Types of Accountability

At the end of a meeting, we should recap next steps and determine who is accountable for each. Accountability should fall to one (and only one) person per item, even if the work involved requires input and contributions from others. Unfortunately, the word “accountable” can mean different things to different people.

To avoid situations of misunderstanding, we have to think about exactly what type of accountability we are offering — or accepting — especially when accomplishing a task that requires group effort.

On one end of the spectrum is the issue owner. In this role the accountable person has complete control over an issue or decision. A full team may be assigned to help, but the issue owner can make the decision however she chooses. She can decide unilaterally. She can call one meeting or 10. She can solicit individual opinions or talk to some team members but not everyone. She controls the process and ultimately owns the final decision.

On the other end of the spectrum is the team coordinator. In this role the accountable person is an equal member of the team with the added responsibility of logistics, such as scheduling and defining the agenda. She’s responsible for ensuring that there is a discussion but not for the outcome, and she has no more power or authority than anyone else in the room. If the team can’t come to an agreement, she can’t force closure — she must escalate the decision up a level.

In the middle is the tiebreaker. In this role the accountable person doesn’t have the absolute authority of an issue owner, but she’s more than just a coordinator. She is responsible for helping the team reach a decision, and in the absence of consensus she should make the final call.

Different issues may call for different meanings of accountability in the same organization. What’s important is to ensure that everyone understands what it means in the specific situation — especially the accountable individual.

Summing-up: So the next time you delegate a task or decision, think about which kind of authority — issue owner, tiebreaker, or team coordinator — you are giving people. Being explicit about not just who is accountable but what type of accountability they have goes a long way toward preventing problems down the road. And if you’re the one being handed the accountability baton, make sure you are clear on what you’re receiving.

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