Ownership matters: How to encourage employee accountability

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Whether in a private or professional setting: Success most often occurs when accountability is taken⁠—accountability for one’s self and specific tasks or even mistakes and other people. Some people seem born to take on responsibility and assume a leadership role. Others have a hard time with the idea and usually stay in the background. But even for those who are more introverted and shy away from taking ownership, there are ways to get them excited about particular responsibilities and help them develop in this direction. After all, a balanced distribution of responsibility not only highlights individual strengths, it can have a positive effect on the entire organization, too.

In this article, we will show you how this can be done, why it is important, and what tools can help along the way.

What does accountability (and ownership) actually mean?

The term ownership - personal responsibility or accountability in general - describes the obligation of an individual to take responsibility for their own actions or the actions of another person they are responsible for.

In a company setting, ownership appears at various levels. Starting at the executive level, company leadership is responsible for the performance of those at lower levels of the company, whether good or bad. If a company is successful, leadership can expect praise. If gross mishaps occur, they will receive public criticism, even if they were not personally responsible for what occurred.

Why employee accountability is so important

For this reason, it is important to delegate certain responsibilities to employees. Internal employees, in particular, are more familiar with how the individual parts of the company machine function and can better guide processes, employees and projects.

Increasing performance with ownership

Taking responsibility for departments, teams or the like is not all an organization needs. Ownership of individual tasks or range of tasks is essential to the success of a company. In a way, personal responsibility turns employees into a sort of co-entrepreneur. If individual team members can take responsibility for individual tasks, improvement can be achieved very quickly. A higher willingness to achieve something, increased commitment, an eye for improvement, and plenty more can be the results when employees take on more personal responsibility.

Team members who are given responsibilities feel like an important part of the community. A sense of responsibility will also develop over time, which can have a positive impact on the company and teams. For example, employees may volunteer to take on personal responsibility to train new team members. These seemingly small things can help the entire organization and are essential.

An eye for improvement

No company or process is perfect all the time. Mistakes are made, machines break down, people take time off, or processes become less efficient due to external changes. Those who take ownership of a particular area or tasks can, however, start to develop a feel for recognizing where room for improvement may be. The German auto manufacturer Audi is a positive example of this. In 2018, the company received more than 25,000 ideas for improvement, all from dedicated employees. A total of 13,500 of these ideas, more than half, were implemented. This saved the company 109.1 million euros. Audi is now a giant corporation, with more than 43,000 employees working at their headquarters in Ingolstadt, Upper Bavaria alone. This goes to show how valuable dedicated team members are to a company.

Promoting ownership with help from OKRs

Responsibilities can be communicated in a variety of ways. One of them is through the goal-setting framework OKR. If you would like to learn more about OKRs, you can read on here.

Here is a short summary:

OKR stands for Objectives and Key Results. Objectives form the value proposition for internal and external customers, while the Key Results measure whether the value has been achieved. Based on these, initiatives are defined that will help to achieve the defined goals. In other words: Objectives tell you where you are going, Key Results tell you whether you have arrived, and Initiatives tell you what you need to do to deliver the promised value or achieve the defined goal.

Difference between Initiatives, OKRs and KPIs
Difference between Initiatives, OKRs and KPIs

Depending on the area of expertise and skills of a respective team member, various positions within the OKR process can be assumed. The distribution of the positions can be divided into three levels.

1. OKR Owner

The OKR Owner is the person responsible for achieving the goal defined within the Objective. In this case, the person functions as the project manager, regularly checking if all tasks are progressing and determining if the formulation of the respective Key Results are still suitable for the Objective or if adjustments need to be made at the next Check-in. Regular Check-in meetings are arranged by team leads. During these meetings, problems, obstacles and successes can be discussed. Possible changes to measures or Initiatives are also discussed during this time.

Based on insights from these meetings, such as setbacks or current circumstances, the OKR Owner takes the appropriate next steps and, if necessary, asks for help from other teams. If decisions from higher up are necessary, OKR Owners will communicate these topics to management. Depending on the size and complexity of the topic, such responsibilities may also be delegated to the Key Result level.

2. Key Result Owner

After the OKR Owner comes the Key Result Owner. The responsibilities of the OKR Owner and the Key Result Owner are mainly the same. The only difference between the two positions is that the OKR Owner concentrates on the entire outcome, while the Key Result Owner focuses on individual metrics. The work and type of responsibility, however, is the same. Key Result Owners also take part in regular Check-ins and adjust the defined Key Results as changes occur throughout the work process.

3. Initiative Owner

Within the OKR process, Initiatives indicate what needs to be done in order to reach the predefined goals. Based on these to-dos, employees get to work and do their best to successfully execute the Initiatives. 

Initiative Owners are responsible for ensuring a project’s defined milestones are accomplished in a timely manner. If, during the course of the project, obstacles, delays or similar issues occur, Initiative Owners will communicate them directly to the respective Key Result Owner to discuss opportunities for improvement. On this level, a team member may be assigned multiple roles.

How can I start delegating responsibilities?

If you have chosen to work with the goal-setting framework OKR, there are several possibilities for distributing and monitoring the respective responsibilities to staff members.

1. Planning and ensuring capacities

One way to use OKRs to distribute ownership throughout the company is to accurately plan and allocate capacity. In this way, each employee can commit, within their limits, to support projects as an OKR, Key Result (KR) or Initiative Owner. 

With that said, a lack of capacity can also be an argument against assigning further responsibility. In this case, it is important to uphold the contribution commitments for the quarter as not to put the achievement of company goals at risk.

Within the OKR Cycle, such a process could look like this:

Before OKR drafting: calculate the capacity for strategic work

In this step, teams estimate how much time they will need during the quarter for operational work, buffer time, and vacation. They can then calculate the free capacity available for strategic work, such as contributing to the achievement of the OKRs. To calculate this, you can use Workpath’s free Capacity Planning Canvas, for example.

During OKR drafting: allocate employee capacity to team goals 

The team leadership can now assign time to the team goals for strategic work. This lets all employees know where they should concentrate their time and what role they have in reaching specific goals. OKR, KR and Initiative Owners as well as their respective responsibilities should also be determined at this time.

It is important to keep track of open capacities, as this information is needed for alignment with other teams.

After OKR refinement but before the Kick-off: allocate capacity for needed contributions

After OKR alignment and refinement, the last step in capacity planning can be completed. For this, capacities can be linked to the goals of other teams, meaning ownership for Initiatives and Key Results can also be assumed there. If necessary, capacities within one’s own team OKRs can also be reallocated.

This capacity planning process can be easily implemented and visualized using the Capacity Manager from the Workpath platform.

The Capacity Planner can help teams estimate resources before execution and allocate various Outcomes. These can then be easily adjusted later on in the cycle.

To learn more, feel free to contact one of our team members.

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2. Monitoring with the Workpath Team Page

Another Workpath tool that can help you create and monitor clear responsibilities is the Workpath Team Page. With this tool, you can see which employees and teams are responsible for a specific task or OKR at all times.

Team members also get a transparent overview of their own tasks, helping them to independently develop a sense of responsibility for themselves and their tasks. It can also help leaders promote responsibility. 

Workpath Team page
Workpath Team page

3. Implementing best practices for strengthening ownership within the company

In addition to the processes and features mentioned above, there are also best practices you can put in place to promote OKR ownership within the company.

Make capacity planning an obligatory part of the OKR Cycle

OKRs should lead to more focus on the essentials but not longer working hours. If teams do not plan their capacities, they cannot realistically estimate what can be accomplished during a cycle. Plus, alignment only works if there is enough capacity to support other teams.

Create escalation paths

Autonomy gives teams the freedom to set priorities. Nevertheless, team capacity is limited. If there are conflicts regarding requested contributions and one’s own priorities, teams need to find a way ro resolve these conflicts.

Proper design for organizational level goals: goal-oriented and non-commanding

If the results of organizational OKRs are too specific or contain outcomes, lower-level teams do not have the opportunity to set their own priorities (teams should be able to decide for themselves how they achieve a result). The same problem occurs when their portfolio process is not integrated, meaning projects or Initiatives are defined in advance. Teams have no possibility to decide how to drive their goals.

Create a culture of mistakes and support

Only when failure is accepted will employees be willing to make their own decisions. Be supportive during the OKR Cycle and always ask, “How can I help you achieve this OKR?”

4. Distributing clear responsibilities within the OKR process

In a nutshell, responsibilities within the company OKR process can be stated as follows:

The OKR Owner is responsible for:

  • Being accountable for reaching the Objective (complete outcome); need to keep OKR on the agenda and engage in dialog with KR Owners
  • Drafting KRs together with the KR Owners
  • Aligning with other teams, particularly for requesting support from other teams; together with KR Owners, if necessary
  • Escalating blockers to leadership when they cannot be eliminated autonomously

The KR Owner is responsible for:

  • Reaching the KR (single metric for the OKR)
  • Aligning with other teams, particularly for requesting support from other teams, if necessary
  • Ensuring promised support from other teams is provided
  • Often self-coordinating on the Initiatives that influence the KR

The Initiative Owner (often the same as the KR Owner) is responsible for:

  • Project manager for Initiatives → Defining the route and process for completing the project
  • Accomplishing the Initiatives as early as possible
  • Communicating delays to the KR Owner

Would you like more information on effectively delegating responsibilities within your organization? Contact our experts to learn more.

We will talk to you about your goals and, together, we will explore how OKRs can help promote accountability within your organization.