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Accountability is a popular word in delivery.

It is one of the four classification categories in roles and responsibility tools such as R.A.C.I. charts. The underlying intent is sound. If multiple people are responsible for contributing to the completion of an activity or deliverable, we still want to have a single person who has overall responsibility for ensuring it was completed as promised.

Merriam-Webster defines accountability as “the quality or state of being accountable“. This is an unhelpful operating definition for our needs but it is further qualified as “an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions“.

I’ve highlighted two words from the previous quote which reflect how many managers think of accountability. When you hear an executive say “We need to hold our people accountable“, they are rarely referring to rewarding staff for a job well done. More likely, they are indicating whose throat they will want to choke when something goes awry.

For those who are held accountable, rarely do they perceive the upside of accountability if things were to go well. And, going back to the first word I highlighted in the definition, rarely is it full willingness to accept only accountability. More often than not, it is an offer that you can’t refuse.

Continuing our grammatical journey we find that the top synonyms for accountability in a Google search are responsibility, liability, answerability, reporting, and obedience. Again, the majority of the connotations of the word are negative.

Accountability which inspires fear erodes psychological safety.

But is this what we really mean when we ask someone to be accountable?

I’d argue that we want to create a sense of ownership. Search for the synonyms for that word and the majority will arouse positive feelings.

Ownership implies rights. It implies opportunities for benefit. It also implies a degree of autonomy which is not always present when we are being held accountable. And as autonomy is one of the levers for unleashing intrinsic motivation, true ownership might lead to greater engagement in the work being done.

You might complain that I’m arguing over semantics, but words matter.

Just as we shouldn’t refer to people as “resources” why not use ownership in place of accountability? After all, if we define roles such as Business Owners, Solution Owners and Product Owners, is it not reasonable to have Activity or Deliverable Owners?

Ownership and control is important, because if you don’t own what you do, all sorts of stupid stuff happens to it, and people spend good money on garbage.” – Kevin Shields

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