“At its heart, every company is a dynamic network of promises.” — Donald Sull and Charles Spinosa
As we disassemble managerial hierarchies to create more agile and adaptive organisations, dynamic mechanisms1 are required to provide structure, to align autonomously working teams and individuals towards common objectives. One important set of mechanisms concerns the instantiation of commitments and accountability.
Commitments and accountability are the adhesives that bind autonomous individuals and teams together.
In a bureaucracy, formal authorities (bosses) control the work of their subordinates. Bureaucracies are monocratic, not collegial. Control is exercised top-down through discipline and obedience.2
In radically decentralised structures, control is self-organising. It is achieved bottom-up, exercised through mutual commitments and collegiality.3
Commitments can be explicit, such as 'I will do this component of the work'; or implicit, such as 'I will be polite and considerate.' In a similar vein, teams can make mutual commitments with other teams.
Thus, in post-bureaucratic organisations, a rigid chain of command is replaced by a dynamic network of commitments.4
At the commencement of each year, every employee formalises their collaboration commitments via a small document called a Colleague Letter of Understanding (or CLOU). It contains a personal commercial mission statement, the key activities that they commit to in pursuit of their mission, the key metrics (called 'Steppingstones'), time commitments, and whom they are making the commitments to. Most employees have about 10 CLOU colleagues with whom they negotiate commitments.
The CLOU's are open and accessible via an intranet. This simple mechanism ensures roles, responsibilities, and performance metrics are clear to all.
If commitments are the 'resin' that binds autonomous workers to a common objective, then accountability is the 'hardener'.6
For two decades, Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler studied 25,000 people in dozens of organisations trying to understand what made certain people much more effective opinion leaders than others.7 Their conclusion:
It wasn't their technical skills, their title, or even something as intangible as, say, charisma. Opinion leaders wielded influence because they were the best at stepping up to colleagues, coworkers, or even their bosses, and holding them accountable.
Accountability8 is the act of holding ourselves or others to commitments. Without accountability, commitments can easily drift.
A maelstrom of factors is always conspiring to sabotage our promises and best intentions; from weak commitments in the first place, to the multifarious pressures foist upon us in life, to the limits of our cognitive and emotional capacities. Remaining focused on all our commitments is not easy. Accountability is the feedback loop to keep us on track.
The two loci for accountability are ourselves and others.
Holding ourselves responsible for commitments — self-accountability — is obviously paramount. If through a lack of self-discipline we let our commitments drift, people will lose faith in us.
In highly interdependent work, when we break a commitment, we let our team down. If we don't self-correct then it is up to our colleagues to hold us to account. Otherwise, the performance of the whole will suffer. If we want to belong to high-performing teams then we should want to be held accountable.
Broken commitments are an expectation gap that exists between parties. They usually manifest from poor communication: a misunderstanding of the other party's needs, too many competing commitments (over-promising), social pressure to agree to unreasonable requests, vague requests, not calling out bad behaviour, not speaking up to challenge assumptions, and so forth.
But there is another reason that expectation gaps manifest: through the 'weaponisation' of commitments: when dominating individuals impose commitments on others through force.
This force may be directed downwardly to a subordinate, or horizontally to a peer. The effect is the same: the recipient feels powerless to refuse or negotiate the commitment. They just have to accept it or 'suffer the consequences.'
As Patterson et al. explain, ‘every time we compel people to bend to our will it creates a desolate and lonely work environment. Gone is mutual respect and the camaraderie it engenders. Gone are the simple pleasantries associated with rubbing shoulders with colleagues who admire and pull for each other. Gone is the sense that we're labouring together to overcome common barriers.’
Enforced accountability is rife and generates enormous toxicity. It is so ubiquitous that some have come to reject the notion of accountability altogether. For example, well-respected Agile consultant, Alan Holub, argues that "a culture of accountability is actively destructive". To argue his point he proposes the following experiment: This evening, tell your spouse or partner “I’ll hold you accountable for doing the dishes tonight” and see how that goes over. That’s what the word really means. Heads will roll. I’m more powerful than you are.
Holub rightly rejects using accountability as a weapon of power. However, to reject accountability outright is to foster mediocracy, to encourage a 'safe place', as Amy Edmonson puts it, a trigger-free space where people always feel comfortable and are never challenged.
Deweaponising accountability requires eliminating force and eliminating aggression.
Effective accountability is based on establishing mutual purpose and mutual respect between parties.
When we hold others to account it must be done with kindness, the recipient must be made to feel safe. Otherwise, they will just become defensive and resistive out of principle. Patterson et al's., book Crucial Accountability teaches the art of how to do this with each other through dialogue. It is highly recommended.
The challenge for organisations is to establish a culture of positive accountability, what Amy Edmonson calls a learning zone. Training in dialogical techniques can be enormously helpful, as can rituals that establish a culture of positive accountability.
Casper ter Kuile explains how the November Project fitness community has created a culture of accountability. Their commitment to each other is to work out every single day at 6:30 a.m., in the freezing cold. If friends promise one another that they’ll show up but then break their word, their names are listed publicly on the website with a note of (loving) accountability. Here is an example:
Mary, last night you dropped a verbal commitment to Aliza via text that you would meet her to run together to the workout. As she stood cold, wet, and sad at your door step you never came out from your comfy warm bed. . . . I guess what the tribe is saying is that WE MISSED YOU TODAY!!!! Today was just a little drearier because we didn’t have your bright shiny face on this rainy gloomy day.9
If we are going to successfully slough off the shackles of bureaucracy, the art of making and upholding commitments with each other is essential, as is the discipline of holding ourselves and others accountable.
And that requires the commitment of kindness.
I’ll be going further into ritual design and commitment visibility in future transmissions, please subscribe here:
CLOUs via Paul Green Jr’s article
I refer here to the notion of reverse game theory a subject I will cover in future transmissions. For now, think of mechanisms in terms social contracts, behavioural norms, rituals and practices
Sandro Serpa and Carlos Ferreira, ‘The Concept of Bureaucracy by Max Weber’, International Journal of Social Science Studies 7 (17 January 2019): doi:10.11114/ijsss.v7i2.3979.
Lee, Michael & Edmondson, Amy. (2017). Self-managing organizations: Exploring the limits of less-hierarchical organizing. Research in Organizational Behavior. 10.1016/j.riob.2017.10.002.
Sull, Donald & Spinosa, Charles. (2007). Promise-based management: The essence of execution. Harvard business review. 85. 78-86, 141.
See The Colleague Letter of Understanding: Replacing Jobs with Commitments by Paul Green Jr.
Patterson, Kerry D., Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler. 2013. Crucial accountability: tools for resolving violated expectations, broken commitments, and bad behavior.
The term accountable originates from the Latin computare, “to count.” To be accountable required a person to produce “a count” of either the properties or money that had been left in his care. For an excellent explanation of the word, see Castiglione, Dario. "Accountability". Encyclopedia Britannica, 22 Oct. 2012,.
Ter Kuile, Casper. 2020. The Power of Ritual: Turning Everyday Activities Into Soulful Practices. HarperOne.