Accountability, Responsibility, and Authority – What's the Diff?

Periodically I am asked by clients to review and provide feedback on an org or accountability chart restructure.  

The amount of difficulty this task poses for them always catches me by surprise. When asked to do the exercise without names, the job is simple and rather straightforward. 

However, when asked to insert names on the chart, the difficulty ratchets up, and the by-product is often a tangled mess.

Relationships, history, performance, pay levels, competence, politics, and timing can cloud our perspective and make this a difficult task. 

Get it wrong, however, and over time, you'll lose good people, productivity, efficiency, and customers.  

Progress and decisions stall, no one takes the lead, and credit is misplaced or mistakenly taken. Everything becomes hard, and that is just not right.

But it doesn't have to be this way.

Clarity is the Key

Human beings thrive, move quickly, and operate with purpose amidst clarity, simplicity, and directness.  

While an org chart lays out reporting relationships and is in place to help with clarity, it stops short of delivering the goods. But what's missing?

Three Key Definitions Needed for Every Role

No matter your structure – for it to work well and allow for organizational efficiency, productivity, and effect - defining a few key things for each role is necessary. 

For each role, it is critical to spell out what that role is accountable for (the number or work product), responsible for doing (the tasks and duties), and has authority over (decision control).

These terms get used interchangeably, but that is a mistake. They are quite different. Each is necessary. I'll use a sales manager role as an example to show the subtle, yet significant differences between each of these terms.

Means to account or answer to. What will this role – therefore, the person in the position - be accounting or answering for? Important to note, accountability cannot be shared.  

For example, the sales leader is typically accountable for Revenue and Bookings (future sales). Usually, there is a number or measure associated with an area of accountability (which would show up on a scorecard or dashboard)

It does not mean this person makes every single decision – big and small. Instead, the further up the org chart you go, it is likely the items one is accountable for increase, yet, you have less runway-level control over them. This is why it is important to hire well!

What are the things the role or person is required to respond to, execute, or be supportive of? It is quite a list usually and encompasses the broad to the specific.  

Responsibility, unlike accountability, can be – and often is - shared. Responsibility can be delegated. For the sales leader, it can be high-level things like new customer acquisition, lead generation, and talent development. Responsibilities can also be low-level things like completing expense reports and entering details into the CRM. You get the picture.

Over what does the role or person have decision-making capability? Often people are given the authority to make certain decisions within their accountabilities or responsibilities. 

Individuals may have authority over how to use or spend a budget, which vendor to use, what processes or procedures to follow, personnel direction, and how to set their schedule.  

Why So Important?
Often, the owners of a business appreciate these definitions. It can be the difference between an organization growing or being stalling out.  

If it is not clear who is answering, responsible, and making decisions for what, others will look to the owner or leader of the business (CEO) to make all calls. Further, it can lead to finger-pointing, waiting on others, or triangulation.   

Outcomes like the above are a big-time limiter to growth and will put a cap on the value of your business. After all, who wants to acquire or buy a company – at top dollar - where the owner is the smartest one in the room and does all the work? None I know of.  

To Do
Give your org chart a once over and ask yourself for each role - have I defined these items for my team? Do my people know what they are accountable for, responsible for doing, and have authority over? Can they lay it out for me? Is it in our role descriptions?

I think you'll find the exercise illuminating and lead to some significant clarity breakthroughs for you - and your team!