Transparency is the Key to Accountability

High performing teams thrive on accountability. Accountability is the foundation for a culture that gets stuff done: if you say you’ll do something, we all trust that it will happen. Accountability is empowering, creates great opportunities for learning, and allows the company to move faster. You can’t succeed in a competitive environment without it.

The more complex your organization, the more elusive accountability becomes. Startups foster learning because they’re high-accountability arenas: it’s immediately obvious when Bob isn’t towing the line. As a company scales, accountability easily gets lost if ownership isn’t well-defined and outcomes aren’t immediately observable. When things go well, people claim any victory that occurred in their area code as their own. When they go poorly, people skitter away to dusty corners of the org chart or just make excuses. This leads to a vicious cycle of eroding trust, heavyweight management processes, and disempowerment.

Eventually, when enough balls get dropped, leadership makes big, all-or-nothing decisions that either abandon accountability altogether or are overly harsh. The senior people in the vicinity of a big win get promoted. People find scapegoats. Nobody wins.

So how do you avoid this inevitable landmine? Get high-quality accountability from transparency.

Why Transparency Works

The first reason that transparency leads to accountability: people rise to the occasion when they know they have an audience, and transparency gives your team a front row seat to the action. Put another way, people (generally) don’t want to publicly screw up. The light peer pressure of transparency immediately delivers results.

On healthy teams, people want to see their teammates succeed and will lend a hand if they see something falling off-track. But most people don’t want to go to their teammates with some form of “hey, it looks like you’re screwing up.” Transparency lowers the friction involved in asking or offering help.

Transparency also gives you observability well before the train flies off the tracks. Imagine the conversations below:

  • “Hey Bob, at the last 2 standups you said you were planning to get to Project X next. Still on-track for launch on the first of the month? Let me know if there are blockers I can help with, or if we should discuss whether it even still makes sense as a priority.”
  • “Hey Bob, why did X not get done? We had planned for it to be done by the first of the month. What happened?”

Both of these conversations will get you to accountability, but the former conversation is infinitely easier. It’s early, and there is time to get help or adjust plans. There’s also still room for nuance – does it still make sense to spend our time here at all? By contrast, the latter conversation is an adversarial nightmare and almost guaranteed to elicit a defensive reaction. Transparency allows you to aim small, and therefore miss small.

Finally, if a project truly does fail, transparency helps you address it correctly and fairly.

There’s usually a pretty reasonable explanation when things go wrong. Were our goals unrealistic? Did other priorities get in the way? Did some exogenous factor throw a wrench into our plans? Or, are we in the (relatively uncommon) situation where someone was simply lazy or incompetent? As a manager, you owe it to your team to have a nuanced response to what is almost certainly a nuanced situation.

Transparency gives you a clear trail to understand and take action – which is the bedrock upon which true accountability rests. Trying to get accountability without transparency is like doing brain surgery with a sledgehammer rather than a scalpel.

How to Achieve Transparency

You can achieve transparency through a variety of methods, all centered around tracking true indicators of productivity or progress towards goals.

Tools for transparency should be neutral, objective, and predictable – think of metrics dashboards or a weekly team check-in, rather than a manager nosing in and asking for a status report on a whim. The best forms of transparency are impersonal as they’re rooted in facts and data, not opinions and explanations. They should be at least semi-public: shared between a manager and report, with a team, or with the entire company. And most importantly, transparency efforts must be lightweight: the benefit of more transparency is increased accountability and observability without a decrease in velocity.

Some of my favorite lightweight ways to get more transparency are below:

  • Make business metrics that you care about public to the company, and automatically publish them to an email list / public chat channel at a regular cadence. For example, create a public Slack channel in which you post metrics such as renewal rate, number of news signups, or number of support tickets per active user once a month.
  • Use standups (of any form – live or virtual) to keep projects on track. The key is to follow up on hurdles that have blocked progress for some time as soon as things are off track – standup should be an active listening exercise.
  • It’s easy for the “last 10%” of projects to take as much time to complete as the first 90%. As you’re approaching the end of a project, teams should track their current best guess for when a project will go live.
  • On a quarterly basis, send everyone in the organization an anonymous poll rating their current job satisfaction on a few key dimensions, and have the CEO / other executives follow up with the heads of large functional groups that report to them.
  • For any complex and sensitive business-critical process (e.g. deploying risky code or launching new products to customers), set up a checkin meeting to talk about all upcoming launches. The existence of the public checkin is a strong forcing function for people to run a tight ship.
  • If you use an Agile system with sprints, track metrics such as points completed per sprint, average time that stories have been in-progress, or percentage of sprints in which all work is completed.