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Accountability in a changing environment

Who is to be held responsible in a VUCA environment?

Did you read a January article by Harvard Business Review entitled, "The Right Way to Hold People Accountable?" In it, the author defines accountability as taking the "responsibility for an outcome", on "delivering a commitment". He then shared five ways to hold people accountable, all of which centred on clarity. When I read the article recently, I was drawn to the Singapore Mass Rapid Transit (SMRT) woes. How should we hold CEO Desmond Kuek accountable for all the mishaps? Indeed, can we even do so, seeing that he inherited the problem from the previous CEO, Saw Phaik Hwa, who refused to focus on engineering issues, only to growing non-core rental business? But perhaps the responsibility lies with the Board of Directors, who chose to turn a blind eye to the goings-on in the organisation during Saw's tenure, pleased to be the only rail operator reporting a profit? But what about the regulator's responsibility? Surely the Land Transport Authority (LTA) has a mandate to ensure that the physical infrastructure was up to par? Well, at least the previous Minister for Transport Lui Tuck Yew, did the honourable thing and chose not to stand for re-election, somehow shouldering some of the "blame". As we can see, it is not a simple matter of holding someone responsible for the delivery on a commitment, when a lot of this is beyond the control of the person being held responsible. In this article, I look at the nature of accountability in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) environment and conclude that accountability needs to be redefined, and reallocated.

Empowerment & Structure

Let's get one thing clear...accountability is not blame (hence the use of the word in inverted commas earlier). When we hold someone accountable, we count on that person to deliver on what was agreed upon. The five clarity elements in the HBR article are therefore important, but not nearly enough. One thing that is missing is empowerment. If the person being held responsible is not empowered to do things his way, it is very unlikely that the person will take responsibility for an outcome he has no control over. Another is structure. If the organisational structure, including its links with external stakeholders, are convoluted, and there is shared responsibility for certain outcomes, with different parties looking over the shoulders of others, it is unlikely that there will be clarity, and hence, accountability. One wonders how much CEO Kuek is empowered when other stakeholders like the LTA, and the Minister for Transport making public announcements that directly impact his ability to deliver? For someone to be truly accountable, that someone must be truly empowered to call all the shots within the confines of his space. When that space is ill-defined, it is hard to be truly accountable. But the matter is still more than just empowerment and structure...

Fuzzy outcome

One can be held accountable when the environment is stable. Again, looking back at the Five Clarities (as I shall call the HBR article), one immediately gets the sense that all these work only when the goalposts are fixed. We can hold someone to a commitment, if the commitment can be held on to. But in today's VUCA environment, not only are the goalposts shifting, the ends of the pitch keep switching! So you might even be scoring an own goal with all your manoeuvring! Such is the fuzziness of today's environment, and with it, outcome too. One cannot tell for certain where one is headed, so what we need to be accountable for is NOT the outcome, but the process. The HBR article decries that as "a set of tasks", but the fact of the matter is, in today's fuzzy outcome environment, all we can be responsible for are "a set of tasks". Don't get me wrong...I am not saying that outcome is not important, sure it is! No one goes into business expecting to only do "a set of tasks". But the outcome is the reflection of the inputs and processes (set of tasks) taken to get there. Get those right, and you will get the outcome you deserve.

Hypothesis testing

The fact of the matter is, we are now constantly testing a business hypothesis. Take ComfortDelgro, who provide taxi and bus services in Singapore. For the longest time, their business model has been getting more cabs on the road. And to do that, you just bring in as many Singaporeans (yes, only Singaporeans and permanent residents can be cab drivers) behind the wheel. Customer service is not as important as wheels on the road. Then came Uber and they changed the whole business model. Suddenly, Singaporeans have a better alternative with faster response time, and more importantly, more polite drivers. ComfortDelgro's business model has been pulled apart and they are now scrambling to wrest the market from the hands of the transport apps. The point I am making is that all businesses are simply a hypothesis, and we are constantly testing them, even ones that are decades old and "stable". Hence, we cannot be assured of what we are heading towards, only that we need to be able to pivot when the model is no longer working. Is there someone we can hold accountable for this?

An Accountability Process

So who should be held responsible? In the old days, they say that one person has to be held responsible, otherwise nothing will happen. So if the business does well, this person is handsomely rewarded, and if the business doesn't do well, this person is blamed and perhaps even shown the door. Very archaic. The new way of doing business calls for collective accountability. And what should we be accountable for? Basically, to continue testing the hypothesis, and to pivot when the time comes. All done collectively, all done in concert. I am not saying that there should be consensus, because that would make things unbearably slow. There has to be a process that makes for group problem-solving in VUCA, and holds each person accountable to the process. This process must therefore take into account the various scenarios, and come up with the possible courses of action when those scenarios are at play. That is how accountability needs to change in VUCA.

We should move our fixation away from outcome and onto process.


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