Wednesday, February 21, 2007

My problem with accountability

For some time I’ve had trouble with calls for accountability. I’ve been part of a Christian communal group for almost 30 years and from time to time some folks in the group issue calls for accountability.

I strongly believe in people being responsible and moral but the longer I’ve been in leadership both in our communal group and in secular organizations the more dubious I’ve been of actions taken under the guise of accountability. When I first joined the communal group we had lots of rules and decision-making procedures to help people be accountable. Then one of the founders of the group disclosed a history of sexual misconduct including abuse of children.

He was leading a group that deeply believed in accountability. How could that be? I began to lose faith in lots of rules as a way of accountability.

The other way I’ve seen leaders try to bring about accountability is to call people on the carpet. That sometimes seems to produce good short term results but it doesn’t seem to help people be responsible in the long term.

Then last Sunday night I read Bill Harris’s post on Accountability, systems, and loop gain. He developed a computer model to uncover the reason a particular organization had a problem with its ability to manage its expenses. Using the model he was able to test what types of reports would best help managers to manage expenses. Once they determined the best report to give managers the problem was reduced by 95%.

You can read the post and his associated article for the details but I resonate with his observation:

The model shows a most interesting lesson. In a poorly designed system, high management pressure (high externally-imposed accountability) made things worse, while low accountability actually made things better. In a well designed system, management pressure really didn't matter so much…

I also strongly resonated with his conclusion: “Management's primary job is to create systems that work well, not to push people to do well.”

Now I’m wondering how to improve our communal systems so we need less leadership pressure.