Achieving High Performance With Accountability

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Shawn Rhodes is an international expert in creating High-Performance teams in organizations and in this episode his shares tips on how you can improve the performance of your team.

Based in Tampa, Florida, Shawn is a TEDx speaker and his work studying organizations in more than two dozen countries has been published in news outlets around the world including TIME, CNN, NBC and INC. His clients have included Deloitte, ConAgra, Serta-Sealy, and dozens of similar businesses. Shawn is also a nationally-syndicated columnist with the Business Journals and author of the new book “Pivot Point: Turn On A Dime Without Sacrificing Results”

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Key points from Episode 61 – “Achieving High Performance With Accountability”:


My work started here in the United States with the Department of Defence. I was one of the few people that they commissioned to study team performance in some of the most challenging environments on the planet. That’s the journey that took me through two-dozen countries embedded with civilian combat units that were working on behalf of our military here. My job was to study best practices. How do they take a group of people that might not know each other, give them a shared/common planning language, and then set them loose on some challenging objectives? Surprisingly, we had a 98% and 100% success rate.

When I got out of the military because as you can imagine getting shot at is not something you want to make a continuing life decision around, I began applying it to organizations. I found out there are massive profitability and execution gaps in most organizations that wish they could be more efficient and effective. I began applying what I learned in the military to publically and privately owned civilian organizations.

What is high-performance accountability? When did you see it in action?

High-performance accountability is a way not only to hold people responsible for executing accountable—the people that are either programming the code or working with the clients—but also the leadership. It’s everyone in an organization being hyper accountable for producing results.

I first saw high-performance accountability in action in combat when I was embedded with military teams in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. I was surprised that they could take even an 18-year-old with barely a high school education, no university, and say, “Here’s what we need you to do, here’s how to get it done, now go make it happen.” The young men and women were held accountable in such a way that they could innovate solutions along the way. They were given free rein to go out there and innovate as long as they could produce that result in the best way possible.

When I’m teaching these inside organizations around the world, one thing they’re concerned with is, “We don’t want our people to be lockstep military folk. We want to be a civilian organization.” They should be a civilian organization, but if they don’t hold their people accountable, then they won’t know where a plan went off track. At the end or middle of a plan, they won’t be able to stay on track and get the desired results.

As project professionals, why have we let go of knowing who is tasked with doing what and by when?

As planning professionals you are busy. You are managing a lot of people with many different tasks. It’s almost something that we take for granted when we tell someone, “Here’s what we need to be accomplished.” They’re going to go out there and do it on the timeline that we need it done. Unfortunately, communication is where a lot of things go wrong. As leaders and project professionals, we assume that our workers understand the importance of timelines, the exact way that something needs to be produced, and what the end product is supposed to look like—whether that’s internal change management initiative or line of code. It doesn’t matter what it is we just assume that people know when they don’t know. We have to hold them accountable for not only producing something on a particular timeline but also being aware of what that end product is supposed to look like.

We’ve let go because we get busy. That’s what it comes down to. We get busy managing a bunch of people that we don’t have time to focus on along the way. Sometimes we’re dealing with multiple projects, so we don’t have time to reach down to an individual and see if they know what they’re doing.

In the military and high-performance organizations, they have to make the time. A wrong step could mean not only a loss of profitability and resources but also a loss of life.

How should we introduce high-performance accountability?

You have to start before the project begins. It is possible to inject it halfway through or at the tail end of a project but to make it easy start with the next project you’re tasked managing. To introduce it, you have to define: Who is supposed to do what and by when? How will we know it’s been done?

Example: Who, what, and when?

Johnny, you’re tasked with performing these actions—A, B, and C. A, B, and C may be writing a line of code or selling an enterprise wide solution for a software company by fall or September 30.

How will we know it has been done?

You could sell that thing tomorrow, and it could move my entire timeline project up, which is great. If we don’t have an open line of communication where you’re going to inform me via email, text, Skype, etc. to tell me this project has been done, then I will never know it has been completed.

There has to be a way for leadership at every level of a project to understand when actions have been completed. This can be done by a software management system, project management system, email, text message, etc., then make sure you’re asking your people to let you know that something has been completed.

If you introduce this at the beginning of projects when you’re issuing statements of work or tasks, it’s going to make your life as a project manager so much easier having that high-performance accountability.

Do we include how well it’s done?

If that’s important to the outcome of your project, then absolutely include it. The reason that high-performance accountability works all the way through a project is: Let’s say you don’t have the information, resources, or a piece of software you need if you don’t let me know the need as soon as it’s a need, then you might put it off. This could cause the entire project timeline to slip. It’s vital to let me know the standard system you have in your organization so that I can know what to expect results wise and plan accordingly to my resources.

Isn’t this communication inherent?

It is, however, people have different ways of communicating. It is a given that when you hire someone, they’re expected to perform certain functions that they agree to when they take on that role. People have different ways of communicating how they get things done. For some of us, it’s visual, auditory, or tactile. There are many different communication and learning skills that people have, so as a manager you have to be aware that everyone is going to take in things differently. Even with producing the same product at the same standard, you need to consider different factors. How do they communicate along the way what they need? How do they need it? What are the challenges they bump into? What are the risks, and the resources they need outside the organization? People are going to have a different way of letting you know how those things come into play. If you as a project manager don’t have accountability of who your people are, where they’re supposed to be, what they’re doing, and how it’s going to be done, then you can have the brightest people in the world, but still, fail.

Is this perceived as a sensitive topic?

Sometimes it is because individual leaders don’t want to come down on their people like a hammer. In the military and manufacturing firms I’ve worked in, people know that a lot is at risk safety-wise if something isn’t done in a certain order. If I have a project with a complicated machine, heavy parts, and a lot of pieces that could injure someone if put together incorrectly, then it would make sense that we need to be a little bit stricter. If you’re writing a line of code that’s four layers deep in a software management system then maybe it’s not as essential that you ride somebody hard to make sure that it’s done in a certain way.

However, it’s important with high-performance accountability that we know things have been performed to a certain standard. As you know, if one person gives me a C-level product instead of an A-level product, and what they’re giving is part of an overall project, it could affect the functionality of something on the tail end. It’s incumbent upon all leaders to hold accountable whether they’re using high-performance accountability or another system to achieve the overall goal/objective on the timeline that the client wants it, and whether that client is internal or external to their organization.

Do workers feel less accountable when they know their leader is accountable as well?

The interesting thing about high-performance accountability is it’s not just a methodology: who is supposed to do what, by when, and how will we know it’s been accomplished. It’s a part of the culture of an organization. That culture reaches down to every single level—to the janitor, computer programmer, to the person facing the client to the leaders at the top level.

In the military, we call that ownership. No matter what job I’m responsible for accomplishing I take ownership for that and if it doesn’t happen on the right timeline, I don’t point the finger and say, “Well this person is my boss, they’re supposed to hold me accountable and on task.” That’s not the way high-performance accountability works. The individual at the low level takes responsibility to let their supervisors know this timeline might slip and I need these resources to accomplish the task.

What metrics should we or can we use to hold people accountable? Is it too soft to measure?

In addition to the four hard metrics, I gave you earlier of who, what, when, and how, you set those metrics up before you give someone the task. If you want to be a high-performing team, then you involve responsible for performing those tasks in your planning. You get all of the people in the same room or on a Skype call that might be responsible for leadership and say, “here’s the plan. Let’s set out who is supposed to do what by when and how will we know as a team that is has been accomplished.”

In addition to that, you also need to paint an end-state for what that piece of software, project, program, and machinery needs to accomplish at the tail end. When you’re building it, you’re building it towards a defined end state and not just saying, “We’re producing eight pieces of software, but we’re not sure what it’s supposed to accomplish and under what bandwidth for the user.”

These elements have to be defined at the beginning so that everyone at every level of the project knows what they’re building. In that way, they can see if they need to change their courses of action. You may issue it as a leader and your people on the ground may say, “That will never work if that’s your end state.” It’s valuable to have that information at the beginning rather than to find out ¾ of the way through the project and your timeline completely goes away.

It’s always too late to measure accountability at the end.

What I advocate organization to do is to hold quick—10-15 minute long—weekly meetings where you get a team together, and you have your courses of action for that time in front of you, on a spreadsheet, in a tracking system. Since you have timelines of who is supposed to do what by when you know if you’ll be on track to meet your overall goal. If you see the box is green all the way down to today’s date, then you know you’re on track. As a leader, you know before the project is going to end that you need to change something. If you have a yellow or red, then you know someone is about to slip, or you have a timeline overdue, put in more resources, coders, etc. to meet your timeline. Accountability has to happen through regular check-ins whether that’s everyone on the team getting together or leadership getting together. It’s important to track it along the way, so you don’t end up in the last-hour scenario having to push an inferior product out with your name on it.

Do you think this high-performance accountability tends to indirectly or directly cause a bit of “ass-covering”?

It’s vital that if a timeline does slip, then everyone involved with that project takes ownership with it whether that’s because one person made an error or because we entirely underestimate the amount of work this thing was going to need. Take ownership of it. Once you take ownership of it, then you can assume responsibility for it. As a leader, if I notice something is going off the rails, I do nothing about it, and the entire timeline slips, then I can’t cover my ass by placing blame. I take ownership of that and explain how I’m going to fix it. In addition to high-performance accountability, ownership has to come into play.

Other do’s or don’t when planning, implementing or measuring high-performance accountability?

DO: Make sure you have single points of accountability for your large projects. If I’m the project manager of over 30 different projects that all tie together to produce one result, then there are 30 single points of accountability, if not less. Some people can manage multiple projects in leadership positions. What I don’t want to get into the habit of doing is having 30 different projects and let’s say one project involves 50 people. I don’t want to have to call 50 people and see how that project is tracking. I need to call one person in charge of one project and say, “How are we doing on that? How’s the timeline going?” That happens through weekly or bi-weekly check-in meetings.

DO: Establish end dates and timelines. It shouldn’t be, we need to get this done by the end of the year, but we need to get this done by 3 pm on December 15th. If you have firm timelines for people, then it’s hard for a timeline to slip. You see with quarterly goals, that if people haven’t met them, then they push to finish it and make mistakes or lower the quality. If we know we have to comply with these metrics along the way in a quarter, then I know at each point in the quarter exactly how I’m doing, so I’m not rushing last minute.

DO: Track how it’s been done so that they can be shared. When something has been accomplished, let your organization, team, project manager, etc. know it’s been accomplished, so they can direct your resources elsewhere. This way the whole team can come across the finish line together.

DON’T: Reward people based on individual contributions. Reward them based on the project being completed as a whole on the correct timeline. This forces people into a team mentality instead of having individuals check out once their job is done—that’s not how a high-performing team works. Once they’re done, then they should be contributing their materials to getting the overall project done.

Does this kind of structure stifle morale or innovation?

I think it increases morale, especially when you reward people as a whole for completing the project as a whole and not just on an individual basis. It fosters a team mentality and encourages contribution.

In regards to innovation, if you give people a timeline and don’t micromanage how they accomplish those goals, they’re going to figure out innovative ways to get that job done, especially when you challenge them with those timelines and encourage them to reach out to those resources. That’s how we innovate in the military all the time. We give people the end state and say how you get there is up to you—do it smarter, faster, and cheaper.

Do you think it’s contributing to continuous improvement of projects?

Absolutely. If you can track accountability through these lists of who is supposed to do what, by when, and how will we know it’s getting done, at the end of the project you can go back to your list and say, “this one item slipped early at the beginning of the project. Why did it slip? What resources didn’t we have available? Where did we go wrong? How can we improve?” Or maybe everything went right, and we finished in half the time, “What did we do well that we could apply to future projects? Did we have the right team members, resources, and projects? Now that we’ve completed it in half the time can we use that as a differentiator? Can we advertise that inside our organization and to our clients?” If you can track accountability, you can easily reach an entire project timeline and see where you went right, wrong, and how it can be bettered next time. That is exactly how continuous improvement occurs.

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