When everyone is accountable, who really is?

I claim that an agile team is a self-organizing team, which means that everyone in the team is accountable for the successes of the team (and the shortcomings).

But is this really true? (hint – yes).

But the big book of Scrum says you must have specific accountabilities.

In Scrum, there is a saying that the PO is responsible for what the team does and “the team” is responsible for how they do it. However, my opinion is different here to how some Scummers interpret that statement.

I do NOT take it to mean that the team mindlessly accept work on anything, in any order, nor that the PO watches idly as the team build things any way they want. Rather, I take this to mean that:

  • The PO in scrum is responsible for facilitating debates among stakeholders on priority and opportunities, as well as facilitating debates in the team about what to build and how to do it. When someone needs to make a call, the PO has the final say … unless they are the P-semi-O and they semi-make the final call because of bossy leaders.
  • The team in scrum are required to express opinions and ideas about what to build, what order to build it in and how to learn whether they clients are liking what they get. The PO can also participate in discussions of what order to do things in, the quality needed and even how the team go about things. At the end of the day, the person building/testing/admiring something is responsible for how they do their own work.
  • Thus – if the team build something terrible, deliver late and fail completely, everyone should be sad, or even shattered. They are all to blame. On the other hand, when the team is kicking goals, the whole team should be proud and if the Scrum framework is adding any value to the team then everyone can see their own handiwork in the outcome.

But if everyone is accountable, nobody is accountable.

When I learned management, I was taught that we need to keep authority and accountability in alignment.

  • If you are accountable for an outcome then you must have the authority to move the resources, allocated the time and make the decisions to achieve that outcome.
  • If you are allowed to make your own decisions, allocate people to work, borrow tools etc (have authority) then you need to be accountable for what happens.

This was really valuable to me because I would see a number of issues arise when people made decisions where they had no accountability and even if they were well-intended, someone else failed to deliver on something. I also saw people stressed because they were accountable for things they could not control.

A clear line of command and a clear understanding of who to talk to made life a lot easier and led to improvements in both quality of the product and quality of life for the crew.

I would go so far as to say that clear understanding of the objective, the way we work as a team and the craft we have is critical for successful team based work.

Again though, this does not mean that only one person is responsible for direction, quality of craft or the way the team works together. The whole team is accountable.

I do not say this because I want peace and love in the team but because success depends on the whole team taking accountability.

So – can we ever say one person is accountable for what the team does?

In a stable factory, where the workflow is unchanging and teach task has already been optimised, then it makes sense that one person (manager) designs the work and teaches people to do their jobs. If the work is badly designed then the manager is accountable for the bad outcome. The other people (the workers) are accountable for doing their job well, within the parameters given to them. If they drop the ball or make a mistake it is on them.

If the manager does their job and the worker does their job, then the factory produces good products and everyone wins.

For this understanding, we can thank Henry Ford. His factory was, in its day, awesome.

  • He produced good cars cheaply and people who could never before dream of having a car could now have one.
  • Workers got paid more than workers in other factories and probably took great pride in seeing Ford cars being driven.

But the stable world that Ford optimised for does not exist for most teams. In fact, even this perfect factory started to struggle when competitors and customer expectations started to evolve. The world that the factory was built for, simply changed around the factory.

OK – this is the beginning of system thinking and given time, I believe that I could show that any team design will cease to be optimal if the team and the world are evolving and the design is based only on a single perspective.

I can even see this in some IT teams where the junior developers seem inhibited by coding practices designed for a different world. More often I see it in the way teams blame the product owner for technical debt (craftsmanship) and the business stakeholders blame the team for being so slow, even though they are slow because of all the urgent shortcuts they took over time.

Blaming someone else is comforting but also leads to doom.

Then how should it work?

I recently observed a team in action and I thought I would use it to illustrate my point.

My 9 year old daughter is now playing football. Specifically she is playing soccer, but I think that the lessons here can apply to any sport with a foot, a ball and a team.

Hopefully it can also apply to adult teams too, as long as the adults can demonstrated the same team commitment, desire to succeed and growth mindset that we expect of children.

Photo by Lukas on Pexels.com

When kids start playing soccer they truly suck at the game. They sometimes kick the ball, but rarely in the wrong direction. Then when they see it moving they often just run along with it, or they wait for it to stop and then run towards it.

If the kids don’t learn to play then the team will be terrible and never win.

So my daughter and her peers expect more of their teammates. They are not 5 year olds after all.

They expect kids to stop the ball, kick the ball and chase it. They also expect even more than this though, they expect their teammates to pay attention, pass the ball and support each other.

This is the difference between individuals playing with a ball and a team playing soccer.

So what is their understanding of accountability then?

Everyone in the soccer team is accountable for trying. Everyone is accountable for winning the game.

9 year old management consultants

Unpacking this complexity

When we say everyone is accountable, it is important to understand the concept of a sentence.

In my daughter’s english class they have learned that sentences contain an object, a verb and a subject. “Everyone is accountable” is probably a valid sentence, as is “nobody is accountable.”

But by the age on 9, kids also learn comprehension on top of words. They are told to edit their sentences for clearer meaning. For example

  • Everyone in the team is accountable … for what?
  • Nobody is accountable … for what?

If I say that everyone is accountable for winning the game it makes sense. If I say everyone in the team is accountable for my daughter remembering her socks, it does not.

But wait, their understanding goes deeper too:

  • Everyone is accountable .. .to whom? (though my daughter still says “who”)
  • Nobody is accountable .. to whom?

Everyone is accountable to everyone else in the team to support them. But also everyone is accountable to the rest of the team to turn up for training and to practice so that they get better and the team can play better.

This is an important lesson because it goes to the essence of teamwork.

The first time they play, kids think as individuals. They run after the ball, they assume they will kick all the goals and they look at how one kid is better at kicking that the others. They assume if everyone can kick a ball well then the team will win.

But the coach (if he or she is doing their job) will soon get kids to realise that there are two things a soccer player must do:

  • Be good at the basic skills; and
  • Be a cohesive part of the team.

So training involves push-ups, running, kicking, dodging obstacles and a lot of boring things to build muscle memory and endurance. Training also involves practice games and team drills to build team “muscle memory” and cohesion.

At first kids think that if the other team scores a goal, it was because our goalkeeper let it through. Then they learn that defence should make it harder for the other team to control the ball. They kick the ball away, they stand in the way of the other player and they work with the goalkeeper to keep the ball away from the goal.

At first kids think that kicking a goal is the aim of the game (which is correct) but they assume this means that every player must always kick the ball into the goal. Over time they learn that glory goes to the player who scored, but that the best players are the ones that made the attempt possible.

Scoring is a game of percentages and the team who has the most attempts at goal usually wins.

9 year strategy consultants

But can we expect this sophistication of adults?

Kids are learning team skills and strategy when playing soccer, but is this still true when the kids become adults and join a work team?

Can we can assume that unless it is in their job description then team and strategy skills are unimportant?

  • This might have been true in the perfect factory of Henry Ford. As long as the manager designs the work and each team member does what is expected then the work gets done and the goals are achieved.
  • This approach will fail in a soccer team where the other team will not try to be totally predictable, our team will make mistakes and the weather and ground will be subtly different each week.

So I guess, it depends whether we think we should design a perfect, unchanging factory, or a great team.

Since agile is based on great teams. then I think I can claim that we need team skills and problem solving.

On this basis, let’s come back and look at accountability again.

The right to play:

  • In a team of 5 year old football players, everyone probably gets to play and nobody really tracks the score. If these 5 year olds become elite though, things change.
  • If you are playing for Manchester United (an English team), then your place in the team is far from assured. You need to be awesome at your craft – kicking, not using your hands, dribbling, passing, etc. If you are not good enough, you are out of the team and replaced by someone better.
  • In a workplace, you are probably somewhere in between. You will not be in the team if you do not perform, but you do not have tryouts at the start of the year and there is no bench of young players hungry for your role.

This has an impact on psychological safety, since in the elite team, there is a competition going on. However it also requires an accountability to the team at that level:

  • In an elite team, you are accountable to the rest of the team for building and honing your own skill. With 5 year olds you only need to share the ball.
  • In an elite team you are accountable for helping others improve and for playing better as a team. People will tolerate 5-year old show ponies, but in an elite team they will not. A player who tries to impress the selectors and the crowd, at the expense of the team will find themselves out of the team.

So in an agile team, I claim you are accountable to the team to bring your full self and to keep improving your craft. You are also accountable to help others improve.

Critically though you are accountable to the team to play for the team and not yourself. I am a nice guy, but if you do not support others in the team and you do not build your own capability, then you are not going to be in my team. Others might say they can carry you, but I will not.

So everyone is accountable for playing as a team and for their own capability.

Winning and losing

In Henry Ford’s factory, the person bolting the wheel on was responsible for using the right bolt and the right spanner. They got paid (I guess) per bolt, but they were also accountable for making sure the bolt was tight enough but not too tight. The could be a true expert in one thing.

In a team of 5 year olds playing soccer, kids are supposed to have fun. But the time kids are 9 years old, even if they have never played soccer before, they notice the score.

Some weeks the team wins the game. 5 year olds forget immediately because it is time for the next adventure. 9 year olds celebrate and talk about the game’s highlights. Professionals forensically analyse the game to see why they won and what to focus on next.

Some weeks the team loses the game. 5 year olds fail to notice or they are sad for 5 seconds until someone distracts them. But this is a key difference for 9 year olds.

Some teams of 9 year olds focus on whose fault it was. They blame to goalkeeper for missing the ball or they blame the poor kid who missed the goal and kicked the ball to the other team. These teams lose their psychological safety, their team mojo and their ability to improve.

Potentially great teams of 9 year olds and professionals feel bad when they lose. They also focus on why they lost and they do talk about the goalie missing the ball or the player kicking the ball the wrong way.

But it is not to allocate the accountability for losing. They know the whole team lost and even if they try to deny this then the score is remembered for the whole season and the individual moments are lost.

The focus is on what training to do for next time. The goalkeeper is accountable to the team to listen and to practice catching (or whatever) and the rest of the team are accountable for helping with that practice. But the team are also accountable for their own part in the loss, they look at improving defense so the competition have no easy goals.

I have literally watched my daughters coach telling the team not to let the goalkeeper down by watching the other team score. They need to play as a team to “make sure there are no easy goals,” and when the goalie does save the goal, the team are told to “spread out like peanut butter” to give the goalie options for clearing the ball out of goal.

This is the same for our agile teams, there is no good code without a good customer experience there is no such things as a great strategy that was not implemented well.

So maybe I should say “nobody cares who is accountable if you screwed up.” Outside the team everyone assumes the team screwed up. Similarly, when you do well, the whole team gets the credit from the customer. I have never heard a customer ask if the acceptance tests were good or if the code is following the correct standards.

Does that mean we are all equal?

When I say that the whole team is accountable I do not mean that the team should all run after the ball all the time. This is how 5 year olds play, but they cannot beat a team of 9 year olds.

Teams of 9 year olds are learning that the defenders run back and the forwards spread out. The goalkeeper has a better view and calls out instructions to the team.

In the real world some people know a lot more about compliance legislation and others know a lot more about carpentry.

So all sharing accountability does not mean we all write code, all visit our stakeholders in a pack and all go to every meeting. It means we are all accountable for finding the best way to apply our skills this week and the best way to break the work down.

The elite soccer teams know how to play the game but they still spend time planning how to play THIS game. They also work out what requires the group to act as a group and what requires one player to focus on the ball while the others either keep the other team away or start moving to a position to be ready for what comes next.

So we are not accountable for being in every decision. We ARE accountable for putting in place the requirements for the right decisions to be made. We ARE accountable for contributing the the decisions that we can contribute to. We ARE accountable for protecting each other and for moving to a place to be ready when the ball comes to us. We are ALSO accountable for recovering quickly as a team when things do not go according to plan and for every win and loss of the team.

At least that is how I interpret it.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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