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Want Results? You Need a Single Person of Accountability

Back in the military when I was 17 years old, I was taught an early and important lesson about leadership.  If there are two Privates assigned to scrub toilets – one of them was in charge of scrubbing toilets.  No matter how simple or complex a task is – always ensure there is someone who understands that they will ultimately be responsible and accountable for success or failure.  This person is your SPA, Single Person of Accountability.

We’ve all done it, myself included; the “all” email that goes out to 4 or 5 people and says “I need someone to…”  Two days later we kick ourselves when no one did it. Whose fault is it? We know all too well it is ours.

We’ve all been in that project meeting where 30 days ago a critical but realistic task that requires multiple people with diverse talents was assigned.  It was complete with standards, milestones, team members, and deadlines but it didn’t get done.  Everyone staring at each other – confused.  Why?   Because no one was in charge of the final deliverable.

Many of us are familiar with the cleverly written story of Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, And Nobody.  But it is worth sharing this timeless classic if for no other reason than a fun reminder to assign the task to someone specific.

This is a little story about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody.
There was an important job to be done and Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it.  Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it.  Somebody got angry about that because it was Everybody’s job.  Everybody thought that Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t do it.  It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done.

In today’s world of falling hierarchies, matrix organizations, the rise of consultants, SME’s and the gig economy it is more important than ever to be crystal clear when managing projects, delegating tasks, and driving results through others.  You MUST assign a SPECIFIC, SINGLE person of accountability.


I have written before about SMART Goals: Specific, Measurable, Aligned, Realistic and Timed and about proper delegation.  But no matter how SMART the goal is, there needs to be one person on the team who understands unequivocally that you will turn to them – and no one else – for the results.

With today’s digital and virtual world this isn’t always possible, but I like to look my SPA in the eye either during the kick off meeting with everyone there or right after one-on-one and say, ”I am counting on you to get this done. No one else – you.” Unfortunately, accountability has taken on such a negative connotation in our society.  The reality is that it can be very motivational and aligns directly with # 3 of the 11 Principles of Leadership:  “Seek responsibly and take accountability for your actions.”   Good leaders and “High Potentials” want to have a chance to excel, to be tested, to prove their capabilities, and enjoy being the person overall responsible for success.

This does not mean there aren’t a number of people who roles are critical and interwoven in a series of dependencies and much needed, well-orchestrated coordination.  Some, most, or even all the people may even be external to the department or company.  While it is always important to acknowledge and appreciate that, in the end it does not matter.  If you want results, there needs to be one person who has stepped forward and agreed to lead the effort and get it done.  One decent framework that addresses this dynamic is:

RACI: Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed…

  • Responsible.  Those who do the work to achieve the task.  There is at least one role with a participation type of responsible, although others can be delegated to assist in the work required.
  • Accountable.  The one ultimately answerable for the correct and thorough completion of the deliverable or task, and the one who delegates the work to those responsible.  There must be only one accountable specified for each task or deliverable.
  • Consulted.  Those whose opinions are sought, typically subject matter experts; and with whom there is two-way communication.
  • Informed.  Those who are kept up-to-date on progress, and with whom there is just one-way communication.

So while it may be more obvious to assign an SPA, Single Person of Accountability when it is a difficult, complex, and lengthy project, don’t forget the simple ones too.   Two Army Privates are raking leaves outside the Battalion HQ…guess what?  One of them is in charge of raking leaves.

– Tom Deierlein

Here are a couple of articles to reinforce this discussion:

How well does Apple’s Directly Responsible Individual (DRI) model work in practice? via Quora

The accountability mindset extends down the ranks. At Apple there is never any confusion as to who is responsible for what. Internal Applespeak even has a name for it, the “DRI,” or directly responsible individual. Often the DRI’s name will appear on an agenda for a meeting, so everybody knows who is responsible. “Any effective meeting at Apple will have an action list,” says a former employee. “Next to each action item will be the DRI.” A common phrase heard around Apple when someone is trying to learn the right contact on a project: “Who’s the DRI on that?”

Why Accountability Is So Muddled, and How to Un-Muddle It via Harvard Business Review

So yes, accountability is difficult to nail down. But it’s not impossible. Start out by doing the following:

  • First, try to understand the reasons for unclear accountability.
  • Second, make it clear who is accountable for what and how results will be measured. Make sure you set these rules before starting any cross-functional assignment. At the same time, communicate the upside of success and the downside of failure, so no one needs to guess what will happen.
  • Third, appoint process champions. Especially for activities that cut across different parts of the company, process champions will have end-to-end responsibility for achieving the desired metrics. These are difficult roles to play since they often come without full authority for all of the resources, but they are a step in the direction of single accountability for dispersed activities.

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