Team Accountability and Agile

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Team Accountability and Agile

Accountability is an interesting, large topic that gets skipped over quite often in our agile community. Here's my attempt at fixing that.

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answering question at team meeting

If you often find yourself saying, 'It wasn't my fault,' you may have an accountability problem. 

I started out this blog post writing about shared accountability for agile program teams. Accountability is an interesting, large topic that gets skipped over quite often in our agile community. In fact, I found in my writing a realization that we don’t have a great track record for defining it. So here’s my take.

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Let’s Go for a Team Accountability Walk

If I asked you, “What are teams accountable for?” what would your answer be? Go ahead and take a minute. Picture the team in your mind. You may want to write it down to refer back to later.

Would your answer include: make and meet commitments, to break down work effectively, or to have a great design or architecture? Would it be to create revenue or an effective marketing campaign? How about “the teams are working hard”?

Definition – Mine, not by the book

Accountable – adj. – A need to explain to an asking authority the actions or decisions made

And in addition,

Responsible – adj. – The state of mind or being that owns the duty of taking care of something or someone

Clearly there is a relationship to responsibility baked into accountability. The nuances of that relationship are argued over; I am not interested in that argument.

Individual accountability to me ideally matches with individual responsibility:

That is, in order to be accountable for something, you will want to be responsible for that very same thing as well.

Otherwise, you may only be accountable. Which would be fine, but won’t produce the same results that both will.

Finding Out What Went Wrong 

I love the way Chris Avery describes his responsibility process. This is a very personal process and a great way to understand your own decision-making as to how to move forward toward taking responsibility.

If you can move yourself to a responsible state (and again Dr. Avery’s work is a great reference), then you can hopefully match up your accountability and responsibility.

I had a unique moment lately when I was running a responsibility exercise with a team that I believed were in a shared denial state, which is really common. Here’s what it looked like:

I gave a set of teams an epic that they failed to deliver and asked them to fill in the following sentence on their own and to not show anyone. I also told them that we would rip up the sheets at the end, and they would not have to share the information.

The epic failed because _____

I gave them the following choices to fill in the blank.

1. They
2. He
3. She
4. It
5. Me
6. You
7. Us
8. The Business

What Accountability Looks Like on the Best Teams (and Vice Versa)

I didn’t survey the audience, yet I made the following point:

If you are looking at your sheet and you see “They, He, She, It, You, or The Business,” then you are in a dependent state and not taking responsibility.

You have given control to someone else to ensure that you can have a successful outcome. Not a good place because you do not have control of your outcome due to your state of mind.

If you answered “Me,” then you are at a state of being responsible for your own actions. In this scenario, you have to get the job done and correct the issue.

If you answered “Us,” then you are at a state of shared responsibility assuming that everyone else that falls under “Us” also answered “Us.”

Later I read the classic 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and the idea of dependent, independent, and interdependent relationships resonated the same tone that I was trying to capture. For more info on that, just pick up the book. It’s a great read, if you are ready for it.

My challenge to the group was similar to the book's challenge. Basically, if you find yourself dependent, try to move to independent (me), and then consciously try to move to independent (us). To do this, you’ll require an inside-out approach.

First you take responsibility and become accountable for yourself to yourself. Then you consciously move the group toward a shared responsibility that matches the accountability of the group.

You’ll find that everything doesn’t need to be a shared responsibility, but that’s the goal at the macro or team level. Otherwise, you are little more than the sum of your individual parts.

You may indeed find your team impaired by a lack of organizational enablement. Organizational enablement, to me, implies that teams may not be formed in a way that they can control their own destiny.

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In scrum, for an individual team this looks like the team. They may be getting pulled onto multiple teams, have dependencies, etc. In a scaled environment, that includes program and portfolio teams as well. For instance, the program team may not have the architectural capability to support fast release cycles.

Many times I have found that blame has been pushed all the way down to the individual level and the organization lacks the capability to take responsibility.

If this is the case, both managers and subordinates in the dependent state can form a learned helplessness where they are unable to move no matter the incentive because they are not taught to do so. More often, in corporate America, I see it manifest as a complaining, learned helplessness.

When agile comes in, coaches bring the therapy couch with us. But before we bring the couch, we need to bring the proper structure and governance to enable the helpless and promote a responsible environment. Ultimately, we have always had accountability. Someone always answers to someone else. A clear line of site of the accountability paired with responsibility is a win/win situation for all.

I’ll talk more about what that win/win looks like in the future as we discuss what the pull of accountability and the response of responsibility looks like at the team and scaled team levels. For now, I leave you with the need for any team to address how responsible they are being as it applies to how accountable they are being held.

If there is a mismatch, find it and march toward responsibility together.

Originally published July 2014

Further reading

agile ,accountability ,responsibility ,leadership ,team accountability ,blame ,success ,teamwork ,shared responsibility ,goals

Published at DZone with permission of Mike Cottmeyer , DZone MVB. See the original article here.

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