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.

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

Time

Session

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

Time

Session

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.

Killer PowerPoint (as in death by)

Comedian Don McMillan has a terrific routine about inappropriate use of PowerPoint.

 

It is not quite as good at this one created in 2000 by by Peter Norvig, the director of research at Google.

My thoughts:

  • PowerPoint should be use to augment, not make your presentation.
  • Use pictures and movie clips.
  • If you need speaker notes, use index cards.
  • Join Toastmasters. The only way to improve you public speaking it to speak in public.

Praise for the Accounting Profession

One thing I have always been impressed with from accounting firms, specifically the larger ones I have had contact with, has been their ability to create alumni networks that drive real value for them. Now, it certainly is true that this practice has caused some challenges by creating some possible personal conflicts of interest. However, I think for the most part, this is a great idea.

Too many businesses I have encountered tend to blame the person who has last left the organization for everything that has gone wrong at the firm from the creation of the world (a literary flourish, I believe in the Big Bang) to date. This is especially true if the person is fired, but it occurs with all too much frequency when the employee is leaving of the own volition.

“Oh, that Fred (I always use Fred), I am glad he left. In retrospect, he caused more problems than he solved.” Blah, blah, blah. To me this kind of trash talk is indicative of leadership. If this person sucked fowl ova so badly, why didn’t you get rid of them long ago. I think that what the person is really saying is, “Damn that, Fred, how dare he leave us. We are a great place to work.” Really? Do some soul searching.

Anyway, back to the praise.

Accountant do an outstanding job of placing people with their customers and even to some degree encouraging these types of moves. After all, if the person is unhappy, for whatever reason with your company, isn’t better to have them as a ally in the future.

If you are someone who has been critical of former employees, why not turn over a new leaf and plan an alumni BBQ at your house over the summer.

Follow up – The Last Roundup: So what and who cares?

Thanks to all of you who participated in the session at Insights entitled The Last Roundup: So what and who cares?

Those of you who were there remember I asked you to submit one objective you plan to execute on as an outcome of Insights 2009. The table below displays the initials of the person (I), their objective, the estimate completion date (ECD) and the actual completion date (ACD).

For those of you who gave me more than one I only posted your first listed objective. If you did not give me an estimated completion date, I took the liberty of assigning one to you.

I

Objective

ECD

ACD

AO Get on Twitter 5/31/09  
JS Build an online customer community 6/15/09  
AS Create a marketing calendar 6/15/09  
EB Create a written set of objectives that are communicated to all employees 8/31/09  
KJ Implement a project plan for Act! 7/1/09  
KO Improve referral program 8/31/09  
LR Increase our centers of influence by 50% 9/1/09  
AT Renew our value proposition and post it in the office 6/30/09  
WG Employee satisfaction survey 6/15/09  
BT Create a referral marketing system 6/30/09  
SC Redo website navigation 9/30/09  
SM Have issues and objectives for all projects, both internal and client-based 8/1/09  
JK Corporate Facebook Page 5/31/09  
TD Social networking 6/30/09  
SR Stop being motivated by fear 6/30/09  
JC Get on social media sites 7/31/09  
EK This post 5/22/09 5/21/09
EK Get some face time with my new boss 6/30/09  

 

Please email me when you have completed your objective and I will update the post.

Customers do not care about your costs

Kodak in a recent open letter to their customers announced changes to their terms of service for their Kodak Gallery on-line service. It has been hailed in the Twitterverse as an example of how to communicate change to customers.

While I admire Kodak for their openness, I have sharp criticism for the core message. Essentially, they are saying that the must raise their prices to offset costs. Who cares? Certainly not their customers, nor should they. It is not the responsibility of customers to cover a seller’s cost. Should consumers pay more for General Motors cars just because they have a higher cost structure than Toyota? (In essence, the government has told you that yes you are and oh, by the way, even if you never bought a GM car you need to pay for one anyway, but that is another post.)

Kodak should instead focus on the value they are creating through the service and create a pricing model that attempts to capture this value. Kodak is attempting to regroup after years of denial that the photo industry was going/has gone digital. They have been somewhat successful, but they clearly still do not get it. Being in business is about value creation, not cost recovery or profit without creating value.

I tweeted this last week – “The problem occurs when companies focus on increasing or maintaining profit while not increasing the value they provide to customers.” I believe the moment a company pays more attention to cost structure and maintaining profitability rather than focusing on value creation is the moment that they begin to die.

The billable hour is about cost recovery not about creating value for customers. Please take heed professional firms. You are dying you just don’t know it.

Insights Session – The Last Roundup

At Sage’s partner conference, Insights, I will be presenting a session entitled The Last Roundup (GEN37) on Thursday, May 14 at 3:15pm.

In order to begin the conversation even before the conference begins, I am posting the abstract and inviting all possible participants to share their ideas and questions.

In this last session of the conference, join Ed Kless in a no-holds-barred look back of what you learned at the Conference and what your intentions are when you get back to the office. Be prepared to submit at least on item for which the rest of the group will hold you accountable.

The idea for this session is simple, we will do a quick after action review of our own individual performances at Insights. We will ask ourselves:

  • What did you hope to gain from participating at Insights 2009?
  • What did you bring to the dialogue?
  • When were you the most anxious or fearful?
  • When were you the most inspired or joyous?
  • What do you learn about yourself?
  • What is the one thing you plan on implementing in the next 90 days?

We will then hold each other accountable for the completion of this one item. In 90 days we will agree to get on a call and say whether we succeeded or failed. We will honor the commitment.

Also, please post thoughts, questions, comments below.

Insights Session – Building Community: A New Paradigm

At Sage’s partner conference, Insights, I will be presenting a session entitled Building Community (GEN16)  on Tuesday, May 12th at 2:15pm.

In order to begin the conversation even before the conference begins, I am posting the abstract and inviting all possible participants to share their ideas and questions.

This session will be dedicated to the possibility that we can create deep meaningful communities among all the stakeholders in our businesses – customers, employees, vendors, et al. Creating such communities is hard work and not for everyone. It requires us to think differently than we have in the past. What has to change is not external. We are the ones who must change. You are hereby invited to open a dialogue on a new model for building community by Ed Kless and business partner Joe Santoro who will co-facilitate this session

The applications of the ideas to be presented in the session are endless, however, you need to be a conceptual thinker.

This is a heady topic, but necessary if we hope to improve both ourselves and society. In order to prepare for our dialogue, I would recommend reading Peter Block’s Community: The structure of belonging. If you cannot read the whole book, please read the chapter headings in italics.

Also, please post thoughts, questions, comments below.

Insights Session – Moving Toward the Firm of the Future

At Sage’s partner conference, Insights, I will be presenting a session entitled Moving Toward the Firm of the Future (GEN34) on Thursday at 1:30pm.

In order to begin the conversation even before the conference begins, I am posting the abstract and inviting all possible participants to share their ideas and questions.

Peter Drucker coined the term knowledge worker in the 1950s, but we are only beginning to understand the impact of the transformation on business and society as a whole. This session, delivered by Ed Kless, will walk you through the transformation that you company needs to make from being a professional service firm to becoming a professional knowledge firm. If you are not interested in completely changing the way you look at your business, please do not attend.

Most professional service firms today operate using a variation on the following theoretical equation: Revenue = Capacity X Efficiency X Hourly Billing. This equation is hopelessly flawed in that it confuses causes and effects.

In this session we will create a dialogue around moving to the firm of the future or what I like to call a professional knowledge firm. The theoretical equation for this firm looks like this: Profitability = Intellectual Capital X Effectiveness X Pricing with Purpose.

Specifically, we will have conversations about making the following transitions:

  • From focusing on revenue to focusing on profitability
  • From focusing on capacity to focusing on intellectual capital
  • From focusing on efficiency to focusing on effectiveness
  • From focusing on hourly billing to pricing with purpose

While there are no quick fix answers to any of these transitions, we can begin to lay the foundation for change within our organizations. In order to prepare for our dialogue, please spend some time reading at the VeraSage Institute.

Also, please post thoughts, questions, comments below.