"Can you help? We have 40 senior managers. We've asked them to progress a number of key changes. That was six months ago and they haven't delivered on any of them."
This was the problem posed by the Managing Director in one of our client organisations – a large, international engineering business.
So, happy to have a meaty challenge, I set off to investigate.
That was around three years ago, and it was the beginning of a much wider exploration of 'lack of accountability' in organisations. (By the way, it didn't take three years to solve that particular MD's challenge – that was sorted within a month.)
But I've found that this particular situation is really common across all sectors today. Every organisation seems to suffer from lack of accountability (leaders are always so relieved to hear that 'it isn't just us').
From the research and projects that I've carried out across organisations over the last three years, I have found three primary causes of lack of accountability.
Incompetence, unwillingness and general desire to be difficult.
No, not really!!
But that's what many leaders think is causing the problem.
In reality, though, competent and willing individuals who want to do a great job are being left unable to take accountability, despite their best efforts.
So, what's really causing the problem?
First up, too many conflicting and changing demands. People are pulled in so many different directions that they can't do everything.
So they pick and choose, and too often the things they're focused on aren't top of mind for their particular leader at any specific moment in time.
Second, lack of clarity from leaders about what they want people to deliver.
One of the things that I notice time after time is that leaders are great at articulating what people aren't doing.
But when I ask what they actually want people to do, they can't say.
Why? Either because they haven't had the time to think about in enough detail – or because they don't know either.
So, they end up saying over and over again what they don't want – but never get clear about what they are expecting.
Third, lack of honest conversations.
If leaders aren't great at expressing what they actually want, individuals taking on the tasks aren't great at admitting to their uncertainty or lack of clarity.
It's easier instead to nod and agree – and then do nothing, or do the wrong thing, because you were never clear in the first place.
So, put these three things into the mix: too many conflicting, changing demands; a focus on what isn't wanted without clarity around what is; and lack of honest conversations.
And what do you get?
Capable, committed people who struggle to take accountability.
And how to solve the situation? Well, from our work with our clients, we've shown that getting the right conversations taking place at the right time between the right people can really get things moving.
We've even distilled the five primary conversations that are needed, and that work time after time.
If you'd like to find out about these, check out my webinar (6th September 2017) where I share these five primary conversations. They'll really help leaders create an environment that allows others to take accountability.