Questioning Team Accountability

| by Amr Elssamadisy Follow 0 Followers on Jun 13, 2011. Estimated reading time: 3 minutes |

Glen Alleman describes the business management process they use - called Afterburner - and its reliance on personal accountability for success. Glen then describes his discomfort with the idea of team accountability instead of having one person be accountable.  According to this month's video newsletter for Afternburner, in the four step process: 1) plan, 2) brief, 3) execute, 4) debrief, the debriefing cannot be done effectively if we cannot ask the question "who was responsible for the failure?".

Glen questions the effectiveness of having a team accountable and what that means when there is no single point that is responsible for success or failure.  Andrew Joiner posted a response:

Nowhere does Scrum or Agile say that an individual is not accountable. Of course they are; they make a commitment to the team whenever they take on a task during a sprint, and they are held accountable by the team to completing that task, with or without assistance.
Furthermore, the team as a whole is being held accountable for delivering what they said they would at the sprint planning meeting. And if circumstances change, then that accountability should mandate that an important conversation takes place to assess and either confirm or change that commitment.
"Collective ownership" is a term that is usually applied to the code base, and comes originally from XP. It means that no one person "owns" any section of the code. Anyone sufficiently skilled should be able to make changes to that code, in a responsible way. It was mutually supported by other XP practices such as continuous integration, pair programming, and so on.

 But Glen's point is still valid, in that having "group accountability" is difficult to understand and implement:

There can be only ONE person accountability. Many can be responsible. Multiple accountability violates the core principle of management. That accountable person can flow down responsibilities. Those principles come from not only project management but GAAP, SOX, and business governance.
And of course the collective accountability of the code is highly domain and context sensitive as well.

This is one of the difficult parts to understand about self organizing teams in general and agile development teams in particular.  In our interview with Christopher Avery at the Agile 2009 conference, this topic was discussed in detail. We asked Avery about how individual responsibility is related to self organizing teams:

I was looking for a way to teach smart people how to build teams and remember the beginning of our interview, what's the essence? The essence is the stuff called shared responsibility, when people feel the sense of shared ownership for some bigger thing, then their behavior automatically changes, organically changes. I have a set of tips for teaching people how to do that.
.... If we get focused on being in the same boat together and the larger success, then what that means is we are each willing, if we feel a sense of ownership what it means is we are going to be organically willing to fill in the gap, fill in the holes, improve the process. They say that roles on a team are emergent and the reason roles on a team are emergent is because teams are always temporary and they're defined by the larger task and when people feel a sense of getting that thing done, then they step in and do what needs to be done.

What Avery teaches is that because there is no individual failure, and no individual success, that individual accountability alone is not enough.  So although there still is individual accountability, the failure of one, is the failure of the team (known as the "it's not my wing on fire" principle).  And the team needs to take ownership for the success of the project regardless of who fails.

Does group accountability resonate with you?  Is there an ambiguity in the ways we use "accountability", "responsibility" and "ownership"?  And, most importantly, how does this affect your results?

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The blame game by Nathan Gloyn

I have noticed in this, and other recent articles on the web, the desire to hold individuals accountable but what we really mean is we want somebody to blame.

Blaming somebody for not accomplishing something is a great way to make yourself feel better but other than that just what does it achieve? nothing.

The whole reason that agile methodologies promote team accountablity is to try and get away from "the blame game" and try and move towards an environment that looks to resolve problems rather than just point the finger for failing "it's their fault", its about the team taking responsibility for delivery of work as a whole and if managing how they do that themselves.

To me this just feels like a move back towards pre-agile management techniques which IMHO is not a good move.

Questionning the questionning by Xav L

Are we serious ?
Did i just watch a video, with a guy claiming something about personal accountability and giving a terrorist's arrest as an lame, i thought we evolved. Enough with those pseudo patriotic crap.

I can't see the point in this, what does it have to do with this arrestation ? If it does, then explain. Show us how.

Well, if you want to do old school management, you can. But please don't talk about things you don't know because claiming is not enough, you must explain and give arguments. I can't debate in my reply cause there is no point to comment.

Everybody, please spare time, don't click on the video or the blog link, there is nothing of interest, whatever your opinion about team or personal accountability.

Re: Questionning the questionning by Amr Elssamadisy

Are we serious ?

Well, Agile hasn't taken over the world yet. The PMI now has PMI-Agile. And team accountability isn't the most obvious of ideas and if you join today's average corporation what will you see?

The person, the blog, or the politics, may not agree with you, and that is ok. However, the issue remains for many people today and will probably grow in the agile community.

I'm Spartacus! by Paul Korney

The value of 'Team Accountability', as with many of the so-called 'Agile' practices, is in protecting the team from the organization it is working within so that it can be successful. In any real, properly functioning team there is already individual responsibility and there always has been. And within a real team, individual failures are turned into opportunities to learn and improve. That is typically not the attitude of the surrounding organization.

Self org teams by Amr Elssamadisy

Here is a non-software self-organizing team.

One person responsibility is an easy path by ahetuki kr

Managers love to create hierarchy in their teams. It eases their life. And it creates a great but false feeling of achievement in the person who "owns" the product!
HR loves it because it creates "heroes", it eases their life too.
But in this whole process the creative and always changing world of developers gets lost...

Re: I'm Spartacus! by Amr Elssamadisy

so-called 'Agile' practices
TO start off with, I don't necessarily disagree with you, may I poke and prod a bit?

Ok - I'll bite - please elaborate.

is in protecting the team from the organization it is working within so that it can be successful

Isn't this a recipe for local optimization? Is team accountability a buffer to allow local optimization in organizations and not worry about the end value?

Re: I'm Spartacus! by Paul Korney

>> may I poke and prod a bit?
Please do! :-)
>>Isn't this a recipe for local optimization? ...
Yes, but not in the sense of the anti-pattern where local optimizations are done at the expense of the value chain. Instead, the team is (should be) a force for systemic change.
"The Nail That Sticks Up Gets Hammered Down".
Organizations have many weapons for resisting change, including many local optimizations in the anti-pattern sense e.g. departmental specializations. And fracturing the team with so-called individual accountability is one of those weapons: I mean, no-one wants to be the one to get hammered down, right?
So yes, the team is a buffer from the negative forces of the organization. Individual accountability is still important, but only within the team.

Re: I'm Spartacus! by Jeff Santini

It is in letting these local optimizations cross fertilize that you find improvement.
Stamp them out before you have a chance to evaluate and learn from them, and you have a recipe for stagnation.

Teams need to be dynamic in their processes, but also in their makeup. spending time in different teams who have different local optimizations spreads the better optimizations and lets the others die. Think evolution:)

Re: I'm Spartacus! by Amr Elssamadisy

+1 on "think evolution". While on the subject of biology metaphors, "think virus and anti-bodies".

Re: I'm Spartacus! by Amr Elssamadisy

So yes, the team is a buffer from the negative forces of the organization. Individual accountability is still important, but only within the team.

This resonates with my experience.

Conflating power with accountability by Peter Alfvin

I like Christopher Avery's definition of accountability which, in my words at least, is defined simply as the act of one person holding another "to account". That contrasts sharply with Chris's definition of responsibility, which is a strictly personal matter. I can choose to be responsible, but only someone else can hold me accountable.

I think the traditional definition of accountability conflates power and this notion of being held "to account". In the traditional definition, the accountable party has a unique power to make decisions relative to that which they are accountable for. That is why in the traditional view the notion of having more than one person accountable is so problematic.

However, with the simpler definition of accountability, there is no problem per se with multiple people being accountable. In particular, all the members of the team can be accountable. That simply means that they can all be held "to account" for the outcome - a perfectly natural state of affairs.

One of the reasons why I think so many people and organizations have a problem with shared accountability is that they have little positive experience with shared decision making and shared systems of control. It is hard for them to even conceive of a high-performing, self-organizing team.

Personal Accountability KILLS AGILE by aditya yadav

In the last 5 years or so of my agile consulting I have seen nothing more kill agile than the old school concept of personal accountability. Here's how. If you make John accountable for Design and Mary accountable for API's they will stick just to that. There is no incentive for them to work as a team and collaborate. Because their accountability is for Design and API respectively. This will kill shared knowledge and and sort of helping others. Because they now have something which they are individually responsible for and nothing takes priority over that. The overall concept of accountability boils down to negative accountability which is basically a way to play the blame game. Personal accountability leads to extreme conflicts of interest.

Re: Conflating power with accountability by Amr Elssamadisy


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