Thinking about accountability

Hugo Froes
5 min readMay 26, 2023

There is a lot of talk about governance and so many people are doing incredible work in that space.

Governance models are being created across the board and all seems solid until being implemented. In some cases, the models hold strong and the organisations become stronger. However, I would gamble that in most cases, those governance models never seem to live up to their expectation and often land up being a mess.

In recent weeks, I’ve been discussing this topic and in my experience, a really strong factor is connected to how we setup accountability in the governance model.

As a baseline, governance models will assign ownership to people/teams depending on their scope, the organisational structure and their function.

Although complicated, it’s pretty clear that is a must have and most people focus on that ownership definition.

Where teams often fall short is defining the different levels of accountability. Just because I don’t own something doesn’t mean I’m not accountable for its success.

Some organisations may develop a RACI matrix or something similar, but accountability needs to go beyond just putting together a table or document stating the level of ownership of each person/team.

Making accountability stick

Disclaimer: This whole part is based on a mix of my experience, some assumptions and some ideals. I suggest you read it as such.

In my opinion, the way to make accountability clear, functional and sticky, is connected to how we empower the team.

There are 3 main ways I’ve seen teams react when they have been empowered by their leadership to “own” the success of their space/area:

  1. They take full ownership of that space/area and really focus on it’s success and make tons of decisions towards achieving excellence. But they focus more on the success of their space/area than its place in the larger organisation and the success of that organisation as a whole.
  2. They take full ownership of their space/area, but understand how its success is just as important as that of the organisation and how they contribute to that success.
  3. They really don’t know how to accept that empowerment and feel insecure. They ultimately play a guessing game and aren’t sure where to go or how to get there.

We’re going to focus on the first two, because they illustrate the importance of accountability. The third option is a symptom of other problems that we can explore in a later edition on empowerment.

Now, as you can see in option 1, we’ve given a person/team/domain the ownership of their own domain and they can easily see how they have accountability over its success.

In option 2, however, the person/team/domain has understood that although they “own” and are accountable for the success of their space, they also understand their responsibility for the overall success of the organisation.

Accountability here has been clearly defined and understood.

The same principle can be applied to everything in the organisation. Organisational changes, Ways of Working, Collaboration, People Development etc.

At the end of the day, there are 3 important points to keep in mind:

  1. Just because you’ve defined ownership, that doesn’t mean accountability is clear
  2. Accountability is shared more than owned
  3. Accountability helps improve investment and engagement

Let’s go into a more concrete example when talking about Operations.

Accountability in operational success

Of course, the origin of my thoughts on this topic originated in the Product Operations space, as there is where I see one of the biggest issues with unclear accountability.

Let’s explore an example to illustrate my point.

The leadership group has just asked the Product Operations Manager to dig into the problems around experimentation and come up with a better approach.

The Ops professional starts with discovery and reaches out to the leadership group asking for their initial thoughts. The leadership group suggests speaking to person X and Y on their team.

Full of enthusiasm, the Ops person talks to all the suggested people, extract initial learnings and after adding their own experience or what they’ve also observed, they come up with some kind of output.

Maybe they put together a Miro board, a memo or a deck with context, challenges and insights. Maybe some initial suggestions on how to approach the problem.

They present their findings to the leadership group and (in an ideal situation) they get some inputs and constructive criticism. (The alternative is a whole other situation).

Now it’s time to role out the changes that everyone feels will build a stronger organisation.

Leader 1: “Yeah sure, but can we hold off a month? There’s a lot going on.”

Leader 2: “Sounds great, please schedule onboarding sessions with the folks and get them up to speed on adopting the new WoW.”

Leader 3: “Incredible! Let’s sync and see how we can role this out in the team in our existing WoW.”

Can you guess which one has understood their level of accountability in the ways of working and building a stronger organisation?

If you guessed #3, you’re correct!

Let’s be clear. I know that there is always so much going on in a Product Orgs and it’s easy to say what Leader 1 said. Equally, there is a lot of misconception that Ops owns the solution and the change management, so we throw it at them and it’s done.

The truth is that Ops is the enabler, but without accountability from leadership, success is impossible. Equally, in a fast moving org, the perfect timing will never exist, so waiting for it is like deciding not to do it.

The leaders need to step up and take accountability of part of the success of the change, just as they need to work together with Ops in rolling it out in an integrated way to create positive impact on the teams.

Long story short, accountability is shared.

Even as we are all accountable for an organisations success, we are also accountable for its changes, for its evolution and the sooner we understand that, the sooner product organisations can evolve beyond the mess and confusion we see today.

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Originally published at https://hugofroes.substack.com.

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Hugo Froes

// Leading Product Operations at OLX Motors EU // Helping to make better products — Co-founder of @uxdiscuss with @whitingx