posttitle = Structures of accountability titleClass =short len =28

Structures of accountability

In my 2013 review, I wrote:

What broke me out of [my despondent unmotivated funk mid-summer-2013] was when I realized that sometimes even things I really enjoyed doing, like blogging, I wouldn’t bother to do if I didn’t kind of force myself to do it. Turns out motivation is complex.

I have once again found myself blogging right now because if I don’t, I owe beeminder money. I feel frustrated—I have only an hour or so left at this point and while I have many posts in progress and many others that I want to write, none of them will be ready in an hour. So instead here’s a brief rant on accountability.

The E-Myth on org structures

I’m listening to a fantastic audiobook right now called The E-Myth, E being short for Entrepreneurial. It’s all about how to do a small business as an entrepreneur, rather than a technician. There are some other insights from this book that I’m excited to blog about, but those are on the longer-than-an-hour list.

One of the chapters I was listening to today was talking about the importance of accountability when setting up a business. The author describes two brothers who start a business together. In one version of the story, they take turns doing everything and it’s great for awhile but then it breaks down because nobody is responsible for anything. In the other version, the two of them sit down at the beginning of their business development process and lay out a basic yet fairly extensive organizational structure, including a COO, VP of Marketing, salespeople and accountants. They write a description for each position.

Then, they assign an employee to each of those roles and have that employee sign off on their position contract. Of course, the only options available are themselves. So they each have multiple roles, and report to each other and themselves. But the key is that now they’re accountable for several distinct outcomes. Then, the process from there is to systematize the lower-level roles and hire someone into them, promoting themselves as they go along.

I think this is really cool and makes a lot of sense.

One bit I thought was strange though was a remark the author made, which was “all organizations are hierarchical”. I actually blurted out “pfft, what?” when he said that.

Horizontal accountability

I’ve used the analogy of a sports team before. While team sports players may be accountable to their boyfriends or their coach or their fans or their country (depending on the scale of the sports), there is also a much more immediate kind of accountability that they have, which is to each of their teammates, and to the system as a whole that is the rest of the team. This exists on the field, even if there’s nobody watching and no coach.

You can also have accountability just between two people, without having one of them being in charge of the other. In fact, I think that developing this capacity is one of the great benefits of deliberately cultivating project partner relationships. Or you can have accountability in the context of a romantic relationship. Wedding vows or whatever.

So in general it’s possible to set up an accountability structure between members of a larger group of people without it necessarily being hierarchical. It might help to have someone who is accountable for ensuring that accountability checks happen regularly, but the rest of the team is no more accountable to that person than to anyone else. I think that this is kind of what the author of E-Myth was trying to get at with having the brothers take turns playing the role of accountability, but he got distracted by assumptions.

But you still have to do this deliberately. You have to deliberately set up that kind of accountability. And you have to keep score, like the sports team.

Accountability to self

And then there’s the accountability of me writing this blog post. Accountability to me. You could call it accountability to beeminder, but I’m the one who set up that commitment contract.

Ultimately, though, all accountability is a contract that you sign up for. This is part of the process of building a working relationship with yourself: holding yourself accountable for doing the things you say.

And as I recently heard, possibly also from the E-Myth, it can be said that:

Integrity is when you say you’re going to do something, then you do it.

This is a skill. It’s one worth developing more of, however much you already have. Start with something just beyond your current skill level, and spiral upwards.

Different intensities of accountability

I have two main kinds of accountability. Let’s call them B and C. (Edit: I’ve since written a post specifically about these, in which I call them Hard and Soft Commitments)

Accountability-B is for things I commit to doing, come hell or high water. I either track these with Beeminder, or with a one-off commitment contract to a friend. The words “spiral upwards” above link to this Beeminder guest post by Nick Winter, author of the Motivation Hacker. In that post, he writes:

See, the real cost of failing a goal is not the loss of your Beeminder pledge money. It’s the loss of confidence that you will meet all future goals that you perceive as similar to the current goal. You will trust yourself less.

For real, accountability-B commitments, I make sure to keep them, to build up my confidence that I’ll meet all future similar commitments. Integrity.

Accountability-C is for things that I intend to do. Sometimes things will come up—today, I was intending to work on a persona and do some planning and ship some new code that’s almost done, but that’s not going to happen because I’m working on an accountability-B item (this blog post) and as soon as I’m done there’ll be another one: my bedtime, which I’m newly trying to hold strict. I would have done them earlier, but an opportunity for a really high-value conversation emerged, so I did that instead. And that’s okay.

Accountability-C has some flex, by design.

But I’m adamant about one part: I always assess how I did. Each night, I set some intentions for the next day. I can’t yet know if those will actually be the most sensible things to do that day. But I know they’re better than what I’d end up with if I didn’t make the list. And in order for that list to matter, I need to look at it at the end of the day too, and seriously consider:

  • Did I do what I intended to?
  • If not, what did I decide to do instead?
  • If I made the same sorts of decisions in the future, would I get where I want to go?

Accountability-C, I track with Complice: the productivity system I’ve been building for the last year. Give it a try here:

I swear, I didn’t set out to make this a Complice promotion. It was a complete accident. I didn’t even plan to write this last section.

If you found this thought-provoking, I invite you to subscribe:    
About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Intend, a system for improvisationally & creatively staying in touch with what's most important to you, and taking action towards it.


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