Nothing beats working on a side project. Without stakeholders to navigate, legacy behaviors to maintain, or a slate of (varyingly outdated) technologies to build on, the only impediment to iteration is you. You may still find bugs now and then, sure, but feedback loops are tight and decisions are yours alone.
Every technical leader dreams of empowering their developers with a side-project-like experience of coming to work. It’s no secret that slow cycle times, ill-conceived goals, ambiguous decisions, TPS reports, and lengthy approval processes sap passion and morale. Eliminating them–or at least tucking them away behind the background–is the general path to the promised land.
Even if we never fully deliver on the “side-project experience” (and with a complex organization and codebase, we won’t), intentional investments in alignment, encapsulation, confidence, autonomy, and ownership, all correlate with improvements in quality and engagement.
Less obviously “good” is accountability. Accountability is often seen as a negative thing–mostly for a negative association with command-and-control leadership styles and summary justice–but it’s both a critical and surprisingly freeing element of the side-project experience.
- The freedom to make decisions? That starts with accountability for their outcomes.
- The freedom to build when you will, as you will, what you will? It’s on you to deliver.
Everything’s more complicated with other people in the mix, of course, but accountability is a tool for both taming that complexity and unlocking a next level of empowerment and impact beyond.
A constructive approach to accountability has material benefits for employees and organizations alike. Which is obvious, when you consider the alternative–an environment where it’s impossible to rely on teams to deliver. Ambitions grind to dust under excessive approvals and endless debates. Planning is impossible. Results underwhelm.
In an accountable organization, you aren’t waiting for others to make decisions that rest with you. You’re trusting others to make the decisions that rest with them. You have confidence that goals you’re counting on will be hit–or that risks will be communicated promptly–and you keep the faith by delivering your own.
For that to be true:
- Accountability should always rest with a single individual
- Individuals must be clear on what they’re accountable to deliver
- Individuals need adequate training, resources, and empowerment to deliver
It’s a nice picture, but how do we get there?
Culture doesn’t change overnight. Building an organization where accountability thrives requires intention, investment and persistence. But a few concrete steps can help instill and maintain a culture of accountability in any organization.
There are two key ingredients in building an accountability culture: goals and people. Or,
- What do we need to achieve?
- And who’s on the hook to make it happen?
Odds are good you have both, so we’re off to a good start. The wrinkle is double-checking that the goals are clearly specified (the SMART criteria are tried and true tests) and that one and exactly one person is accountable to each of them.
The first step is eliminating the question of who owns what. One tool for this is the RACI (with a short “A,” as in “apple”) framework:
- Responsible - the people working towards the goal
- Accountable - the person (one!) ensuring the goal is delivered
- Consulted - the people with information, perspectives, or feedback needed to deliver the goal
- Informed - anyone who should be updated as the goal is delivered
Your team likely already follows the RACI framework informally. But making RACI assignments an explicit habit accelerates decisions and increases clarity–around who’s setting architectural standards, approving production changes, or driving technology adoption. Assigning RACI roles can even unstick a meeting hung up on a decision point. Make it clear who’s accountable and when the decision needs to be made by, then move on to the rest of the agenda.
Whether you adopt RACI or your own internal language, it’s important that roles and assignments are clearly documented and available to anyone who asks. Any public system for tracking goals and ownership can check the box—even a shared spreadsheet! But accountability depends on knowing who owns what, and what each team member is working towards.
Once ownership is clear, the next step is clarifying expectations for each accountable party. Working with team members to set clear goals is the easy first step; maintaining high standards and a habit of goal achievement is an endless process that will play out over time.
If you aren’t already using a framework for setting and pressure-testing goals, the SMART criteria are a good place to start. As you’re setting a goal, ask:
- is it Specific? What you want to achieve should be clear to anyone who reads the goal.
- is it Measurable? Quantitative measures make it obvious whether the goal was achieved, and to track progress along the way.
- is it Achievable? Ambitious goals are motivating; less so once they tip into the realm of delusion
- is it Relevant? It should go without saying that goals should support the team’s mission. If they don’t—that’s worth a conversation.
- is it Timebound? Deadlines clarify thinking and minimize the time available for scope creep or distractions.
The context around the goal matters significantly, too. A goal that’s well-defined but directly conflicting with other work can increase cognitive overhead in a daily negotiation between competing priorities. Similarly, a single team member accountable to a single goal will deliver more often than one with multiple targets–but may do so to the detriment of work that’s necessary but outside the goal’s scope. And various team members’ bandwidth and “task-relevant maturity” will inform the scope of the goals they can credibly own.
Finally, remember that goals reflect outcomes, and not lists of tasks. Accountability to a task list is stressful, disempowering, demoralizing, and a missed opportunity. Which totally defeats the purpose. Accountability to a goal gives its owner the flexibility to determine solutions—and the expectation that they’ll deliver results.
It’s impossible to maintain accountability without knowing the who, what, and when behind objectives or goals, but radical transparency can have even bigger benefits for accountability over time. Consider:
- The organization’s roadmap and objectives inform how I’m planning to organize my own
- My teammates’ own priorities inform their availability—and where they might need support from me
- Access to stakeholders’ calendars gives me context on their availability, too
- The ability to find and connect with domain experts elsewhere in the organization saves me from reinventing previously-solved problems
A broad understanding of priorities and challenges across the organization will always improve decision-making, but the value in building an accountable culture runs even deeper. Transparency enables norms around when it is acceptable to make independent decisions versus when consultation is advised. It reduces the shock of a “project status” slide flashed at all-hands. And it inspires a candid, public working style that benefits and inspires others.
Is it possible to have too much information? Sure. But having it available when needed will always be better than hiding any of it away (and if you’re concerned about inundation, spend the time fretting about better search and indexing tools instead).
Nothing undercuts accountability like delusional expectations: if the timeline’s too short or the support isn’t there, why should anyone be on the hook for it? Unfortunately a goal’s “achievability”—and therefore whether its owner can be credibly held accountable—only becomes certain in hindsight.
This means two things. From the get-go, goal owners should have the skills, tools, budget, and assets needed to hit their objectives. As work proceeds and new information becomes available, however, plans and resources should adjust in kind.
While the goal owner can initiate conversations around resource or timeline changes, they may not have the authority to make unilateral changes. When changes impact multiple initiatives, or teams, accountability for balancing load or adjusting expectations falls to managers or leadership. Your response makes the difference between reinforcing accountability and draconian lip-service.
If timelines can’t be adjusted, adjust the goal to reflect the update reality
If resources aren’t available (or adding them doesn’t make sense), get creative with timelines
If an approval is needed, give it—and think about whether you can shift to a RACI “Inform” to avoid future approval gates
If you don’t have answers, share what context you can and take accountability yourself
While creativity, pragmatism, and a default to “yes” underscore the importance of ownership, “…or you’re fired” leads exactly where you expect.
Any ambitious undertaking comes with a chance that things will go wrong. This is a calculated risk: if we couldn’t accept it, we should never have started in the first place. When they do go wrong, however, the moment is one for learning and support—never judgment or blame. Just like a production incident, a post-mortem for a missed goal is an opportunity to learn from experience, improve processes, and set the stage for a better future. Set the example in treating it as such.
This doesn’t let anyone off the hook for poor effort or unforced errors, but even those invite 1:1 teaching moments. Were mistakes due to a lack of oversight or support? That’s as much on you as the employee, and sharing your own empathy and accountability goes a long way in building trust and helping them correct.
While they never feel good in the moment, changing plans and acute failures are key opportunities to model and reinforce what a highly accountable culture looks like. It’s not worth going out of your way to make them happen, but when they (naturally) arise, your response makes all the difference in the world.
Here’s a little secret: accountability is always individual. Teams can’t be accountable any more than consensus produces quick decisions. If a team “shares” a goal, accountability lies with the manager—a familiar arrangement, but (as we’ll get to in a moment) not the only way to do it.
On the other hand, teams provide services that aren’t always captured in explicit goals. Consider an SRE team, for instance. While individual team members may be accountable for improving exception-handling or the percentage of requests served from cache, the team’s charter may include some additional hints at accountability:
Their mission helping developers prepare, monitor, and tune their services in production highlights the constituency they’re accountable to and suggests certain measures
KPIs around latency, uptime, change failures, and mean time to resolution make it explicit
Values centered on the service they provide imply other, untracked dimensions to the team’s work
A developer seeking someone to talk to about production logging practices can get a pretty good sense from the SRE charter that they may be able to help. While accountability still rests with the manager, the transparency and clarity of purpose that come in an accountable culture help everyone function better together.
Teams aren’t the only way to organize. Most organizations are aware of (and some actively track) the “shadow org chart“ connected by relationships and shared projects. In an accountable organization, this construct may carry considerably more weight than the HR reporting structure itself. During our work with many goal-centric companies at Koan, we observed day-to-day working arrangements that sometimes made the org chart feel forced and artificial—with a high degree of accountability, the natural flow gravitates towards the people and stakeholders to a point that can make teams feel almost artificial.
For instance, a product manager accountable for an enterprise product launch will closely with commercial stakeholders who definitely aren’t on her team:
Product marketing (accountable for pricing, positioning, the launch event, and press briefings)
Sales / training (accountable for incorporating the product into demos and proposals)
Customer success (accountable for preparing help-center documentation and introducing existing customers)
Reviewers in Legal, Security, and Finance
In a highly-accountable organization, however, she has both a mandate and access to seek out the support she needs—whether it exists in her team or not.
At a more tactical level, high accountability within a team both empowers individual team members and removes the manager as a de-facto bottleneck. Koan’s own development efforts embraced this model, tying mid-term (multi-month) projects to rotating project leads, such that a team might take on several concurrent workstreams each led by a single team member. By shortening the distance between decisions and the people actually doing the work, this approach reduced planning time and paperwork, while also moving individual developers much closer to the dream of a side-project-like working experience.
One great thing about an accountable culture, though, is that nobody needs to dictate how work gets organized. Build clarity and offer support as they’re needed, sure, but let the owners drive.
“Good fences make good neighbors,” wrote Robert Frost. Within the fence, the promised land of an autonomous, empowered working environment is ours for the tilling. The potential rewards are tremendous. Engagement, creativity, and job satisfaction–not to mention impact–go up when individuals feel truly empowered in their work. But in a crowded neighborhood, mutual accountability is the ingredient that makes it all possible.
It takes time for accountability roles like RACI or goal-setting methodologies like SMART to become institutional habits. Radical levels of transparency, trust, and communication require a working model that can be both unfamiliar and uncomfortable from leadership down. Gradually, though, consistent examples and increasing buy-in will shape practices and mindsets. Engineers will become more comfortable defining ambitious outcomes, confident they have room to navigate ambiguity and determine solutions. And leadership can release responsibility, trusting things won’t stall without their hands on the wheel.
Even if the “side-project experience” will always remain a pipe dream–professional development is complex in a way that “hello, world” should never be–closing the gap is a goal worth shooting for.
And speaking of goals: you willing to lead this one?