Does Team Accountability Really Work?


In this day and age of ever flattening organizational structures and the expectation of results to keep up with customer demands, organizations are challenged to rethink how they do business.

When it comes to organizational structure an answer gaining in popularity, especially in the tech sector, is moving to a team based accountability model to drive functional activities or key initiative responsibilities while removing a layer of management and control in the process.

The potential upsides are significant; streamlined hierarchy of command, problem solving driven to the front line level (or at least closer) and higher engagement in the work by those on the team. All the benefits of which are too significant for a leadership team to ignore. And yet too often, organizations are ill prepared to make it work.

The first question a leadership team needs to ask before it hits the ‘go’ button is whether an organization is ready to make the transition. The reality is most companies do not realize the different modus operandi necessary, and do not invest the time and effort to prepare the team and leadership to be effective at this level.

A team that can be held accountable with the same level of effectiveness of a high performing individual leader requires a level of capability among the team not common among organizations.

Leveraging a couple of key points from Joseph Grenny’s Harvard Business Review article, The Best Teams Hold Themselves Accountable, and adding a few of my own, the following characterizes highly capable teams as ones who exhibit the following traits:

1. High respect for each others time – As simple as it sounds, a team that starts and ends meetings on time with a tight, well thought out agenda is one that demonstrates integrity and regard for each others busy schedules.

2. Checks egos at the door – Whether overbearing or too fragile to withstand direct feedback, egos that distract from the team performing are set aside, allowing for the needs of the team ahead of the individual agendas. Additionally, the ability to have thick enough skin to withstand the scrutiny of peers is critical.

3. Plays well together – Whether by articulated values, covenants or guiding principles, the team has defined the specific behaviors that build the culture of the unit and looks for each member to express them in a coordinated way.

4. Takes time to get to know each other personally – Capable teams are more than just intellectual engagements, but those that know each other as whole human beings. The personality profile is important, but a real relationship among members is paramount. Performance is unparalleled when a team accesses a higher trust and authenticity amongst each other and only happens when the team commits to spending time together and truly gets to know each other as individuals and a group.

5. Engages in real collaboration – More often than not, teams that say they are collaborating are in reality just demonstrating agreement, which means they don’t necessarily have to give up ground. Real collaboration requires sacrifice and exists when team members are willing to give up self-interests for the benefit of the team’s outcome. When that exists, then they know they truly have collaboration.

Whether you are contemplating moving your organization to a team driven accountability culture, or have already made the change and are experiencing problems, evaluating how a proper foundation can be established or reset is critical. Deep consideration to how the team will be chartered, incentivized and supported over the long haul must be given if real results are to be had.

The following are the five key elements I believe are the most crucial to have in place before a team is elevated to replace a leadership position:

1. Incentives – An understanding of why the team accountability structure benefits each member, along with an equal understanding of how the team process is more than just agreement, which often yields a result that is not necessarily the best choice for the business. An effective incentive moves team members beyond the comfort of agreement and into a realm of intellectual honesty and rigor in thinking and debate.

2. Metrics – If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know where you are going. Too often project initiatives are started with the intent to figure out the metrics later, and throwing on top of the mess the expectation that a team figures them out only complicates matters, dramatically! A lack of metrics is an indication of an incomplete business process and it is the responsibility of the leadership team to drive determination and clarity on what they are before they are handed off to a team to be held accountable for.

3. Trust – As mentioned in the above list of traits, what binds the team together at the end of the day is trust. Even in the best of times, things rarely go as planned and when the systems fail, the metrics point you in the wrong direction or the incentive incents the wrong thing, it is mutual trust amongst the team that will be the difference maker; the X-factor that will be the difference between the team that does everything right and fails, and the team that does the right things, and wins. My rule of thumb is that teams need to have spent at least 16 hours of time working on working together (values development, vision/mission, culture, covenants) before they can be fully effective doing work together. Start investing now in banking that team development time such that when you are ready to pull the ripcord, they are ready and willing.

4. The right people – As has been well documented and proven many times over by Jim Collins in his seminal business book, Good to Great, a team has to have players, not posers. Too often leadership in organizations have failed to stack the bench with players, only to pivot and put the ill-prepared on the spot only to watch them fail. A deep talent assessment is critical to evaluating whether launching a team accountability process is the right move at this time. If you are finding gaps in the team, make talent recruitment and development your priority first before you set anyone up to fail.

5. History of Success – Is there a track record of success in your organization with teams? Success begets success whereas failure begets failure. Take a hard look in the proverbial mirror and determine which trend it is, and if failure, then go slow and be deliberate. Organizations are like elephants and if there has been a history of unsuccessful POTM’s (program-of-the-month) then first focus on small easy wins rather than swinging for the fences.

Can a team accountability model work? The simple answer is yes.

Will it work for your organization? That answer depends entirely on you and your team’s leadership however, as is the case with most efforts success is in the preparation.

Careful deliberation in the near term will guarantee success in the long term.