Fix these to Improve Accountability and Ownership

Fix these to Improve Accountability and Ownership

Many tiles of our verandah roof had broken, and the place was looking run down. Due to the pandemic, we had been putting off the repair work.

One morning when I stepped out, I found all broken and missing tiles replaced and the verandah looking beautiful. Later, I learned that the gardener, Ajay was working on them the previous day, and my husband assumed that I had instructed him to carry out the repair work. Guess what! I had not even mentioned it to Ajay. When Ajay came, I asked. He responded, “Madam, I had some time yesterday, not much work due to the rains. This was looking bad, and water is coming into the verandah, so I replaced them”. Ajay works as a gardener at our house, and this work is certainly not a part of his responsibilities!

What Ajay demonstrated here was a great sense of ownership. He perhaps felt empowered enough to source the tiles and fix them.

Often, business owners and managers voice their concerns about the lack of accountability and ownership in their teams. They would like to see Ajay like the sense of responsibility in each of their team members. Despite processes, command, and control, and incentivization in place, the ownership does not happen.

Here are some of the factors fixing which are likely to drive up team accountability and ownership.

  • Understanding and alignment with the purpose of the organization/project.

  • Clarity of self and other team members roles and responsibilities

  • Empowerment to hold each other accountable to meet the commitments made

  • Culture of appreciation and feedback

  • Clarity on Key Performance Indicators and linkage of employee’s responsibility/work with the same

  • Minimal and relevant metrics and data and cadence with rhythm around the KPIs

  • People with the right skills and attitude in jobs of their interest.

  • Provision for employees to develop new skills and capabilities

  • Trust and autonomy vs Micro-management and bureaucracy

What else would you add to the list?

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Ownership. A skillset or mindset?

Ownership. A skillset or mindset?

Do you know that the 4x100m sprint relay record is faster than four times the 100m record and even quicker than the 400m race? With additional steps of handing over the baton, something that needs to happen with much precision being a potential point of failure, should we not expect a delay element in the flow that slow things down? How is then the sum of four turns out faster than four times one?


According to the Track & field experts, the secret is in how runners prepare for their leg. In the 4×100 m relay, only the first runner has to start from a stationary position. The next three runners have the advantage of a running start, after which they need to exchange the baton in the “exchange zone” which is a 20-meter zone. Typically, a world-class runner starts running in the exchange zone and hits close to top speed after 10-meter. The baton exchange takes place usually in the second half of the exchange zone. So effectively the following three runners have the advantage of hitting close to top speeds before taking the baton.


What do we see in a typical business context when a set of people, representing different functions, have to work together along a value chain? The result is either achieved with high stress or is suboptimal, primarily when the organization has grown too big or scaled fast. Why? Because the focus quickly shifts to processes to achieve efficiency. Traditionally designed processes introduce SLA at each handover point. The Operations team gets in the action, adding measurement and tracking systems so that when the result is not favourable, they can trace precisely who in this value chain failed to deliver and initiate corrective action. In turn, the focus shifts to defining SLAs, keeping in mind process capabilities. The teams rally themselves around their personal or departmental goals. In the bargain, the customer expectations on delivery time, quality of service, or in some cases, the experience gets compromised.


One of our clients from the e-comm industry was facing the same challenge. At one point in the engagement, it came down to addressing longer working capital cycle and reduced customer experience. As it would be with any supply-chain business, the number of functions involved from sourcing, category management, warehousing, customer support, and 3-tier logistics including last-mile delivery partners – the chain was long. What we realized is that though the team was highly motivated and committed, processes were reasonably straightforward, SLAs defined, and delivered at each stage, the results weren’t satisfactory. Everything looked healthy in parts, but the sum of all wasn’t what business was looking to achieve.


We took the approach of creating a multi-disciplinary team to break-down the silos and to bring everyone’s focus on a single objective. We implemented some critical rituals to improve collaboration, sharpen the focus on the end goal, encouraging them to share their challenges so that group as a whole can come together to solve it. In short, we were building a genuinely self-managed team. Very soon, we saw the group becoming more proactive in resolving each other’s problems with little or no help from us or “management”. No one was talking about individual SLAs and how they are doing their best. Instead, the focus was on how the team as a whole was meeting organizational KPIs. And the performance improved on both KPIs dramatically in less than three months.


The same set of people, who were earlier involved in the end-to-end process were part of this newly formed team. They were broadly using the same infrastructure, processes, and technology. There was no additional training provided on functional skills. Then, how did the performance take a dramatically favourable turn? Was it just forming a multi-disciplinary client-focused team that did the trick?


It was that and something more. With increased transparency, trust, and autonomy; a new behaviour emerged. Every team member was preparing themselves better for her part of the process. Earlier they were operating with a chess-clock of their own that starts when a transaction hits their table and ends when they pass that to next person in the chain making sure this handover happened within their defined SLA. Like a relay team, no one was now starting from a “standing position”. Armed with complete transparency about each transaction, information on hand about challenges others could be facing; they were anticipating and preparing to run their leg even faster to adjust for the lag if any, in the previous leg. Unlike relay teams, it wasn’t part of our game plan and neither we were consciously coaching people on it during our engagement. Strong alignment to the purpose and shared commitment towards the outcome had triggered a sense of ownership, shaping their response.


Indeed, “a sum of four faster than four times one” is logical in the right culture, whether the context is sports or business. One can create a conducive environment and design specific game-plans for teams to take ownership, but finally, it works best when it comes from within. That is what differentiates winning teams from the rest.

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Agility – What’s this fuss all about?

Agility – What’s this fuss all about?

Back in my college days in the late ’80s, I was associated with rowing as a sport. In competitive rowing, I used to be a coxswain (cox for short). In a specific type of boat, the cox is the member of the crew who sits in the stern facing the bow. He is responsible for steering and coordinating the power and rhythm of the rowers. I don’t recall why our coach felt I would do better as a cox than at pulling oars. But as it turned out, I was reasonably good at the job. And those hours on the water, rowing with four crew members, taught me some great lessons. These came handy later on, navigating my teams to reach their goals better and faster.


Fast forward to 2008. I experienced white water rafting for the first time. Both sports appeared to be the same — a group of people with oars in hand paddling through the water to reach a destination. But clearly, rafting was a very different game compared to rowing.


Competitive rowing was serious business. Each member of the team had a clear role from start to finish. A clear strategy based on the assessment of opponents, planning based on the track’s nuances, and executing to plan was vital in winning a rowing event. All oarsmen would focus on execution efficiency, leaving navigation and pacing to the cox. How efficiently oarsmen converted their power into a forward movement of the boat separated winners from the rest.


The rafting was a very different experience. The water was very turbulent. The tracks sprinkled with rocks, and sudden drops in height meant that each obstacle had to be negotiated uniquely. The paths weren’t straight and marked, and the endpoint not necessarily visible. One could do as much planning or strategizing, till the next gush of water, flowing freely and fiercely, turned your plan, and with that, your boat upside down. None in the boat could stick to their uniquely defined role. But they all shared one single objective – to keep the boat afloat and reach the destination. Sometimes, going forward meant paddling backward to circumvent the obstacle.


Lessons learned and skills acquired as a cox back in the late ’80s were critical during the first couple of decades of my professional life. It was the industrial era where the world was moving at a manageable pace. The focus was on execution excellence. Just like an oarsman, mastering your role, excelling in your defined craft, leaving the navigation, and rest to your leader, cox was enough to win laurels.


However, the information era that we are navigating through now has its own set of challenges. Disruption has become a new normal. The world is turbulent, like white water. Strategy, planning, and execution are still crucial in business, but only till the next wave of disruption hits you. Today’s workforce needs a mindset of white water rafter than of oarsman in a rowing boat. They need a broader understanding of the goal than a well-defined road-map. They need to think on their feet to deal with the unexpected and adapt to the situation. Agility in strategy, planning, and execution is more critical than stability. And, most important is the agility of the mind. Unless, of course, you are in calm waters with defined tracks and a visible destination. And if you are, connect with me. Remember, I was competent as a cox. I wouldn’t mind a trip down the memory lane before I take you back to the future!

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