How To Create a Culture of Accountability in an Engineering Organization

What is a Culture of Accountability?

A Culture of Accountability is one where the whole team understands they’re working towards a common goal to help the organization succeed then proactively works to deliver value on behalf of your organization, and pivots to help fix mistakes as they occur. It is a culture where each person feels a sense of ownership over their work and understands the impact of this work to the larger community of your organization and your customers.

Cultivating a healthy culture of accountability is critical to the success of organizations of all sizes. When the organization as a whole has a healthy attitude towards accountability, this can encourage people within the organization to feel responsible and engaged to ensure things go smoothly.

This level of commitment from everyone in your organization will have an extraordinary impact on the work you do. Your team will be more proactive in taking on new work, facing new challenges, and responding to problems in a healthier way. This will help them, and your entire organization, achieve better results.

How to Build a Culture of Accountability: Getting started

Know Your Starting Point

In order to build a culture of accountability and trust, you’ll first need to recognize that everyone coming into your organization brings with them a set of experiences around the word “accountability” - some of them align with a healthy culture around accountability, but unfortunately some also will harm your intent to build a healthy relationship with accountability within the organization.

Next, you’ll need to assess where your organization stands. Like we’ve written before on cultivating an open culture, you’ll need to evaluate how you tackle specific issues and understand how it was handled. Take a look at your team’s last few projects - it can be an incident or the implementation of a new feature. You can use questions like these to understand your team’s level of accountability:

  1. How would you rate your communication? Did your team understand the problem they were set to solve?

  2. How about the communication within your team? Or with the larger organization, if any was needed?

  3. What was the prevailing attitude towards taking on this piece of work?

  4. When an undesired and unassigned task needed ownership, did anyone volunteer?

  5. Was it the same person that always volunteers? Did multiple people volunteer?

  6. When something went wrong, how did the task-responsible party act? How did the team act toward the responsible party? How did you, as a leader, act?

Accountability is not a natural skill (think of when you were a child and how you acted when you got in trouble), so poor behavior should be easy to recognize and rate. As with any change management process, surveying your team can also help find additional areas to be addressed, but you should be clear about the intended outcomes. If you do find more you’d like to address during this audit, take a moment to find the highest value thing to change first. It can be overwhelming for your team to tackle too much work, or change, at one time.

It is also important, as a leader, to make sure this change is led by you, as a leader in the team or organization. When you model having a healthy attitude towards accountability, this will help your team to feel safe in taking a stronger lead in being accountable as well. It can be scary for people to stand up and take ownership of a task if they fear negative consequences from leadership, so it is critical that you help set the stage for them to feel safe.

Building a Plan and Obtaining Buy-In

Shifting your engineering organization to a new culture requires clear expectations and standards for workflow and functionality. As with cultivating an open culture, change always begins with management. The leaders of your team need to not only act in the way they want their team to act, but also empower everyone in their positions and abilities.

For the leader who has trouble letting go, empowering your team will not be easy. Your team will make mistakes. You will not only have to demonstrate accountability, but you will have to be supportive and trusting of your teams - even when they don’t seem certain of what to do or make mistakes. You may even have to give them the authority to run with an idea, even if you are well aware it may not work out. It’s nearly impossible to predict every cause of an incident, so having a team that can approach these issues with confidence will save you from communication breakdowns, not to mention your MTTR.

If you haven’t already done so, implement a blameless retrospective (postmortem ) process. Even when things go right, there is something to learn from the process of reflection, and if you’re in the habit of having retrospectives on a regular cadence, in a blameless way, you will find iterative improvements to make over time. Creating a positive feedback loop and work environment will increase productivity and collaboration, and lead to an ideal outcome of an engaged and trusted team.

Culture shift takes time

“What is tough to earn is easy to lose” is a great motif to keep in mind for creating and maintaining your company culture. When major issues arise, you’ll want your team to rely on the established relationships they’ve built internally, as that feeds a better experience for the team-driven problem solving necessary to fix problems in development. So keep at it, even when it doesn’t seem to work, and you’ll reap the benefits of building a productive culture of accountability.


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