Monday, November 30, 2009

Holding Leaders Accountable? Don't Forget Forgiveness!

Holding Leaders Accountable? Don't Forget Forgiveness!

Preparing for a trip to New York today, and I was going through some old magazines in my office and came across this one -- the June 2000 issue of Fast Company -- thick (418 pages) with the provocative cover "Enough Talk! It's Time for Results -- Are You Getting It Done?"

This was some fun reading. While the cover could be published today (it's still all about results, or should be), a few of the articles held up and a few of them reflected the mindsets we all had nearly 10 years ago. Check out page 88 -- a record company exec argues that CDs are here to stay, not those pesky MP3 players!

The article that holds up most is one by Alan Webber (no surprise - he's brilliant) on how to get things done. My favorite part is the section about accountability. Here it is:

Doing means learning. Learning means mistakes.

If companies genuinely want to move from knowing to doing, they need to build a forgiveness framework -- a tolerance for error and failure -- into their culture. A company that wants you to come up with a smart idea, implement that idea quickly, and learn in the process has to be willing to cut you some slack. You need to be able to try things, even if you think that you might fail.

The absolute opposite mind-set is one that appears to be enjoying a lot of favor at the moment: the notion that we have to hold people accountable for their performance. Companies today are holding their employees accountable -- not only for trying and learning new things, but also for the results of their actions. If you want to see how that mind-set affects performance, compare the ways that American Airlines and Southwest Airlines approach accountability -- and then compare those two airlines' performances.

American Airlines has decided to emphasize accountability, right down to the departmental -- and even the individual -- level. If a plane is late, American wants to know whose fault it is. So if a plane is late, what do American employees do? They spend all of their time making sure that they don't get blamed for it. And while everyone is busy covering up, no one is thinking about the customer.

Southwest Airlines has a system for covering late arrivals: It's called "team delay." Southwest doesn't worry too much about accountability; it isn't interested in pinning blame. The company is interested only in getting the plane in the air and in learning how to prevent delays from happening in the future.

Now ask yourself this: If you're going to be held accountable for every mistake that you make, how many chances are you going to take? How eager are you going to be to convert your ideas into actions?

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