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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Our Tryst with Trust

Our Tryst with Trust

Ever wondered what’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you describe a great organisation? We asked this question to our friends and colleagues and 8 out of 10 responses were ‘TRUST’. So without any doubt, trust is what we all expect in order to create awesome workplaces. A closer examination of this magical sounding word reveals that it is a complex combination of behaviours and human dynamics. Teams at the workplace are a lot like trapeze artists. When a trapeze artist is swinging at 50 feet above the ground, the only thing that makes her/him confident to jump is the trust on the co-performer. In fact, trust and communication go hand-in-hand. If you have noticed, the trapeze performers call out to each other when they are ready to jump or catch. That communication is absolutely critical in timing as well. Similarly, at work too, people make better commitments only when they can trust their co-workers. For trust to be woven as the fabric of any organisation, communication is the thread and this thread needs to be strong and long!


At the workplace, at first glance, it appears as though trust is all about behaviours such as being honest in communication, not fudging reports, not forging bills, not faking expense reports etc. While these are of course essential behaviours to establish trust in the workplace, these are insufficient to describe trust in its entirety. What we saw above constitute the trust of character. Other critical aspects of trust include trust of competence, judgment and intention. To understand just one aspect, say, trust on competence, let’s explore an example of how a manager assigns work to a team member. When a manager tells a team member every single step of what needs to be done and how exactly it needs to be done, or simply put, ‘micromanaging’, it conveys subtly an implicit lack of trust on the team members competence. Instead, an approach of introducing the big picture, and enabling team members to jointly arrive at what needs to be done by when and then allowing the team member the space to accomplish it the way she/he thinks is best, conveys trust. And this, in turn, leads the team member to put her/his brain to work, instead of blindly following instructions. In our conversations with many managers, we asked them the reason for micromanagement. The feeling is of fear of failure by the team members. One might then wonder what if the team member repeatedly fails to deliver. Even then the approach is not to micromanage but to identify a role that aligns with the team members competence with corresponding impact on compensation. A compromise on competency match is never a solution. If no role exists that suits the competence, then its best to part ways instead of filling the team with members that just follow instructions.


What we saw is just one example – organisations are replete with everyday interactions that are opportunities to enhance or decrease levels of trust. For example, status review meetings are forums that reflect levels of trust that exist in the organisation. Now let’s look at some of the common impacts of low levels of trust in an organisation. When there are instances of misuse of trust, the typical reaction of an organisation is to design and impose controls. While this may be the easiest and quickest thing to do, often the long-term impacts are detrimental. Controls reduce the pace of the organisation. Let’s take the example of Travel Policies. This is something one can easily relate to. organisations typically build cumbersome travel requisition, approval, expense report filing, another round of approval of settlement and audit processes. All this to prevent misuse by some. Is it fair to subject all the employees to this ignominy for the infraction of a small minority of employees? Such controls not only cause bitterness and make one feel small but sometimes are just silly. If one were to do a simple cost-benefit analysis and factor the cost of the time wasted by the traveller, cost of the audit/accounts team, etc, and compare it to the estimated loss because of misuse of the policy, one would find it hard to justify the need for such a control.


In fact, what about all the policies, controls and penalties at workplaces? Do we really need them to be implemented as controls or could trusting workplaces replace them with guidelines? There is a common misconception that to build a trusting workplace is to encourage mediocrity. In fact, it’s just the opposite. A trusting workplace is a mirror of high accountability. In Semcostyle, we call this ‘Treating Adults as Adults’. As Ricardo Semler puts it beautifully – “Why is it that companies hire adults and when they join, impose boarding house rules such as when to come, what to wear, where to sit, etc and treat them like children ‘’? So, when we as leaders, practice the art of communicating the desired outcome and trust our colleagues to use their individuality in delivering, the result is bound to be unique. The missing element of trust would result in managers creating mere ‘lookalike photocopies’ of themselves without any originality! Isn’t that really mass production of mediocrity?

Like they say, ‘Practice makes you perfect’, the art of transparent, adult to adult communication can be practised until perfection. And once that becomes a way of life, it translates to trust at the workplace. And abra-ca-dabra, what you have just created is #MakeWorkAwesome! Let’s be those perfect trapeze performers at our workplaces with timed and clear communication trusting that our co-workers know their roles and will not let us fall or fail.

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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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