical job. What you want is somebody who is going to ask you the hard questions. To keep you on track.

The key to an accountability relationship is trust. You’ve got to be able to trust each other to have an open and frank discussion. When looking for an accountability partner, get to know them. Make sure you can trust them.

Accountability Agreement

This doesn’t have to be a big document. It’s about defining what you’re going to get from the accountability partnership.

I’m not going into detail here, I’m just going to touch on them very quickly.

Define the Purpose

In this section, we are looking at what the Accountability Agreement is trying to achieve. Defining these items at the start ensures that the Accountability Agreement runs smoothly and to everyone’s benefit.

Expectations

In this step, you define what is expected from each of you. An idea of things to include are

How much time is required from each of you
When will the agreement start
When will the agreement end
How frequently you will meet
How you will meet and communicate
Etc.

Outcome

Use this section to define the business outcome that is to be achieved.

Putting the focus on the outcome stops you from falling into the micromanaging mindset, where every step becomes a talking point.

Although we are interested in the method of getting to the outcome, what we are holding someone accountable for is the business outcome.

Commitments

This is similar to the Expectations. The key difference is the Expectations lays out the broad agreement you have with each other. In the Commitments section, you are providing explicit promises to each other as to what you will do.

This may include items like:

The person holding you accountable may guarantee you a set amount of exclusive time each week
Define response times to enquiries. i.e. Phone calls returned on the same day, emails replied to within 2 days etc
Dedication to each other’s success
The person being held accountable to schedule meetings with a minimum of 1-days notice
Etc.

Skills

This section is used to list out special skills required. Here you are looking at the skills of both people in the Accountability Agreement.

If the person who is holding you accountable needs to have certain skills these need to be called out, to make sure that they can help you. An example of this is if your outcome is to produce a 2-year financial forecast for your business, but the person holding you accountable is a computer programmer, then they are not likely to have the skills needed to help you succeed.

If the person being held accountable needs any special skills, then call them out here. This will allow training needs to be identified. An example is you would not expect a computer programmer to be able to create a policy for the handling of HR complaints.

(And yes I know my examples are a bit wild – they are, after all, just examples!)

Accept The Accountability Agreement

After we have gone through all these steps, and remember they do not have to be formal, a conversation will do, both people on the Accountability Agreement then need to accept that they are happy.

This step is all about each person taking responsibility for the agreement, and acknowledging their shared commitment to the business outcome.

Document

Write it down. Record the agreement and record progress.

Rewards

In the accountability agreement, we will have recorded how we’re going to measure progress, how we’re going to measure success. We’d have talked about the process we’re going to be using not the steps to take. We’d have defined several milestones. I love milestones, they are how you know you’re moving forward.

It’s nice to include, not necessarily in the formal agreement, is the idea of a reward. This is when you hit a specific milestone you get a reward.

You get something that rewards you for hitting that milestone. It’s the business outcome that we’re talking about, so those milestones should be focused on the business outcome.

An example, you’re writing a report. The business outcome will be to have that report published. A milestone could be to have a draft. You have a reward defined “when I hit the draft I’ll get that person a bar of chocolate.”

It doesn’t have to be something really big. Sometimes the small rewards are the ones that get the most bang

Notice here I keep using the word reward. It’s all about positive results. It’s about building motivation.

If we reward too often it can lead to demotivation. If you’re getting rewarded for every little thing, the reward has no meaning. That’s why we tie rewards to specific milestones.

What types of rewards can I use? There are lots of different options, including:

  • a formal acknowledgement in a team email or a team meeting,
  • a gift, it could be a small amount of cash to say even a bar of chocolate,
  • give someone a day off.

Focus on positive rewards. Building the individual self-worth and their self-belief. This means they carry on delivering the successful business result.

Do not use negative consequences. if you’re using negative consequences you’re going to push people so that they achieve the minimum level. It doesn’t incentivise them to go above that minimum level. They’re going to think “well they’re gonna complain about me anyway so I’ll do the bare minimum that I need to do.”

In the long-term negative consequences are ineffective. You’ll find that people will regularly miss targets. They’ll be demoralised. They’re likely to leave the organisation.

The use of negative consequences needs to be carefully monitored to ensure it does not turn into bullying and a way of maneuvering people out of an organisation.

Summary

We all need somebody to hold us accountable. The amount of people holding us accountable is variable. You may find you’ve got multiple people doing that because you’ve got multiple projects and they all require different skills.

Accountability brings control to your work and allows you to drive forward to deliver business outcomes, projects, and commitments.

You must have a trusting relationship with your accountability partner. Without this, you’re not going to fully accept their input and their guidance. This means you’re not going to hit that business outcome.

Without accountability, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Issues that you could identify early on are never identified. They’re never addressed. That means it costs more to fix. Higher costs eat into your profit. They can affect client satisfaction.

It’s important to make sure you document your accountability agreements. It doesn’t have to be a big document. It could just be an email. Get it written down, agree on what you’re going to do, and make sure both of you sign off and then get going.