One of the first changes a team notices when making the move from traditional ways of working to something more agile and flexible, is how often the words accountable, responsible and ownership crop up in team discussions. Often used interchangeably, they soon become labels used to criticise and discuss what hasn’t gone right, rather than the focus of positive team behaviours.

Traditionally in organisations, accountability tends to travel up the structure, whereas responsibility travels down – but within an agile team, the main focus of accountability is between team members. You commit and are accountable to each other for delivery and for learning. When running reviews and retrospectives, discussions of what could have gone better cannot focus on ‘why’, but instead must focus on how, what and where things could be improved, therefore avoiding the poor self-centred behaviours common in teams where accountability is used as a censure or discipline tool.

There are five essential steps to move a team from blame to true accountability:

  • Set clear goals: for the project, for the team, for individuals. Doing so in the open, with a shared commitment to reaching them is essential.
  • Assessing outcomes: all team members, scrum master and the product owner must understand, ahead of time, who will assess whether or not goals have been achieved, and how they will measure that.
  • Decision-making authority: teams must have the power to decide. They can create new approaches or change solutions throughout the delivery period, but no one can instruct them to do so.
  • Tracking progress: end of sprint reviews allow teams to keep on top of progress towards goals, and daily stand-ups allow early flagging of barriers.
  • Feedback: shared understanding that feedback on accountability can be both positive and negative, and ensuring that feedback is used as a learning opportunity for individuals and the product.

Many of these steps are second nature to mature agile teams, but those starting out have to work hard on accountability to avoid getting buried in old cultural responses. This is especially true for teams who are not solely dedicated to a single agile project. Business-as-usual and multiple agile team positions make prioritisation difficult and often lead not to sustainable working practices, but to a quicker burn-out.

One of the most useful concepts for accountability comes from the 4 Disciplines of Execution framework and is referred to as the Cadence of Accountability.  The cadence of accountability refers to the practice of teams meeting frequently to review progress towards the most important goal. Focus on accountability for goals, rather than on smaller stories ensures that the whole team keeps focused on what is important versus what is urgent. Much of the tension felt by teams early in the transition to agile is caused by a focus on productivity and speed being misinterpreted as a need to be busy. Regular check-in sessions around the most important goal can also be used as a useful reminder of the steps to achieving true accountability.

For more on accountability in teams, check out these links: