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The Roman Arch: A Lesson In Accountability.


“The ancient Romans had a tradition: whenever one of their engineers constructed an arch, as the capstone was hoisted into place, the engineer assumed accountability for his work in the most profound way possible: he stood under the arch.”
— C. Michael Armstrong, former Chairman of AT&T

I can’t speak to the accuracy of Mr. Armstrong’s quote but it does paint a vivid picture of accountability.   The engineer may not have physically placed each of the stones but was willing to stake more than just his reputation on his design for the arch.

I often hear the words accountability and responsibility used interchangeably.  Worse, I hear one of these two used as the definition of the other.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines accountability as “The quality or state of being accountable; especially : an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions <public officials lacking accountability>.”

It further defines responsibility as “The quality or state of being responsible: as a : moral, legal, or mental accountability b : reliability, trustworthiness.

These recursive definitions do nothing to clarify the words themselves nor the notion of either concept as it relates to real world activities.

I offer these definitions to help clearly identify the difference between the two:

Responsibility
Having the authority to directly cause an action, event or chain of events.

Accountability
Having legal, fiscal or professional exposure for actions caused by yourself or others, whether or not those actions were within your direct control.

It is important to understand these two words are, in fact, not interchangeable.

When I was eight or nine years old, I was playing catch with a friend of mine in the street in front of our houses.  I can distinctly remember tossing the baseball and watching it head straight for a green Volkswagen Beetle parked at the curb.  Yes, you guessed it.  The ball hit the windshield and cracked it.  Whoops!

In this case, I was clearly the one responsible for breaking the windshield.  It was my action that caused the windshield to be broken.  However, I wasn’t the one that would be held accountable for the window.  That would fall to my father.  It was his bank account that would be debited to replace the window, even though he had no direct involvement in the window being broken.  He held the fiscal exposure.  (True Story)

On July 17, 1981 in Kansas City, Missouri, a walkway collapse at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, killed 114 people and injured more than 200 others.  It was, at that time, the deadliest structural collapse in U.S. history.  The investigation pointed toward changes to the original design and a lack of communication regarding those changes as the cause of the collapse.

None of the construction workers themselves (those responsible for physically erecting the structure) were deemed at fault.  In terms of accountability, the engineers involved lost their licenses and the engineering firm that signed off on the final drawings lost it’s license as an engineering firm (professional exposure).  The hotel franchisee paid out more than $140 million in damages along with additional damages being paid by various insurance companies (fiscal exposure).  Ultimately billions of dollars were paid as a result of multiple civil cases brought by the victims and their families (legal exposure).

Both of these examples clearly demonstrate the difference between accountability and responsibility.

In ITIL terms, the service desk, as the single point of contact, has ultimate accountability for an incident.  In most cases, the service desk has both responsibility and accountability to resolve the incident (e.g. password resets).  If the service desk must rely on sub-groups or a vendor to resolve an incident, they retain accountability but transfer responsibility for each action necessary to resolve the incident to the sub-group.  A simple way to demonstrate this in the ticket tracking system (TTS) is to have the incident remain in the service desk queue and have subordinate tickets opened to the responsible group(s) for each necessary action.  In this way we can measure the performance of each group, or technician, individually as well as the overall resolution of the incident.

This same concept applies directly to any business model.  As a hiring manager, I am accountable for the actions of everyone within my organization.  If someone in my organization was found to have violated a corporate policy, I have professional exposure for their actions.  If they were violating the law related to their actions at work, I may have legal exposure.  If they fail to meet their service targets, I have fiscal exposure as it relates to my bonus or compensation.

In our personal lives, we all take actions and make choices in which we are held accountable and/or responsible.  I ask you, are you willing to stand under your arch?

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~ by Marc Hedish on January 20, 2010.

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