A couple of weeks ago, I regaled you lovely blog readers with a tale about laundry - the dirty kind, and what happens when you air it. Not literally, of course, our excellent office set up doesn’t quite stretch to having an actual washing line. We do have showers, though, so that’s nice.

Since then, we’ve had another session led by project manager Matt, but this one was more of a workshop and open to the whole company.

Over the past couple of months, Matt has been offering up some great workshops once a fortnight or so, each focusing on a theme that’s cropped up amongst the team as being a subject worth exploring. This week, it was ‘accountability at work’. Yikes.

Side note: It helps when you have a freelance project manager like Matt around, who happens to lead workshops like this all the time when he’s not working here at Clearleft. Handy, right?


How do you define the word ‘accountability’? Seriously, what does it really mean? And why is it important, anyway? Questions, questions. You might want to have a go at answering these yourself - that’s how we started our session. Turns out, it’s harder than you think.

We all grabbed the ubiquitous Post-it notes and Sharpies and began scribbling, then we stuck them on a matrix that Matt had put on the wall and got talking. Some words cropped up more than once - trust, communication, commitment, ownership, recognition, responsibility, the idea of being ‘answerable’ - the list goes on.

The prevailing sense of confusion came when someone said “I’m not sure how it differs to responsibility” - good point. It seemed sensible to get to grips with what we were really talking about before delving any deeper. Granted, we might sound like a bunch of idiots for even questioning this, but hey, we did. And I’d wager that we’re not the first. But after a bit of head scratching and chatting, we came to the conclusion that the basic difference between the two is that responsibility can be shared and it’s not the endgame; accountability, on the other hand, can’t really be shared - it’s where the buck stops. I immediately started to question what I’m responsible for, and what I’m accountable for. Can you relate that to your own work?

Matt had drawn a very technical (ahem) Venn diagram to illustrate his take on it. Accountability is where responsibility meets commitment meets specificity. I’d like to think we’re all pretty good at being responsible, committed professionals, in fact, I know we are. But the bit about specificity is where it gets really interesting.

Be more specific.

To help us get relate this to our own work, be it for clients or internal projects, Matt put a different spin on the subject, asking the question: “What stops you being accountable?”. Cue more sticky notes on the wall. Then the same thing with the question: “What stops others from being accountable?”. Two more questions you might find interesting to ask yourself.

The upshot was that this thing about being ‘specific’ (and related themes around communication) was what it came back to. When a situation or project has fluffy edges, is a bit sketchy, or maybe has too many cooks involved, what do we do? We might be uneasy about speaking up, or we might steamroller in and make assumptions about what’s happening. Don’t rock the boat, at your peril. Charge in like a bull in a china shop, at your peril. Neither extreme is helpful and both can be perilous. A constructive, purposeful conversation to kick things off is where it’s at, because lack of clear communication about the details is a blocker - end of story. 

All of the words and themes that made it onto that wall, in my opinion, can be traced back to poor communication and a lack of specifics. So it’s a reminder of how helpful and important it is to set things out clearly, and in as much detail as is possible, from the word go. And, crucially, don’t forget to revisit the conversation - have regular retrospectives, or do whatever you need to do. If circumstances change, do roles and responsibilities change? It doesn’t need to be a big deal, but, goodness, it can make the world of difference if you keep on top of it. We learned that the hard way, some might argue, when we reflected on our internal website and rebrand project.

Why bother?

Rewind to the beginning of the session and another provocation - what’s valuable about accountability? This really came into focus for me by the time we got the the end of the two hours and reflected on what we’d explored. Again, it comes down to communication. It’s the clarity that’s achievable through defined accountability that really adds value to a situation.

Agree where the buck stops. 
Own it.
Reduce confusion.
Improve efficiency.
Have a greater sense of ownership and accomplishment.

And if it all goes belly-up, at least there’s stability in knowing that, hopefully, the best placed person is accountable for that thing, and there’s a greater chance of whatever went wrong being addressed in a timely and constructive way.

So if you do one thing at work today, be specific.

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