Last week I consulted to a young tech startup near Boston. To my surprise, I walked into a party. The team of five employees were having a blast playing video-games, tossing popcorn around and drawing graffiti-like images on the huge whiteboard. I was there for four hours. I noticed relatively short breaks from the festivities when the team dispersed to their offices. After periods of about 30 minutes the party started up again.

I asked Ted, the founder in his mid 30’s, “Was this a celebration day for a project well done, a goal achieved?  “No,” Ted reported, “This is what goes on in between their work periods. They work best in concentrated chunks of time with long breaks in between.” The founder’s concern was that these breaks seemed to be getting longer and work time shorter. The team generally knew what they were expected to produce each month, but oversight was lax. Ted was traveling often to drum up business, and progress reporting was spotty. Two of the investors noted dips in the bottom line and started asking about the team’s accountability.

Ted was stuck as to how to keep the work culture lively and hold the team responsible for meeting the expected results. “I want my team to enjoy working here – they are a brilliant, but distractible bunch. But I don’t know how to rein them in and keep the enthusiasm. There’s some pretty tedious, but essential work amidst the creative work that’s not getting done. It’s stressing me out the more I ignore it.”

To console Ted, I shared a study mentioned in the book Fixit: Getting Accountability Right by Roger Collins and Tom Smith, in which the researchers asked respondents to select one reason why they find holding people accountable difficult. These results accurately reflect the problems I notice in many small companies, and it could explain Ted’s reluctance to hold his team responsible for the outcome:

1)  12%  I don’t like confrontation.

2)  14%  I don’t want to lose rapport and make people not like me.

3)  16%  No one else does it, so it makes me look like the bad guy.

4) 50%  I’m not sure how to do it in a way that yields good results.

5) 8%   Other.

Ted was torn between responses 1, 2 and 4.

I assured Ted that there are creative and effective ways to infuse “friendly accountability” in the group without risking morale:

  • The first step is to acknowledge the problem in terms of reaching “the numbers” and sharing this data with the staff. The reactions to how the company is falling short may reveal who is committed to the project and who’s there for a good time.
  • Clarifying targets and asking for ways to meet those targets enhances communication and fosters buy-in. Get employees’ input on whether it means stretching out the work day or flipping the duration of time spent relaxing versus working.
  • Assigning a peer as a team leader could keep the team on track when Ted is on the road.
  • I also suggested that when energy dips (around 3:00p.m) to schedule a brisk 20 minute walk to discuss progress or any problems affecting their ability to meet the targets. Some exercise and personal connection could ignite another couple hours of focus and productivity.

Ted agreed to have this conversation with his team and follow up with me next week.

Are you afraid of the “A” word? Let me help you and your team become more comfortable with accountability. [email protected]  

 

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