Types of accountability

For many people, accountability is just another one of those vague moral concepts which you ‘sort of’ know how it works and never give it a second thought.

In actual fact, accountability can be more practically defined by considering both positive and negative examples of accountability in everyday life.

  • Negative accountability, the type we’re most familiar with, involves punishment and unpleasant consequences for bad things which we have done.
  • Positive accountability, on the other hand, is completely different approach, which focuses more on remedying a situation by giving the person held accountable a chance to learn from his or her mistakes, take control of their personal growth and correct any missteps.

In Scrum, the latter kind of accountability is perceived as the most beneficial for the individual and the group as a whole, and its effects need to be studied on a personal, team and organisational level.

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Preconditions for accountability

Before getting into a discussion of these three different levels of accountability, it’s also worth pointing out some preconditions needed for a culture of accountability to take root within a Scrum team and have it instilled in every one of its members.

  1. Tasks and expected outcomes/goals need to be clarified to the people who will handle them. A popular strategy like using SMART goals is an easy way to achieve this.
  2. There must be benchmarks and methods to identify, track and measure accurately the progress of an individual or a team.
  3. A feedback mechanism needs to be in place to handle team members who for any reason skirt their responsibilities or are not able to execute them properly.
  4. Equally important, there must be a way to praise people when they demonstrate accountability for their actions, especially after correcting any mishaps which they could have avoided.
  5. A system to capture and preserve individual and group learnings from working on a project should be present.

Accountability towards one’s commitments

Undoubtedly, the importance of accountability in conducting personal and professional affairs can best be appreciated on an individual level.

We’ve all been in a situation where somebody has let down, either by omitting to do his or her job or else not performing it to the standards expected.

Individual accountability means that a person actively takes responsibility for a task they should have seen through, and makes amends in the eventuality of an unsatisfactory outcome.

In a Scrum team, this is actually easier because an individual doesn’t have to rely on willpower alone to commit himself or herself to a course of action, but has a whole team holding him accountable for it.

Very often, in group situations, individuals will tend to over-commit for one reason or other. In this case, the team should monitor their progress and provide feedback to help a person reassess at any moment their workload and optimise it.

Scrum has in-built tools that encourage people to find a balance in the commitments they make, namely the backlog which limits the maximum number of tasks available in a sprint, burn-down charts, daily meetings and retrospectives.

Accountability within a Scrum team

In effective Scrum teams, members hold each other accountable for completing the tasks they have committed to do within each sprint.

They’ll also endeavour to contribute towards building a constructive team environment, which is continuously geared towards enhancing: individual skills, cooperation within the team and their customers’ experience with the product.

This is quite a tall task for any team, however the attitudes and behaviours needed to achieve this goal can be learnt.

Positive accountability is the key:

  • When a person is faced with a knowledge gap, teach them what they have to do.
  • When a person feels overwhelmed by their work, provide them with encouragement and coaching.
  • When a person is afraid to explore innovative ideas, give them the support they need to take the leap.

Accountability within the larger organization

We took a micro-view of team accountability in the last section, focusing on what goes on in just on Scrum team.

Here we’ll pull back to reveal the macro-view where accountability impacts multiple teams, other stakeholders in the product and company, as well as the end-users.

Scrum teams should actively set parameters that hold them accountable to each other, no different than a mission statement holds a company accountable to delivering its core business value.

There are various roles inside and outside an agile organisation which wield significant power in safeguarding accountability within a Scrum team and its wider context:

  • Product manager – Holds the Scrum team accountable for delivering the tasks making up their current sprint. The choice and number of tasks is left completely up to the team to decide.
  • Functional manager – Holds the Scrum team accountable for fine-tuning the product by reducing the backlog of bugs and adding functionality as per the requirements.
  • Customers – The end-users wield ultimate power on holding the entire organisation accountable for launching a quality product that meets their expectations.

Wrapping up

Accountability is a word we’ve become used to throwing about at work or at home.

However, we must keep in mind that the aim of accountability isn’t to punish people or reminding them of their inefficacy.

On the contrary, accountability is an integral component of the spirit of mutual understanding and openness for learning new things that should exist within agile teams.

On an individual level, accountability should be seen as a method of upholding oneself to higher standards, whereas from a collective viewpoint, it is an important means to interact with others in a more honest and responsible way.

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Author Ulf Eriksson

Ulf is the founder of ReQtest and as the Product Owner, decides what features are added to the product, and makes sure that ReQtest is of a consistently high quality. Ulf has written several books and courses as well as a library of articles on the subjects of testing and requirements management, as well as speaking publicly on a number of subjects related to the world of testing.

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