Accountability vs Responsibility

Lately I have been using the word Accountability instead of Responsibility when writing job descriptions and setting expectations with the team at FullContact.

What’s the difference, you ask?

If you have Responsibility, you must perform a job.

If you have Accountability, you must be answerable for the result of the job.

It’s a subtle but important distinction.

For example: let’s suppose there is a fictional company called ResponsiCorp.

At ResponsiCorp, Manager Mary gives the responsibility of vacuuming the floors to Janitor Joe.

Joe has the responsibility to vacuum the floors every day with the vacuum machine.

One day, the power goes out on Joe in the evening. He can’t vacuum.

The next day, everyone shows up at the office and the floors are not clean.

Joe’s manager Mary asks Joe: “Why are the floors not clean?”

Joe responds: “The power went out. I couldn’t vacuum.”

Mary accepts that Joe blamed the power outage, and goes about her business.

Across the street, there is another fictional company named AccountableCo.

At AccountableCo, Manager Mike makes Janitor Jim accountable for keeping the floors clean when everyone comes to work in the morning.

Like Joe, Janitor Jim experienced a power outage while vacuuming the previous night.

But, instead of giving up, Janitor Jim went and got candles from the local store. Jim then went and borrowed a non-electric vacuum from his buddy Steve.

And Jim spent additional time that evening – by candlight – manually vacumming to ensure that the floors were clean.

When everyone got to work at AccountableCo, all the floors were clean.

Jim told Manager Mike about the previous night’s ordeal, and Mike reimbursed Jim for the candles and also requisitioned a non-electric vacuum in case it happened in the future.

He also spoke to the property manager about installing a backup generator so that this might be mitigated in the future.

See the difference?

Let’s go through a few examples of what responsible vs accountable behavior sounds like:

Responsible salespeople say: “I gotta cold call on 100 customers this month”

Accountable salespeople say: “I gotta close $100K of business this month”

Responsible engineers say: “I gotta code forĀ 40 hours this iteration”

Accountable engineers say: “I gotta satisfy our users by shipping the planned features this iteration – fully working – with 90% test coverage and get them deployed to production safely.”

Responsible Marketers say: “I gotta run 10 new campaigns this week”

Accountable Marketers say: “I gotta deliver 1000 new customers at a CAC of $10”

Now think about your job. Think about your company.

Are you responsible for doing a job? Or accountable for the results?

Is your company like AccountableCo or ResponsiCorp?

Which type of place would you rather work?

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