Nothing Focuses the Mind Like Accountability

Posted on 3rd September, 2015 in Delivery

In last week’s Sunday Times, Katie Glass wrote about what is effectively mob rule on social media where some combination of crowd psychology, group think, anonymity and an absence of verification and accountability leads to personal accusations and a stifling of debate which would be largely unacceptable face-to-face (my own interpretation).   The transfer of information and power from the few (government and large corporations) to the many (individuals) has many positives, but unfortunately comes with the ability (and tendency?) of power to corrupt.  For me, the key lever is accountability.  Nothing focuses the mind like being held to account; this is a common theme across many different fields.

In February 2011 Matt Taibbi wrote a seminal article for ‘Rolling Stone’ asking ‘Why Isn’t Wall Street in Jail?’  He highlights a number of issues, all of which are still relevant in 2015, whereby people who were rich with every conceivable social advantage committed crimes of intellectual choice in the fairly safe knowledge that the worst that would generally happen in the event of being caught is that a fine would be levied, which would have near-zero impact on pay or bonuses and would be ultimately borne by shareholders.  Michael Lewis highlighted many similar issues in 2010 in ‘The Big Short’, describing several examples of people who were actually sacked during, or as a result of, the financial crisis.  But they were not asked to repay a single cent of their multimillion dollar bonuses over the preceding years for actions which directly contributed to the crash.  All the upside benefit.  No downside risk.  Zero accountability.

In 2006, an RAF Nimrod aircraft crashed in Afghanistan due to a technical failure with the tragic loss of 14 servicemen.  The organisation was one which prided itself on its commitment to safety and tactically its record and approach to safety was excellent.  When it’s your body on the line, you do tend to be quite interested in safety.  The RAF had implicitly extrapolated that tactical performance to assume that the strategic approach was equally good.  That assumption proved incorrect.  The subsequent public enquiry concluded (amongst other things) that the RAF and Ministry of Defence were guilty of the same faults as many large matrixed organisations: nobody was actually personally accountable for anything.  One outcome was the implementation of ‘Duty Holders’ whereby named individuals were made accountable for what happened in their area of responsibility on their watch.  Senior people suddenly got as interested in risk management as the owners of the bodies.

You have to be careful with this approach to avoid a ‘tick box exercise’ (covering your a…), or the blame game.  When doing something implicitly difficult or dangerous, good people with good intentions will sometime make errors of judgement.  The essence of a ‘just culture’ is one where individuals are accountable for their actions but not blamed for errors of judgement made in good faith.  It’s a highly subjective task to assess the management of ambiguity, complexity and risk post-event from the comfort of hindsight.

However it doesn’t matter too much whether we’re talking about social media, asset management or running a military, nothing focuses the mind like genuine accountability.

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