“Are you responsible for this?”

What does it mean to be accountable? Is that different from being responsible? And where does authority come into the mix? I googled “accountability vs responsibility” and sat down to read through the search results.

To be honest the results were mostly a bit bland; people arguing from common usage in business rather than from any precision or research. I did find one very interesting article, though:

Stop confusing accountability, responsibility and authority

In this article three related concepts are unpacked: accountability, responsibility and authority. In case you haven’t got time to read the source article here is brief definition of the three terms:

Accountability

If you are accountable for something you must be ready and able to give an account of it. That means being able to explain, to describe and to recount in the event of something happening (let’s face it, usually something bad). You aren’t liable for blame but you must be able to report and recount. One nuance from the source article is the importance of individual not group accountability. This plays to the idea that, otherwise, we could have a tendency to assume the other accountability holders will do the job (a bit like the bystander effect).

Responsibility

If you are responsible for something then you have the duty to respond or take action in different circumstances. You don’t have to account for what happens but you have to be ready to take action. If it goes wrong you might be liable for blame and you might well suddenly become accountable. Responsibility can be shared or held solely.

Authority

You have the power to do something and the freedom to exercise it. This usually means making decisions.

We have a tendency, in business, to blur these ideas together into one vague notion of being “in charge” or being “on the hook” if things go wrong. Even in the aspirational world of agile software development there was the one throat to choke of the product owner. This conflation can create an uncomfortable tension because there will be situations where the perception of being in charge is at odds with the reality of the limits of authority and responsibility available to someone.

Instead of muddying these concepts together we could break them out explicitly and use them as the scaffolding for describing organisational roles. Start with the role title and purpose, then list out the specific accountabilities, responsibilities (duties) and authorities (freedoms) the role entails.

Doing this could flush out inconsistencies or invalid assumptions about what a role can and should do.

It’s worth noting that authorities can come into conflict with one another – my right to stop a release from going live could interfere with your right to make product launches. Having a supporting system of conflict resolution is vital – in fact that would be a good responsibility and authority for a senior leader role: resolves conflicts between competing authority-holders.

I’ll try to bring this to life with some examples:

Accountabilities

  • Present major delays or blockers to the steering committee every week;
  • Highlight architectural risks to the board every quarter;
  • Report aggregate code quality and complexity to an IT leadership group;
  • Present testing results to the product owner;
  • Describe code changes in peer review before merging in code.

Responsibilities

  • Ensure code you write has the right automated unit tests in place;
  • Ensure projects are properly prioritised in the portfolio;
  • Ensure a user story (increment) has passed all its acceptance criteria before releasing to production.

Authorities

  • Can write and commit code changes to the main repository;
  • Can prioritise projects in the portfolio backlog without involving anyone else in the decision;
  • Can stop a release from going ahead if there are major defects discovered.

There is a definite relationship between responsibilities and authorities; if I have the duty to do something but not the freedom or right to carry it out then I’m in a pretty miserable position. I’m a de facto scapegoat. Consequently, when describing your role in terms of accountabilities, responsibilities and authorities pay special attention to the relationship between responsibilities and the matching authority; if you are seen as responsible for something but you can’t find a matching authority to do anything about it… then you are putting yourself in a very sticky situation!

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