The Innovator’s Other Dilemma: Getting Accountability Right

When people learn about positive accountability—holding themselves and others accountable in a way that motivates everyone to get the results expected of them—results begin to improve immediately.

Many of us are familiar with the seminal work by Clayton Christensen on why even the best companies ultimately can fail. He describes this as the innovator’s dilemma, where a company’s successes and strengths actually can cause them to miss market opportunities and prevent them from catching the “disruptive technology” wave early enough to ensure long-term success. His book, The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail, was described by The Economist as one of the six most important books about business ever written.

However, there is another dilemma facing organizations today, one that is equally fundamental to both long-term and short-term success. It’s the ability to get accountability right. In the effort to optimize performance and to improve execution, organizations are pushing for greater accountability, but are getting the reverse. In fact, it seems the harder they are working to get it, the worse it is becoming.

Almost every major study on organizational health today points to an epidemic of non-engagement and ineffective means being used to correct the problem. In fact, a recent Zogby International nationwide poll (the largest representative study of its kind in the United States) documented the extent to which corporate management uses accountability the wrong way.

  • Some 25 percent of employed Americans describe their workplace as a “dictatorship.”
  • Only 52 percent said their boss “treats subordinates well.”
  • Barely half (51 percent) said their co-workers “often feel motivated or are mostly motivated at work.”

With more than 25 years of experience working with thousands of companies, we’ve found these problems stem almost entirely from a lack of know-how, not a lack of motivation or a lack of willingness to take accountability. We’ve found that when people learn about positive accountability—holding themselves and others accountable in a way that motivates everyone to get the results expected of them—results begin to improve immediately.

Getting Accountability Right

As a topic, “accountability” usually only comes up in an organization when something goes wrong. It doesn’t have to be this way. While we typically see people running from accountability rather than embracing it, it’s generally because they don’t want to be the ones to be held accountable.

In part this is because the common definition of accountability according to Webster’s is “subject to having to report, explain, or justify; responsible, answerable.” That’s punitive by nature and almost begging us to come up with excuses to avoid being “subject to” anyone or anything.

In our first book, The Oz Principle, we established a new definition as “a personal choice to rise above one’s circumstances and demonstrate the ownership necessary for achieving key results: to see it, own it, solve it, and do it.”

Widely communicating this new definition of accountability throughout your organization is the first step in improving performance.

A Clear Dilemma

Each generation—from young to old—sees accountability differently. In the last 25 years, we have seen a steady but significant increase in the demand for greater accountability. More now than ever, individuals and organizations are trying to get accountability right, but many are going about it the wrong way.

What hasn’t changed over this same span of time is our fundamental premise—that accountability begins with clearly defined results. This might sound like common sense, but unfortunately it’s not common practice. Our own multi-year Workplace Accountability Study with more than 40,000 respondents from small startups to Fortune 50 companies across the world demonstrated that:

  • 93 percent of employees don’t really understand what their organization is trying to accomplish well enough, to align their own work with its key measures.
  • 85 percent of leaders aren’t even defining what their people should be working on—and an equal number of employees are confused and crave much more clarity.
  • Even if they knew what to work on, 84 percent of the workforce describes itself as “trying but failing” or altogether “avoiding” holding themselves or others accountable.
  • More than 70 percent of those surveyed were extremely pessimistic about the viability of whatever they understood about their organization’s key measures.

As you can see, it’s not exactly true that organizations are failing to hold their people accountable, but more likely that it’s not clear what the organizational leaders are trying to achieve. It only follows that trying to hold people accountable to moving targets and shifting priorities is not only hard, it’s impossible.

Accountability as a “Disruptive Technology”

Borrowing from Christensen, your efforts to get accountability right will yield very different results depending on which “technological approach” you take:

  • “Sustaining technologies” are those that improve product performance. In human performance, sustaining technologies are approaches that drive improvement, such as performance management or even more negative approaches to accountability. However, study results reveal what many suspect to be true: In most cases, these approaches are not working; at least not well enough to enhance performance in tough markets and competitive environments. Why? Because they often have one thing in common—a “tell ’em/bribe ’em/force ’em” approach to producing results.
  • “Disruptive technologies” are those that upset the existing market and create a new market and value network. In terms of human performance, disruptive technologies are those that drastically shift the way things are done at an individual, team, or organizational level. We’ve seen the disruptive effects of positive accountability, providing organizations with new competitive advantages in areas such as leadership, talent management, and organizational culture, to name a few.

The most disruptive technologies often can be the simplest. Even though it’s just one topic, accountability encompasses several core areas that define how work gets done within the team and organization, how people relate to one another with regard to that work, and what that work is focused on. Getting accountability right will address:

  • How people make commitments to one another
  • What they make commitments about
  • How they measure and report progress
  • How they interact when things go wrong
  • How much ownership people take to get things done

In essence, how an individual, team, or organization operationalizes accountability determines their ability to execute, implement, and get things done. The better the approach to accountability, the better the ability to conduct the work of the organization and achieve desired results.

Reversing the Trend

Here are three highly relevant recommendations for training professionals in any sized organization:

1. Define key results. A clear focus on just a handful of well-articulated, measurable key results enables everyone in the organization to take accountability for how they contribute to those key results, explore what else they can do to improve company performance, and work toward the results that are most needed. Reducing the number down to the top three to five results makes them memorable and allows focus and accountability. These should be communicated and discussed at every level of the organization, including the front line.

2. Redefine “accountability” for results. In just the same way that the punitive view of accountability sets in motion a clear pattern of behavior that significantly hampers organizations, a more positive and enabling view gets things moving along. Help your organization reframe accountability in a positive way that works:

Accountability: A personal choice to rise above one’s circumstances and demonstrate the ownership necessary for achieving key results: to see it, own it, solve it, and do it.

When people take accountability for results, they do the following:

  • Stop blaming others when things go wrong.
  • Get personally invested in achieving the outcome.
  • Take ownership and ask themselves, “What else can I do?”
  • Follow up and get things done.
  • Creatively deal with obstacles to make things happen.

3. Deploy accountability. Remember, 82 percent of our study participants indicated they either try but fail or altogether avoid holding others accountable. Further, nearly 9 out of 10 people said improving their ability here ranked among their top three professional development needs. The better your approach to implementing accountability, the better your ability to nail key performance indicators and achieve desired key results. To begin practicing and instilling accountability, try the following:

  • Adopt a model of positive, empowering accountability that you can train on, coach to, and hire against.
  • Ensure leaders are modeling positive accountability in all their interactions.
  • Accountability starts by clearly defining the results—for everyone, at every level of the organization.
  • Tie your engagement efforts with your accountability initiative. True engagement is a function of people taking greater accountability.

See the Results

The accountability crisis in organizations today can be reversed. When done right, holding others accountable in a positive and principled way eliminates long-held negative beliefs, creates an enhanced culture with improved morale, reduces performance gaps, fulfills expectations, and ultimately increase an organization’s ability to meet strategic initiatives.

Now that solves the innovator’s other dilemma.

Roger Connors and Tom Smith are the four-time New York Times bestselling authors of an extensive body of knowledge on workplace accountability and are considered experts on the subject. Their company, Partners In Leadership, is a premier provider of accountability training and culture change services and has enabled thousands of companies and millions of people to achieve dramatic results. Learn more at