Issue #1: The Case of the Missing Authority (Part 2 of 3)

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The Adventures of Hobart Issue 1: The Case of The Missing Authority Pulp Fiction CoverMike, VP of Operations, Joyce, the head of Organizational Development, Lucy, a Product Manager and Simon, the Training Director, were gathered in one of the boardrooms at Diversifier, Inc. when Hobart and I arrived. They looked like they were waiting for a jury verdict.

Hobart went to the front of the room and began to pace. Finally, he turned and faced the group.

“Good news,” he said. “This problem you have with product teams is easy to fix.” Everyone looked relieved.

“Bad news,” he continued and suddenly the mood of the room changed.

“There’s a lot more work you should be doing to operationalize this restructure, but you don’t have the stomach for another major change so we won’t be talking about that today. We can talk when you call me back in a year or so.”

No one said a word. Hobart really knows how to warm up a crowd.

Finally, Mike said, “Can we get back to the good news?” Everyone chuckled.

I jumped in, “Absolutely. Hobart?”

Hobart launched into diagnostic mode. “Let’s sum up the specific issues you called me about. First, there is the issue of how are you going to create product alignment after you restructured with a focus on regions.

“Then there are two main issues with the product managers. The first is you don’t consider them to be leaders because they don’t have direct reports and the second is that the product teams don’t report to them so they don’t know how to lead them. Team leaders think they need to be able to tell people what to do using lines of authority in order to lead a team.” Lucy was smiling now.

“The third issue is your constant restructuring” continued Hobart. “What would you say, Mike, every two years or so?”

“About three.”

“Oh, well that’s great.” Hobart was being his sarcastic self.

“Let’s start with the first issue of product managers not being leaders. Why wouldn’t they still be leaders?” asked Hobart.

Mike jumped in, “Well they don’t have anyone reporting to them anymore.”


“You have to have direct reports to be a leader.”

“Says who?” asked Hobart.

Mike looked confused, as did Joyce. Lucy was smiling.

Hobart continued, “Let me ask you this – have their jobs changed?”

“No, not really,” said Mike.

“Are they still accountable for getting products out the door and delivered to your customers?”


“Can they do that job on their own or do they need a team?”

“They need a team,” answered Mike.

“So, is their role in the organization the same as what it was?”

“Yes, I guess it is,” Mike agreed.

“So, nothing has changed except some solid lines on the org chart?”

Mike was having an aha! moment. “So, we just need to change our definition of a leader!”

I smiled. I loved it when they had a breakthrough.

“Yes,” said Hobart, smiling. “Base your definition of a leader on her span of accountability instead of span of control.”

Now Joyce was the one looking totally baffled. “What does that mean?” she asked.

I jumped in to explain. “You know what a span of control is, right? It spans all the people who directly or indirectly report to you.” I drew a diagram on the whiteboard.

“Yes, that looks familiar,” said Joyce.

“The span of accountability covers the portfolio of goals and deliverables you have committed to produce for the organization. It might look something like this:”

“What are the numbers on the left?” asked Joyce.

“Those are the cross-functional priorities.”

“Ah, I see. So this portfolio represents one leader’s span of control,” said Joyce.

“No, their span of accountability,” I replied.

“Oh, right.”

Mike jumped in, “So, the span of accountability is that portion of the strategic plan that a leader has the accountability to achieve.”

“Exactly!” said Hobart, as he suddenly came to life, looking quite impressed with Mike.

And I continued, “If your accountability requires you to work through other people to accomplish your goals, as opposed to doing most of the work yourself, then you’re a leader.”

“Oh, that’s new!” said Joyce. She jotted some notes down in the notebook she was using to take notes.

Hobart took over, “Accountability is the key to making a matrix work – to being able to work in two dimensions, simultaneously.”

“Let’s talk about the product team members. How do you align them with the product managers even though they report to the regions?”

Joyce ventured a guess, “Through accountability?”

“That’s right.”

And then silence descended like a blanket of fog. I could see their minds trying to make sense of this concept.

Lucy finally spoke, “So, how exactly does that work?”

I stood up and took over. Hobart doesn’t have the patience to explain how things work.

“First, you’ll need to change your concept of accountability. The kind of accountability you use probably goes something like this . . .” and I walked to the whiteboard and began to write.

  1. In order to be accountable, you have to have authority.
  2. When something goes wrong, you look for who is accountable for the mistake.
  3. If more than one person is accountable, no one is accountable.

Everyone nodded in agreement as they wrote down these three statements.

Lucy spoke first, “Yes, I’d say that describes our approach to accountability.”

“Except around here when something goes wrong we look to see whose throat to choke.”

“Throat to choke? You’re kidding, right?” I was astonished but I shouldn’t have been.

“Afraid not,” said Lucy.

“Wow. Okay, so let’s talk about the throat to choke approach. What kind of problems does that cause in your organization?”

Joyce responded, “It creates a culture of fear and blame. People are afraid to take risks or act on their own because they are afraid of the consequences.”

She shot a look at Mike. I think they’d had this conversation before.

“Exactly,” I said. “And if the boss is the one doing the strangling, then he’s the person people listen to. That’s bad news for Lucy, but also bad news for the organization because people don’t perform their best in a culture of fear and blame.”

“You’re right,” said Mike. “We need to change that. But my concern is that people will slack off.”

“Punishment is not an effective means to get people working together and accomplishing their goals. Quite the opposite, actually.

“Let’s talk about assumption # 1 – the need for authority. This assumption has been around for over 50 years and it’s time we got rid of it. You don’t need authority to be accountable.”

Lucy looked concerned. “But how do I get my team to do what I want if I don’t have authority?”

Hobart grunted, but I ignored him and moved on, “That is the crux of the problem in a matrix – being able to lead without authority. And we do that by creating a new system of accountability, which we’ll talk about in a minute. For now, let’s be clear, you don’t need authority to lead and in fact, it’s not a good idea to use authority to lead, even if you have it.”

I let that sink in for a minute and then when onto assumption #3. “The third statement is really key. Having only one person accountable is a big problem.”

“But,” interrupted Mike, “if more than one person is accountable, then . . .”

I interrupted him in return. “Then no one is accountable.”

“Yes, that’s what I was going to say.”

“What’s wrong with that assumption?” I asked.

Everyone looked like they were pondering the question but no one had an answer.

“Because the assumption is based on using accountability to place blame instead of using accountability to get the results you need. This assumption is reactive – after things go wrong, who do we blame? You need a proactive approach to accountability – how do we ensure things go right?”

“Yes, I like that,” said Mike. He now seemed to be fully engaged in the conversation. Hobart was actually smiling.

“Let’s look at accountability this way – we call this matrix accountability.” I wrote on the whiteboard: Matrix Accountability

  1. Accountability is preventative.

“Don’t you want to prevent problems from occurring rather than cleaning up the mess after they happen?”

Everyone nodded and smiled.

  1. Accountability is not based on having authority.

“Leaders need to be able to lead without authority, whether or not you have what is called a formal matrix structure.”

I drew another picture on the whiteboard.

“Not only do Lucy and the other product managers need to be accountable for their products without having authority, but other leaders do as well – they might be leading an initiative staffed by a team of peers, over which they have no authority. They have to be able to lead without authority and they have to be accountable without having authority.”

“Makes sense,” said Joyce.

  1. You need both team and individual accountability to make cross-functional teams work.

“What is team accountability?” asked Simon. So, he was awake.

“Team accountability is the accountability that everyone on the team shares to ensure the goals the team commits to are accomplished. Let me show you.”

“So, Lucy, how would team accountability help you and your product team?”

“Well if everyone was accountable for our product goals, then I wouldn’t need authority, would I, because we’d all be on the hook for the same thing.”

“This makes sense,” said Mike.

Hobart stood up. “Mike, do you see now how you can get a product focus using team accountability while you maintain a regional focus through vertical reporting relationships?”

“Right!” exclaimed Mike as he had a light bulb moment.

“Hmmm, yes, I do see. The team members report to the regions but they have accountability for the product so they are focused both regionally and by product. I like it! But how do I get the regional directors to also support the products?”

“There is a third kind of accountability, and that is organizational accountability. Penelope, explain it to him.”

Hobart sat back down and looked half asleep again.

“Organizational accountability is the accountability to support any and all organizational goals. If the goals of the products are strategic and important, then the regional directors, actually everyone in the organization, has an accountability to support them.”

“Interesting,” mumbled Mike as he wrote this down.

Hobart spoke directly to Mike, “When you want both a regional and a product focus, use accountability to accomplish it instead of moving boxes around on the org chart.”

Mike nodded and smiled.

“So,” says Lucy, “organizational accountability means the regional directors need to support my product by having their people work on my team and team accountability says the team members need to work with me to make the product a success. I think that will work!”

Hobart spoke up again. “I wish it were just that simple. You also need to know how to lead without authority. Accountability is key but it’s not the whole banana. I need coffee. Let’s take a break.”

We agreed to meet back in the boardroom in 15 minutes. Hobart was already gone.