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.

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.

“Not for the Sake of Ambition” – Oh, Please!

One parenthetical phrase from President Barack Obama’s eulogy for Ted Kennedy made me cringe – “Not for the sake of ambition or vanity; not for wealth or power; but only for the people and the country that he loved.”

I write this not as a criticism of the President or the deceased Senator, but of the attitude it conveys. First, it is blatantly false. No one without any ambition runs for the Senate or Presidency. Second, it raises an idea that I find disturbing, namely that political or governmental service is somehow more noble than economic service.

This idea is a derivative of zero-sum thinking about wealth. It encapsulates the idea that those in business are somehow stealing wealth from others and that those in government are there to prevent any massive accumulation of wealth by one person or a small group of people. What they miss is that while governments do not create wealth, businesses and individual do. Governments are instituted to allow for wealth to be created by protecting those that create it from the masses who would try to take it from them.

In short, they have hopelessly and irrevocable confused cause and effect.

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.

Peter Drucker and Time Sheets

Recently, I have been plagued by people who claim Peter Drucker said, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

First, let me say that I cannot find this as a direct quote of Drucker’s other than continuous and unsubstantiated citations in many articles, blog posts, and PowerPoint presentations all over the Internet. If anyone has the direct knowledge of the book or published article wherein Drucker says these exact words, please let me know. Until such time, please do not attribute this quote to Drucker.

Second, in my research looking for this quote, I found the following:

Reports and procedures should be the tool of the man who fills them out. They must never themselves become the measure of his performance. A man must never be judged by the quality of the production forms he fills out – unless he be the clerk in change of these forms. He must always be judged by his production performance. And the only way to make sure of this it by have him fill out no forms, make no reports, expect those he need himself to achieve performance. – Peter Ferdinand Drucker, The Practice of Management, 1954, page 135.

All emphasis mine.

Does anyone now want to say that Peter Drucker would be in favor of submitted time sheets to measure productivity? I rest my case.