On Accountability

I’m not a river or a giant bird
That soars to the sea,
And if I’m never tied to anything,
I’ll never be free

-From the Finale of the musical Pippin by Stephen Schwartz

image Twenty years ago, I had the good fortune to perform in this play as the eponymous character with a community theatre troupe. The run was four performances over two weekends. So, if you throw in rehearsals, I must have sang these lyrics dozens, perhaps hundreds of times.

It was not until at least ten years later, when I first began reading the works of Peter Block, that I even began to understand them. What Schwartz has so elegantly defined for us is the idea of accountability.

Over the past few years I have read countless books, articles and blog posts that call for more accountability in the workplace. With the exception of Block, they all suppose that it is a management function to develop processes to “hold people accountable.” Think back on your past conversations about accountability and, no doubt, they will be transitive in nature. Herein lies the problem.

Accountability is not something can be imposed, but rather chosen. Peter Block begins to develop this idea as far back as Flawless Consulting and it comes to full maturity in Freedom and Accountability at Work. It is absurd to think we can even try to “get those people to be accountable.”

In Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, the author writes of his experiences surviving a Nazi concentration camp and comes to the understanding that the only human freedom that cannot ever be taken away is the ability to choose how one feels about any given situation. Even if we are a victim of unspeakable crimes, we have the choice as to whether or not we feel like a victim. We are accountable for our own feelings, not anyone else.

Indeed, it is not only totalitarianism that is the enemy of freedom, but vagueness. In my view this is the problem with accountability in business. It is not that people do not want to be accountable, but rather that leaders are unclear about the expectations. Ron Baker tells a story of proposing this gedanken to a group to which he was speaking – What if timesheets became illegal? One participant blurted out, “Oh, my God, we would actually have to lead.”

The startling conclusion at which I have arrived through reflect on Block and Schwartz is this: Freedom and accountability are not just linked but are actually one and the same. If you want people to “be accountable” give them their freedom, but be clear about the expected results.

Reflections on Six Conversations

This week I had the opportunity to participate in two sessions delivered by Bill Brewer of DesignedLearning that were related to Peter Block’s book Community: The Structure of Belonging.

Here is a brief video which summarizes the six conversations. Despite what is says, it only runs a little over two minutes, but like anything from Peter Block, you need to watch it a few times to begin to understand the impact.


In addition, here are a few of my notes from the sessions if you are interested.

  • To create a future which is different from our past we must shift our thinking 180 degrees about cause and effect. For example, the audience is responsible for the performance, not the players on stage.
  • The etymology of the word “accountability” come from when Roman Senators needed to stand up and be counted during votes.
  • When Peter Block says that questions should create anxiety, he is referring to his belief that great questions make us confront the fact that we have a choice.
  • A great question for a consultant to ask on a regular basis is, “What doubts do you have about this?”
  • We only have doubts about those thing we find to be truly important. In other words, having doubts is an indicator of the importance of the issue we are confronting.
  • When providing someone with content (information) it is important to establish a connection before you provide that content, otherwise the content is likely to be rejected or not even heard in the first place.
  • In most organizations, control is accomplished by disconnection (sometimes even the threat of disconnection) of the individual from the group. Superiors believe if I can disconnect you, I own you.
  • Most policies are in place because someone previously screwed it up.
  • Sharing presentation slides ahead of time is a mistake because it states that you are making a prediction about the future and as we all know the future is unpredictable. Henceforth, I will do my best not to share my slides ahead of time.

I would be happy to engage in any conversation you might want to have about this great subject.

Takeaways from The Crime of Reason

OK, I’ll just admit it, I am a lousy book reviewer. So, rather than go through the motions, I have decided to just post my nuggets that I have taken away from Robert B. Laughlin’s The Crime of Reason.

  • While most knowledge is freely available, most economically valuable knowledge is kept secret. What is more, it is not kept secret because it is technical in nature, rather, we define it as technical when it is kept secret.
  • The book made me think about the availability of knowledge on the Internet differently. Rather than access to all knowledge, it has become a great cover for those who want some knowledge hidden. I am not talking about JFK or 9/11 conspiracies, I am talking about knowledge that are held as proprietary or trade secrets.
  • There are certain things that it is just plain illegal to know. Try to gain the knowledge of how to build an atomic bomb for example. The closer you get to knowing, the more likely you will end up in jail.
  • Explaining a genuinely new idea is extremely difficult because the listener does not possess the contextual knowledge of the speaker.
  • Most entertainment is the celebration of disposable knowledge. In fact, when we are relaxing we avoid useful information. This is why some people do not like my Facebook posts and Twitter updates. They are on these technologies to relax and I am confronting them with potential useful information. (Sorry, but I do not plan to stop. Just unfriend or unfollow me, I am really OK with it.) Let me quote from the book, “Soap operas are enjoyable because their intellectual maintenance costs are low.”
  • All advertising is information you do not want to see. “Advertising is Fun’s evil twin brother. The two go everywhere together.” If you want to enjoy yourself from free you have to accept advertising.
  • TV commercials are spam. Once you realize this the email variety is not as bad as we think.
  • Gaining real knowledge has a cost. What is worse, the more you try to reduce the cost of gaining knowledge, the more spam you will have.
  • I close with this quote, “The right to learn is now aggressively opposed by intellectual property advocates, who want ideas elevated to the status of land, cars, and other physical assets so that unauthorized acquisition can be prosecuted as theft.” This is a dangerous belief. For more on this read this article entitled IP and Libertarianism by Stephan Kinsella.

If your strength is customer references then USE THEM!

I had a conversation today with a Sage partner whose clear strength is their superior customer service and in depth product knowledge. The trouble is that everyone says the provide (take your pick of modifier):

  • great
  • superior
  • outstanding
  • remarkable
  • excellent
  • extraordinary
  • amazing
  • incredible
  • astonishing
  • wonderful
  • stupendous
  • dazzling

customer service. Certainly no one says they provide absolutely abysmal service. The trouble telling a prospect is about as differentiating as being the clone of a fruit fly even if it is true.

What to do?

Well, if you really think it is true, you need to use it differently. For example, do not wait to be asked for references, instead, insist on using them. Tell a new prospect that one of the first things they need to do is talk to at least one of your raving fan customers for ten minutes. I mean it insist on it! Early on!

Why not create a customer reference program (not just a referral program). In exchange for agreeing to be a reference you will take them out to dinner twice a year where they can pepper you with any questions about technology they wish. By the way, you might get some business out of this as well.

The Haircut

My uncle sent this to me today and I thought it would be appropriate to post on my blog as election day in the United States is tomorrow.

I have sourced the original with the exception of the last sentence swifttallon to eBaum’s world.

One day a florist went to a barber for a haircut. After the cut, he asked about his bill, and the barber replied, ‘I cannot accept money from you , I’m doing community service this week.’ The florist  was pleased and left the shop. When the barber went to open his shop the next morning, there was a ‘thank you’ card and a dozen roses waiting for him at his door.

Later, a cop comes in for a haircut, and when he tries to pay his bill, the barber again replied, ‘I cannot accept money from you , I’m doing community service this week.’ The cop was happy and left the shop. The next morning when the barber went to open up, there was a ‘thank you’ card and a dozen donuts waiting for him at his door.

Then a Congressman came in for a haircut, and when he went to pay his bill, the barber again replied, ‘I can not accept money from you. I’m doing community service this week.’ The Congressman was very happy and left the shop. The next morning, when the barber went to open up, there were a dozen Congressmen lined up waiting for a free haircut.

And that, my friends, illustrates the fundamental difference between the citizens of our country and the politicians who run it.

Sage Summit Sessions

A few Sage business partners have inquired as to what sessions I am doing at the upcoming Sage Summit customer conference in Atlanta next week.

Without further ado, here they are:

Tuesday, November 10, 2009



8:30 AM – 9:30 AM

GEN02 – Altruism, Profit, and the Basics of the 7S Model

11:00 AM – 12:00 PM

GEN03 – Creating Shared Vision

2:15 PM – 3:15 PM

GEN04 Creating Strategy in a Small Business


Wednesday, November 11, 2009



8:30 AM – 9:30 AM

GEN05 – Initiating Projects in a Small Business or Small Team

11:00 AM – 12:00 PM

GEN06 – Building Community: A New Paradigm

2:15 PM – 3:15 PM

GEN07 – Fundamentals of Strategic Pricing


It would be my honor to meet your customers, so bring them by if you can.