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What “accountability” means for decision processes and why self-organization doesn’t work without it.

Recently I watched a video podcast of a systemic coach on decision making in self-organizing teams. I have been working with self-organization in my own business for a few years now and while it holds so much potential for the company and the people, I know the struggles that come with it. So, I’m always curious about other perspectives. 15 Minutes later I had not learned anything new, but the podcast had reminded me of something that tends to be forgotten these days: accountability. In the video various decision-making methods were briefly described, among them the “RACI matrix” (“R” stands for Responsibility, “A” for Accountability, “C” for Consulted and “I” for Informed). In the example given, the presenter, however, left out the “A”. She explained that “accountability” would only stand for the “person owning the budget” and that their role was not relevant when it came to decision making. 

Looking at the bigger picture, this little episode symbolizes one of the key challenges of the “New Work” philosophy: In a constantly changing world, inadvertently hard decisions need to be made on a regular base in order to build and run sustainable organizations (not only businesses, by the way). Identifying the need for fundamental decisions, considering as many aspects as possible and actually deciding is crucial for generating concrete results for the organization to thrive – and sometimes even to survive. 

You need to establish a strong decision-making process 

This bears the very powerful and ubiquitous challenge we’ve all experienced, when diverging personal beliefs, needs and abilities of the people involved lead to time and energy consuming disagreement and ultimately to bad decisions. In addition, even if a group was able to agree on a common stance, the decision still might contradict a viable strategy. In the old hierarchical world of obedience, group decision processes were never an issue. With the aim of integrating people, recognizing its conflict potential and resolving it has to be a substantial skill of every organization, if it wants to sustain beyond luck. 

Undoubtedly, this sometimes hurts. Often, I see this conflict being avoided or, even worse, ignored. That is where “real” accountability comes into play. To me, accountability means being responsible for the ultimate result (while responsibility in the way it’s used within the RACI model only refers to who is doing the work). This accountability is inextricably linked with decision-making. Meaning, whoever wants to be in charge, has to carry the accountability for the outcome. That is a fierce requirement for a self-organizing team and for every organization trying to enable teams to self-organize. However, not dealing with it usually creates chaos. Being aware and negotiating a way that everybody agrees on will enable your organization to practice a cooperative and integrating leadership style beyond classic hierarchy. But you have to do the work. 

Looking at the entire picture and aiming for actual results is still mandatory for good decisions 

Apart from the process, however, there is another underlying aspect to be considered. Max Weber, a German sociologist, described almost exactly 100 years ago two different forms of ethics. Simplified, one of the two focusses on the action itself, ignoring the outcomes (so called “Ethics of conviction”, in German “Gesinnungsethik”), while the other has its focus on the results (“Ethics of responsibililty”, in German “Verantwortungsethik”). This is important, because the personal value system of all people involved fundamentally affects their way of judgement, argumentation and acceptance. In the complex, globalized and digitized world that we live in today, ethics of conviction unveils more and more dilemmas. Many actions that are for itself obviously judgeable as “good” or “bad” may appear in a different light when looked at from a holistic point of view. Migration, immunization or greenhouse gas emissions are only a few examples from the current public discussion. Strictly applying moral conviction regularly leads to ideological blindness, toxic dispute and anything else – except for solutions. While the solitary arguments are unarguably “correct”, it is necessary to weave them into a holistic assessment and balance them in order to keep moving at all. Otherwise, you will experience nothing but deadlock. This is nerve-wracking, annoying and quite often very costly in the public political process, but for an organization, it is a real problem in two ways: Either no decisions are made at all or decisions are made with a subpar outcome only to gratify isolated moral wishes. Most successful organizations (and for sure for all successful businesses) follow a coherent strategy that requires them to make decisions in a holistic and goal driven manner. Therefore, to me, consciously living an “ethics of responsibility” is a mandatory cultural aspect for any organization and in particular for any self-organizing approach. 

Finally, implementing sharp controlling is no discrepancy to the idea of self-organization, but a compulsory necessity to help the process to meet with the strategy and objectives that everybody has agreed to. While contemporary leadership means leading with compassion and deep personal respect, it also means supplying all information that is needed for a clear and objective understanding of reality as it actually is. Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign in 2008 is a wonderful example: It was run as a grass-roots campaign with an enormous bottom-up initiative and yet it was strictly controlled and managed from top to bottom. Successfully combining both, creating the space for action and setting the people up for success, was key to winning. 

Purpose motivates people and an accepted organization with strong roles makes the group thrive 

In summary: The idea of individual freedom, respectful cooperation and meaningful participation is more than compelling. However, tearing down old structures does not only liberate the people, it also takes away mechanics that were helping us to achieve goals. Believing that purpose alone will permanently lead people to pull together is naïve, especially in business. In order to overcome organizations restraining and exhausting their employees we need to deal with the painful aspects as well. Accountability in the sense of “ultimate responsibility for the outcome” is a core pillar. Going there and arranging it in a way that works for your organization will get you a big step further. 

Jürgen Hein

Co-Founder, CEO. Berät Führungskräfte und Unternehmer*innen weltweit, strukturiert Chaos, navigiert Komplexität, zeigt Wege auf, gibt als Speaker Impulse zu modernen Führungskonzepten sowie zu Digitalisierung in den Bereichen „Verwaltung“, „Recruiting, Coaching und Training“ oder „Sourcing“.