Work skills for the future: accountability

I’ve been tracking the GM ignition switch mess pretty closely, and someday enough information will come to light that we can explore the larger questions about the downside of closed and insular corporate culture. However, what has come to light already is enough to lead me to write this post — the third in my series on work skills for the future — about accountability.

As companies transition toward more transparency and greater individual autonomy, what keeps things working? What stops the company moving toward anarchy?

Adam Bryant recently interviewed Ryan Carson, the CEO of Treehouse, an online educational platform developer. A few years after starting the company and it grew to around 50 people, Carson and his co-founder observed that the company had stopped operating like a start-up, they decided that a growing cadre of management might have been the cause. So, after some soul searching and hard discussions, they eliminated middle management roles.

Two points that Carson makes are salient to accountability. The first:

Adam Bryant: That was a year ago. Any surprises since?

Ryan Carson: The biggest one is that it’s hard for people to resolve conflict. We found that people weren’t willing to really upset each other, so we introduced a structure for resolving conflict. We say, you have to write down the pros and cons of your argument before you talk. And we’re going to invite a mediator to be on the call from H.R. who has no stake in either side. And the discussion should really be framed around what is best for the company.

People’s experiences in companies with tradition management is skewed by managers making decisions, and employees not building the skills needed to handle accountability, or the conflicts around disagreements.

The second point is about measuring performance in a leanership organization:

Adam Bryant: A few devil’s advocate questions. What about measuring people’s performance?

Ryan Carson: We just don’t. The reason is that when you don’t have a manager to hide behind, your work is truly exposed. We’ve fired people, and the reason is that there’s nowhere to hide, because everything’s public and it’s very clear whether you’re working and doing good stuff. We also find that if people like what they’re doing, then they do an awesome job at it and they don’t require traditional performance measurements. [emphasis mine]

This lines up with other work on accountability. For example, John Grenny worked on researching workplace safety, and they wanted to find out what factors are linked to that key metric. He and his team talked to thousands of workers and managers, and they found which groups and companies were the best at workplace safety, but they could find the factor that differentiated the best from the average. Until one safety director spelled it out:

Mike Wildfong, a general manager at TI Automotive, put it bluntly: “You’re missing the point. We lead in safety because we lead in accountability—not only as it relates to safety but as it relates to everything else we do.”

With that in mind they could start to understand that accountability — in all areas — was central to safety. The groups that were leaders in safety were leaders in all other areas as well. They had cultures of accountability,  where anyone had the right — and the obligation — to ask anyone else for a justification for what they were doing. And they found that peer-to-peer accountability was where it had to happen, and that’s where the cultural support has to grow, as Ryan Carson discovered at Treehouse. As Grenny framed it,

The problem is not that we have problems. The problem is that leaders don’t ensure employees are motivated and able to speak up about these problems. When concerns about performance, quality, and safety fester until a boss notices them, it wastes an enormous amount of time and money. On the safety front, unaddressed concerns lead to injuries. When these same issues arise in organizations like Mike Wildfong’s, they are addressed immediately and directly, usually at the peer level and long before they cause major crises. This rapid horizontal accountability drives quality, safety, productivity, costs, and efficiency.

I interviewed Will McInnes last year, about his experience as founder and managing director of NixonMcInnes, recognized as one of the world’s most democratic organizations, and at the heart of that open and democratic business is accountability:

Stowe Boyd: How does that feel on a day-to-day basis? If I’m working in your business what does that mean for me as the new hire? What’s work life like?

Will McInnes: That’s a good question. I think life in a democratic organization is probably a little bit more serious: the effect of taking responsibility for more. You can’t sit in the corner and bitch about someone else’s problem, and the fact that so-and-so isn’t doing their job. One of the flip sides of working more democratically we all have to take responsibility for what’s going on.

These observations all converge on a critical skill: accountability. And each of us has to be open about what we are up to at work, and we need to learn the skills to ask others questions to keep accountability high, which leads to exposing error, clarifying misunderstandings, and avoiding wasted time and resources.

Alas, GM seems to have built a culture based on the opposite mindset. Employees were directed to not take notes in meetings involving the legal department, for example, and secrecy and concealment of facts seems to have been the norm in many of the silos of the company. As recently related by Bill Vlasic in the NY Times, the chief switch engineer, Raymond DiGiorgio, approved a change in the switch but concealed it by by leaving the part number the same:

His actions, according to [internal investigator] Mr. Valukas’s report, prevented others at G.M. from discovering that the original, faulty switch could suddenly cut engine power and disable air bags.

Likewise, the GM settlement review committee in the legal department had a history of settling suits brought regarding the faulty switch, but doing so under the five million dollar ceiling that would require them to get approval from the company’s general counsel, Michael P. Millikin, which is why he still has his job while 15 or so others were terminated this week.

Accountability needs transparency, and in the absence of transparency, accountability sickens and quickly dies, like a fish pulled from the water.