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Leading with Accountability

Leading people and projects in a complex organization is difficult. I’m sure there are many ways to break down the difficulties of leadership into categories, but I’m busy so I’ll focus on two: tactical work and strategic work.

Tactics vs. Strategy

Tactically, leaders needs the organizations to run well each and every day. Teams need to deliver results, and issues need to be handled. (There are always issues. Humans are humans, after all.) This means that the teams need a system for their work (e.g. Agile software development): a way of assigning responsibilities, accomplishing tasks, communicating, resolving difficulties, and monitoring results. Leaders need to make sure that system is in place and working well. That’s tactics.

Strategically, leaders have a completely different set of challenges. Teams can be delivering incremental results and tackling issues that arise, but toward which goals are they working? Often, the broad goals sound simple enough: increase revenue, develop repeat customers, reduce overhead. Translating those high-level goals into an effective machine, though—successive cycles of project inception, execution, evaluation, and direction-changing—is the work of strategy.

In a complex organization with tens of teams across many functions, each working toward a long list of goals, leaders are challenged to manage the strategic work. Just keeping track of the inventory of those efforts (“What are all of these teams even doing?”) is difficult enough, but something else happens inside this complexity: humans decide to behave like humans.

Power vs. Truth

In a large organization, each team becomes a locus of power, as does each department, on up the hierarchical chain. Each leader of one of these groups is then, in part, a wielder of this power. They have the power to build relationships, trade favors, influence others and to report on what is true within their particular group.

The problem with power is that it corrupts. Not necessarily Narcos levels of corruption and backstabbing, but small distortions of truth will start to emerge within each of these groups, often in pursuit of otherwise reasonable goals. Leaders will then start to create and spin narratives to influence those in greater positions of power to shift practices in favor of their group: they become politicians.

There is a plausible argument that in large nations, politicians play a messy but necessary role intermediating between facts and human interests on the one hand, which are innumerable, and strategic decision making on the other, which is, in that environment, necessarily blunt and only loosely tied to effectiveness of outcomes.

Unlike national governments, most organizations are not complex enough to evade the intellectual grasp of any particular leader, which means they should in principle be able to make good strategic decisions—managing those cycles of project inception, execution, evaluation, and direction-changing—if they have the relevant skills and truths about the organization.

In this environment, politics are bad if they distort the truth. Because, with the truth, each leader can hold their teams accountable to results with known impact on the organization, which enables each part of the organization to remain both aligned and effective, and enables leaders to make better strategic decisions.

Reporting the News

In uncorrupted journalism, the goal is to gather and verify facts, then to create a narrative that puts those facts into context with an honest attempt at a human interpretation of the truth. The journalist’s job is to do the ground work—the background, the details—to tell the truth about their subject.

They don’t list hundreds of dates, times, location coordinates, and actions (facts) for their readers to puzzle into a larger picture, nor do they invent a nice story (fiction) that ignores or distorts the facts. Instead, they assemble the picture for the reader while trying to represent the context and the truth of the matter as accurately as possible. They report the news.

If organizational leaders were to act more like journalists and less like politicians, each team, department and leader would report the news of their individual piece of the whole up and across to other leaders, and, if those other leaders were competent and earnest, more effective strategic decisions could be made.

Accountability

Accountability in a large organization looks like a leader asking hard questions of a journalist, about outcomes affecting the whole. Bill Gates became internally famous for this style of deep dives into technical minutiae with leaders at Microsoft who brought him problems, solutions or updates. He would aggressively question assumptions, ask about memory layouts, edge cases or algorithmic complexity—not because he thought his leaders were wrong or incompetent, but to ensure that they were thorough and truthful.

To be effective as an individual (or in a team of five or ten) is a small thing easily handled by typical human social behaviors. To remain effective in an organization of 1,000; 5,000; 15,000+ requires that leaders build accountability into the machine of the organization. Accountability that asks hard questions, deals in truths and enables strategic management of complex challenges.

I fear that too few of us get to work within such a well-run machine. Most leaders fail to delegate the tactics, fail to be competent enough to make good strategic decisions or fail to hold their organization accountable with thorough knowledge of the truths within it. I hope that we can each find better paths toward effectiveness.