The Key to Accountability: “We should…” vs. “I will…”

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”   – Leo Tolstoy

I have frequently been asked, “How can our organization increase accountability?” And I typically respond with something like, “Make an action plan and then publicize it.” It’s well-understood that making a public commitment is a very powerful motivator.

There’s strong empirical evidence to show that a choice made actively – one that’s spoken out loud or written down or otherwise made explicit – is considerably more likely to direct someone’s future conduct than the same choice left unspoken. [1]

This is very simple, and easy to do. But for some reason, organizations struggle with getting to that public commitment.

I think I’ve stumbled upon the missing link.

To make a long story short: I was recently part of a series of division-level planning meetings. There were many ideas raised, dutifully recorded on flip charts, and there were good discussions and acclaims of, “Yes, we should do that.”

Toward the final hour of the last meeting, the division leader ended the discussion and challenged his team – It’s time to stop the “we should…” and start the “I will…”

The impact of this simple statement was astonishing. I’ve been reflecting on it since then, trying to put my finger on what had happened. Here’s what I came up with:

We should - I will table

  1. Consensus is the enemy of accountability – it can prevent it. It “feels good” and teams have a sense of accomplishment after reaching a consensus. But a leader who lets a discussion end at “we should…” is enabling the inaction problem.
  2. “We should…” allows room for pie-in-the-sky ideas. There is a time and place for that. But “I will…” immediately causes you to focus on what is actually achievable within your control; within your time and resource constraints. We should solve world hunger – who disagrees with that? What will you do to solve world hunger?
  3. Similarly, “we should…” allows thinking in long time-frames, while “I will…” results in near-term focus.
  4. “We should…” allows undefined solutions – i.e., “we should automate that process.” “I will…” thinking makes you think of the actual process of developing a solution. I.e., I will sponsor a meeting to define the goal and begin documenting the current state.
  5. “We should; reduce scrap, improve customer satisfaction, decrease cycle-time.” All of these examples are good goals, but they are not actionable. Instead, try “I will; propose two ways to reduce scrap, Improve customer satisfaction, decrease cycle-time.” These are tangible actions that an individual can plan to execute.

Summary

Too frequently, teams mistakenly think that their goal is simply to agree on something they “should” do; a vision, a goal, or a direction. If you are coaching a business leader, remind them; As soon as you agree on “we should…” – follow it up with “I will…”

[1] Cialdini, Robert B. “Harnessing the Science of Persuasion.” Harvard Business Review, October 2001: 72-79.

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