Being accountable means being able to answer for your actions, but not necessarily being responsible for them. Similarly, accountability is something you hold a person to only AFTER a task is or isn’t done. Responsibility occurs before and/or after a task, and is ongoing. Responsibility can also be shared while accountability cannot. The many experiences throughout my career continue to influence my ability to respond to and account for my actions and allow me to integrate both concepts of responsibility and accountability.
The success of my job depends on my ability to merge both accountability and responsibility, to shape and establish a firm confidence and understanding of the expectations of my profession, and to deliver exceptional service to those that need it. The following are some thoughts about how and why this came to be.
My Work: In my profession, we are consistently asking for people to “take ownership” of their work. As a design professional, this prescribes significant commitment to and cultivation of our work product. You become accountable for every line that’s drawn, every word that written. Thus, you must know exactly what it means and why you did it.
My Actions: Accountability can most precisely be defined as answer-ability. Being accountable is an expectation to explain one’s actions for whatever they are. An easy way to think about being accountable is – literally, whatever the results of my actions, I must be able to give an account of what happened, why it happened, and how.
My Process: I can do a fantastic job or a terrible job, allow good or bad things to happen, and make smart or terrible decisions and not actually be responsible – but I am accountable by being able to explain what happened, how it happened, and why. Accountability, doesn’t lay blame for or pin success on me, it only describes me as being able to explain my actions or the actions of a group or business.
The Distinction: So why is it important to be both responsible and accountable? In order for me to develop, grow, and thrive as a professional, I need to know what I’m doing, why I’m doing it, and how I can get it done. I may do it myself, or enlist the aid of my colleagues. But for this thing I’m doing to have any value I need to be fully engaged in the making of it. That means knowing what the heck is going on AND making sure it’s successful.
The Results: Can you imagine being completely in charge of something – the root cause behind whether that thing succeeds or fails – but not able to explain how or why? In contradistinction, can you imagine being accountable for how or why something is fantastically prosperous but not being responsible for it?
These two concepts being separate or distinctly different make for a terrible work environment and just don’t sound good at all. When I was first introduced to “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Dr. Stephen Covey, I was deeply impressed with his definition of “responsible” as being “able to respond” or my ability to respond to things around me. I have better things to do than claim someone else is responsible for my actions or success, or living the hollow role of being responsible for actions that are out of my control or understanding. Having the combined knowledge of doing a task well and being the ultimate owner of it – merging accountability with responsibility – has heightened my sense of how to do things better, and also answers why I should be doing better things.