Accountable, responsible. Poteighto, potaato. Interchangeable, right? Wrong. There is a huge difference.

Often people do use the terms “accountability” and “responsibility” interchangeably, and frequently it does not create issues.

However, when you are trying to transform your organization, or revitalize your company, the difference becomes very important.

So, what is the difference?

Delegation Makes All the Difference

delegateIn one word: delegation. You cannot delegate accountability. You can delegate responsibility. Let me explain.

“Accountability” means you are on the hook. You are accountable for outcomes, for some specific result.

For example, let’s say you are a business owner trying to revitalize your business after the pandemic. Or, you are a business sponsor in charge of a transformation project. And let’s say you need to do training for this change to be successful.

So then, who is accountable for the success of this training? You are! You are accountable for the success of this revitalization or transformation, and if training is necessary for its success, then you are accountable for the training outcomes too. Basically, you are on the hook.

Now, let’s assume that this training didn’t go well. You may want to dodge accountability by blaming others: the trainer for not being good enough, your staff for not being interested, others for, well, whatever. Still, in the end, everyone is going to look at you and pin the failure on you. They may not say it outright, but from that point forward they will treat you differently.

You will lose some respect. People will not support your initiatives as readily as they have in the past. Depending on how bad it was, you may lose some key people.

Of course, that’s the worst case scenario, and the opposite holds true. If you succeed, your star will shine brighter. You will feel more respected by people, it will be easier to get things accomplished, and so on.

Responsibility For Doing Work

So how is “responsibility” different”? As mentioned earlier, you CAN delegate responsibility. You are responsible for completing work, for doing something specific.

responsible for work

Let’s look at that training example. You are accountable for its success. But you are likely not responsible for doing work associated with it. You will delegate aspects of that to someone on your team.

Someone will be responsible for developing the training materials, for scheduling the training, and for delivering it. The same person may be responsible for all of them, or it could be multiple people depending on the size of your organization, the scope of the project, or whether a third party vendor is involved.

Now here is where things may get a little confusing. Whoever you have made “responsible” they now become “accountable” to you. You are still accountable overall, but they are now on the hook, to you, for completing a piece of work.

We all know that accountability is important, but why make such a big deal about it? Well, here is the reason. On large, strategic and enterprise-wide projects, as a sponsor, you do not have direct control over many aspects of the organization.

You may be the CFO implementing changes to your finance processes. These processes however, impact everyone in the organization: people outside your department have to order items, will file expense claims, and so on.

You may need help from your Operations VP to make sure people follow your new processes properly. You will need support from your Supply Chain VP to make sure items ordered flow through as expected. Plus, your CIO may need to support you with new technology or upgrades. Et cetera!

Why That Matters

None of these executives report to you. Their staff don’t report to you either, and don’t have to do what you tell them to do. This is where “Accountability” becomes your friend. Document the required activities (i.e., in a project plan), and then clarify who is accountable for the successful outcome.

Who will be accountable that people in Operations follow the new financial processes? Not you! That should be your VP of Operations. Who will be accountable that product flows properly through the system? The VP of Supply Chain. I don’t think I need to go further – I am sure you get the picture.

You can relax quite a bit once you have clarified accountabilities in this way and have gotten buy-in from your fellow executives. They will delegate responsibilities to people in their team to make sure things get done.

All you have to do after this is get your project manager to track these and report on these activities. If somebody is not getting something done, the person accountable needs to answer for it. In my experience, a leader finding out during an executive meeting that their team is not getting work done generates movement within the day.

So there you have it. Go ahead and use these concepts at your work and see if you can at least be clear in your own mind who is accountable for what on the project you are leading. Once you do that, you are ready to have discussions with your colleagues.

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