Unstructured Tasks : The Key To Accountability Is Visibility

Written by Ian James, Nov 27, 2012

Unstructured tasks lack clarity but the key to accountability is visibility. Measurement is one thing is accountability another.

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Accountability is a key discipline in any well-run organization. You don’t need to administer it with a heavy hand for it to be effective. But it does need clarity of measurement, a bright line between done and not done. Usually there is some set of metrics that we look at, at regular intervals. We track progress and make decisions based on where we are and where we want to be.

Measurement is one thing and accountability is another. It works best when you can link the two. Give someone responsibility for a single measurement and they know they are accountable.  And that makes it much more likely that they will get the job done.

But informal processes often lack this clarity. We get some idea into our heads or we have a discussion or a phone call. Out of that we decide to ask someone to take some action or other. Then some time later, we realize we have no clue if the job is complete. Nor have we had any update on progress. Now, I know some people have an aggressive follow up system. But not many of us do.

You could argue that if something is important enough, then you will keep an eye on it. And I suppose that is true in some cases. But there are many things we ask of each other without a lot of ceremony. In doing so, we set of a train of events that we could not plan out. In other words, these are unstructured processes. Well, it turns out that there a lot more of these unstructured tasks than we realize. They often add the most value or demand the most creativity. So, they do matter and there are a lot of them.

 So how do we fix this?

At least when it comes to informal processes, my experience is that it boils down to the invisibility of information. It’s not like a manufacturing assembly line, where you can see exactly what is going on because it is right in front of you. Informal tasks are often initiated by email or in a meeting or phone call. And then we move on the next thing.

I know I kind of assume that I have reliable folks working for me and that they will get back to me without further prompting. For the most part they do. The trouble is that they are only human. That’s when things fall through the cracks.

Information, unless you expose it in some way is invisible. So I spend a lot of time with clients working with them to find ways to make process visible. Without it, you lose the ability to hold people accountable.

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