The Accountability vs. Creativity Paradox

A software engineer identifies a weakness in your current product architecture that will significantly impair its ability to scale down the road. She figures out that she’ll have to slip the product schedule three months to fix it. Everybody agrees that three months is an acceptable slip to correct the problem. The schedule actually slips nine months, but she was right about the problem. Do you reward her for her creativity and courage or hold her accountable for the slip?

If you become a prosecuting attorney and hold her to the letter of the law on her commitments, you will almost certainly discourage her and everybody else from taking important risks in the future. If you take this stance consistently, don’t be surprised in the future if your people don’t have time to solve hard problems because they will be far too busy covering their butts.

On the other hand, if you don’t hold her accountable for her commitment, then the people who actually do the work to meet their commitments might feel like idiots. Why did I stay up all night making the deadline if the CEO rewards the person who missed her schedule by six months? If your hardest working, most productive employees feel like chumps and you are looking for the culprit, look in the mirror. You have failed to hold people accountable for their actions. Welcome to the Accountability vs. Creativity Paradox.

As we look to solve it, let’s start with the most basic assumption. Do you assume that your employees are by and large creative, intelligent, and motivated? Or do you assume that they are lazy, conniving, and counting the minutes to quitting time? If you believe the latter, then you might as well just give up on creativity and innovation in your organization because you will not get it. It’s better to believe the former and assume that people have good intentions unless they prove otherwise. Still, you must hold people accountable to avoid the chump factor. How do you think about that? Let’s look at accountability across the following dimensions: promises, results, and effort.

Accountability for Effort

This is the easy one. To be a world-class company, you need world-class effort. If somebody isn’t giving it to you, they must be checked.

Accountability for Promises

A lot of good-running organizations have statements like “make a commitment, keep a commitment.” It’s true that if you sign up for something and you don’t do it, you let everyone in the organization down. This type of letdown can be contagious. Holding people accountable for their promises is a critical factor in getting things done. This changes as the degree of difficulty in fulfilling the promise increases. Promising to complete a piece of marketing collateral or send an email is different from promising to meet an engineering schedule that involves solving some fundamentally hard computer science problem. You must hold people accountable for the former; the latter is more complicated and relates to results.

Accountability for Results

This is where things get complicated. If someone fails to deliver the result she promised, as in the opening story, must you hold her accountable? Should you hold her accountable? The answer is that it depends. It depends upon:

  1. Seniority of the employee. You should expect experienced people to be able to forecast their results more accurately than junior people.
  2. Degree of difficulty. Some things are just plain hard. Making your sales number when your product is inferior to the competition and a recession hits mid-quarter is hard. Building a platform that automatically and efficiently takes serial programs and parallelizes them, so that they can scale out, is hard. It’s hard to make a good prediction and hard to meet that prediction. When deciding the consequence of missing a result, you must take into account the degree of difficulty.
  3. Amount of stupid risk. While you don’t want to punish people for taking good risks, not all risks are good. While there is no reward without risk, there is certainly risk with little or no chance of corresponding reward. Drinking a bottle of Jack Daniel’s then getting behind the wheel of a car is plenty risky, but there’s not much reward if you succeed. If someone missed a result, did she take obviously stupid risks that she just neglected to consider, or were they excellent risks that just did not pan out?

Revisiting the Opening Problem

So, looking back at the opening problem, here are some things to consider:

  1. How senior is she? If she’s your chief architect, you’ll need her to get better at scoping her work or she’s going to trash the organization. If she is more junior, this should be more a teaching moment than a scolding moment.
  2. How hard was it? If it was a miracle that you ever made that piece of crap scale, then you shouldn’t yell at her. In fact, you should thank her. If it was a relatively trivial project that just took too long, then you need to address that.
  3. Was the original risk the right one to take? Would the product really have run out of scale in the short-to-medium term? If the answer is yes, then whether it took three months or nine months, it was the right risk to take and if faced with the same situation again, you probably should not change any of your actions. You shouldn’t be wringing your hands about that.

Final Point

In the technology business, you rarely know everything up front. The difference between being mediocre and magical is often the difference between letting people take creative risk and holding them too tightly accountable. Accountability is important, but it’s not the only thing that’s important.

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