As product owner and a leader of a delivery team adopting the Scrum method of building and shipping product, I can sometimes struggle with holding myself, and my team accountable. The pressures and novelty (perhaps not so now) of working entirely remotely makes this more acute.
Few people are kept accountable for their behaviours in their working (and personal) relationships. Few people even keep themselves accountable. Me included. So how do you do it? What are the foundations that are needed to be in place to strengthen this muscle of successful, high performing teams?
Building a strong culture and environment for accountability to flourish is where the rubber hits the road. Remote and distributed teamwork is making it more acute than ever to embed layers of accountability into our environments and culture.
1. Own the struggle
The notion of being a little more ‘unseen’ or ‘invisible’ (see my earlier post) has definitely eroded my sense of accountability since working remotely. By receding into the shadows, it’s a little easier to retreat and hide away in the trenches. This dilution of accountability can happen incrementally, and creeps up. It may be an innate introvertedness or avoidance when facing up to missing goals. In this shift to working remotely, I’ve been practicing the need to make myself more vulnerable, more visible and more transparent about our work.
More than ever, share what works and share what doesn’t. Transparency combined with visibility are what leads to freedom!
2. Refresh the importance of accountability
The term is pervasive, yet often misunderstood and loaded with different meaning based on professional or personal experiences. It is reflective of how we behave individually and collectively, and is a critical to building trust. When done well, it can truly liberate people and teams. When done not so well, it can cage us and hold us back from doing our best work.
Accountability done well
Often, accountability has less to do with the actual result than it has to do with sharing, explaining and unpacking the actions taken or not taken, practices adopted or not adopted, decisions made or not made. The principles of transparency, working hard, collaborating, sharing information and striving for what’s possible are present. It requires courage and vulnerability to collaborate, to ask for help when needed and to be honest about where you’re at in order to change and grow.
Accountability done not so well
The anti-patterns of false promises and fake results at any price no matter the cost or damage prevail and an environment lacking accountability. Threats and laying blame when the predicted result is not achieved run rampant. There is usually an ugly expression of command and control management, withholding of information and opaque decision making driven ultimately through fear. Individualistic hero behaviour manifests from working solo, in isolation and often resulting in burn-out; chances of collective success are slim. Environments lacking accountability goes against the very grain of being part of a team. Removing and avoiding accountability can have disastrous effects: no vision, focus, direction, limiting choice and indecision.
3. Get clear on roles
Accountability in Scrum
It’s helpful to refresh a shared understanding of accountabilities within Scrum (that’s the agile methodology we apply at Umano). Scrum principles encompass cross-functional collaboration, learning from collective intelligence, bottom-up knowledge creation and the design and delivery of shared goals. When we’re clear on roles and responsibilities, it’s easier to get in synch.
Each role in Scrum embraces clear accountability:
- The Product Owner is accountable for maximising the value of the work;
- The Development team is accountable for creating releasable increments;
- The Scrum Master is accountable for the application and understanding of Scrum.
With accountabilities defined at the role level, Scrum naturally embeds a system of internal checks and balances. For example, while the Product Owner is accountable to maximize the value of the Development Team’s work by defining the content and the ordering of the Product Backlog, the Product Owner neither dictates the Sprint Goal, nor which Product Backlog items to pick. Ultimately, the Product Owner is accountable for the “why,” while the Development Team is accountable for the “how.”
Individual and Collective Accountabilities
The Scrum Guide uses responsibility and accountability synonymously. Nevertheless, the uniform application of the idea of accountability across all three Scrum roles provides the basis for Scrum’s system of checks and balances:
- “The Product Owner is responsible for maximizing the value of the product resulting from work of the Development Team.”
- “The Product Owner may do the above work, or have the Development Team do it. However, the Product Owner remains accountable.”
- “The Product Owner is responsible for the Product Backlog, including its content, availability, and ordering.”
- “The Scrum Master participates as a peer team member in the meeting from the accountability over the Scrum process.”
- “The Scrum Master is responsible for promoting and supporting Scrum as defined in the Scrum Guide.”
- “Individual Development Team members may have specialized skills and areas of focus, but accountability belongs to the Development Team as a whole.”
- “The Development Team is responsible for all estimates.”
- “[Development Teams] are self-organizing. No one (not even the Scrum Master) tells the Development Team how to turn Product Backlog into Increments of potentially releasable functionality.”
- The Scrum Team is also accountable to improve its way of working; there is supposed to be at least one improvement item to become part of every sprint backlog.
Source: Scrum Guide 2017
4. Build the right behaviours
Accountability requires the right behaviours from the outset. As you know, being clear on the behaviours that are acceptable and unacceptable in your environment that will set and define your accountability culture.
The word has a very specific meaning, which is why it’s so powerful.
If we accept behavior that’s unacceptable, we’re compromising on something that we thought was too important to compromise on.
And that’s how we end up with the unacceptable becoming commonplace.
- Seth Godin
A culture of pull, not push.
At Umano, one of our core principles is that “Accountability needs to be pulled by teams and individuals. It cannot be pushed or imposed by an external authority”. Building a culture that supports Scrum Values provides psychological safety for those teams that embrace self-accountability as part of being self-organising. This also logically drives autonomy, and mastery, along with the benefit of deepening an individual’s connection to their place of work and tribe. There is no tolerance for blaming, finger-pointing or butt covering in genuine Scrum values.
Building a culture of accountability takes discipline and practice. Like everything requiring your attention and focus, it’s an experiential learning process.
Write down your goals, remove the distractions/blockers/barriers, track routines and practices, check-in and review periodically, weekly, fortnightly or whatever agile rhythm you’re ‘dancing’ to. Willpower doesn’t work.
- How are you changing your learning environment?
- What are you outsourcing to your environment?
- How are you automating the measurement cycle?
- What’s your feedback loop for reflection and improvement?
When done right, Team leaders get to win the respect of their team members through setting clear expectations and having the integrity to hold people to their word.
To help identify when accountability has truly been embedded into your environment and culture, the Farnam Street blog offers so helpful signals:
- “Amateurs make decisions in committees, so there is no one person responsible if things go wrong. Professionals make decisions as individuals and accept responsibility.”
- “Amateurs blame others. Professionals accept responsibility.”
5. Set your Direction
Once roles are set and clear accountabilities have been defined, it’s critical to get in synch around your direction. This is the basis of defining activities that you push through the funnel of your team machine, and is the content to be created within the framework of your defined roles. It doesn’t matter whether you set goals, use the OKR framework or have your own terminology on where you need to get to. A clear statement of intent on what needs to be achieved, collectively and individually is what’s required. Once everyone is on the same page, lock in the timeframes. These are the markers that set expectations on when activities are aimed to be completed. It could be annual, quarterly, monthly. If you’ve adopted Scrum, your iterations help set some parameters. With a clear direction set and desired timeframes mapped out, you can get on doing the doing. The next stage will be to track progress in a frequency that makes most sense to you. This is critical as it creates the space to reflect, recorrect or unblock what’s holding you back.
6. Automate reporting
“When performance is measured, performance improves. When performance is measured and reported, the rate of improvement accelerates.”
Quantification of how you deliver to your customers is a critical input to individual and collective success. Having the data and facts at hand when explaining and justifying your progress to stakeholders is far more powerful than not. When this process is automated, you get to stop wasting time by manually pulling together the required reports to communicate whether you’re on track or not. It’s also a hell of a lot easier to get on the front foot and align your stakeholders.
Invest in tools that automate the collection and curation of data from your delivery tools. Even better if these tools have the smarts to present insights from relevant metrics that track your progress for you. It’s much easier to have the facts at hand (i.e. in real-time) when explaining and taking responsibility for progress, decisions made and actions taken. If this supporting process is automated, it takes a laid off so you can focus on your core work. This is after all the reason behind founding Umano in the first place ; )
Reclaim your freedom!
Creating an environment and culture that nurtures accountability at a team and individual level is a crucial factor in building high performing Scrum teams (or any team for that matter). Empower your team to embrace the notion of practicing self-directed accountability. Maintain a consistent and disciplined approach when applying the practices and rituals (agile ceremonies) that set you up for success. Automate the collection of data and insights that re-enforces a continuous feedback loop to hold the team accountable for their own continued improvement, and the delivery of value to their stakeholders.
Visibility unlocks insights from data to be shared across stakeholders. Transparency communicates insights for the purpose of accountability, showcasing a team acting on desired outcomes. At Umano, we try to practice both to help unlock us from the inefficiencies that hold us back and maximise our success that sets us free!
Shoutout to Andrea Tummons for the hero image used.
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