Accountability and responsibility are often used interchangeably in conversations without fully recognizing what each word is actually communicating. It is more important than ever to ensure that people are aware of what it means to be responsible or accountable for something. When it comes to delivering important work, ensuring clarity about who is accountable and who is responsible will always impact the project positively. Failing to clarify who is accountable will usually have the apposite effect.
So, What is Accountability?
Accountability means the buck stops with the person who is accountable! There is no one else who will have to answer for the failure of the task but the person who is designated as the accountable person. This does not mean the accountable person does all the work. The accountable person might do some, none or all of the work but there is only one person who will be held accountable if the project succeeds or fails.
What is Responsibility Then?
When you are responsible for something, it is your job to do that thing. You are responsible for answering your customer's questions, coding up that new product functionality, or coming up with a new design. More than one person can be responsible for a given task. As a matter of fact, many software projects require software developers, designers, product managers, and test engineers, so responsibilities are shared across many people.
Accountability versus Responsibility
A single accountable person is ultimately responsible for the outcome of a task or project, while a responsible person or responsible people take on the role of executing the task. Again, only one person can be held accountable, while multiple people can take on the responsibility of executing tasks. The accountable person has the decision power and the responsible people usually receive direction and sign-offs from them. "With great power comes great accountability" :)
Example: Accountability vs Responsibility
Managers are accountable for the output of their teams. Obviously, managers don't do all the work. They have team members who are responsible for taking product requirements and turning them into solutions . They have TPMs or project managers to help with the coordination and execution of projects. Managers delegate different types of tasks to different people on their team but ultimately there can be only one person who will be held accountable for the output of the team and that is the manager of that team.
Holding Yourself Accountable:
Accountability is usually part of a job description and that certainly makes sense when you think about the role a manager plays. Someone who is in a managerial role should feel accountable for ensuring that their team is in the best position to succeed.
- A leader who feels accountable will put in the hard work of ensuring the right decisions are made at every level.
- A leader who feels accountable won't avoid making tough trade-offs to increase the chances of success.
- An accountable leader won't avoid difficult conversations with peers and team members.
- A leader who is accountable will assign tasks to team members who are responsible and capable of delivering the results.
However, you don't have to have the title to hold yourself accountable. The sad truth is that there are many people in high management roles who do not hold themselves accountable. There are also many people without the title that do hold themselves accountable. Winners adopt a mindset of accountability.
How do you hold yourself accountable when you are a team member only responsible for some of the tasks on a project? You increase your level of commitment to the success of that project. Besides taking responsibility for timely delivery of quality work you also hold yourself accountable for helping others on the team. When there is a lack of clarity on the direction the team needs to take you can call that out and help make the right decision. When a team member wants to take on a work item that is not likely to move the needle in the right direction, you can respectfully ask the reasons for prioritizing that work.
It makes sense that certain jobs come with a description where accountability is baked in, but taking accountability for your work does not require a title, it requires the mindset of a leader.