Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

How to Measure Accountability

Dear Crucial Skills,

First, congratulations on such a terrific newsletter. I’d like to raise a question on the article titled “Addressing Mediocre Performance.” I recently departed from an organization I had been with for three years in a senior management capacity. When we were one year into a major merger, it became very apparent that my boss was far too tolerant of mediocre performance.

Despite raising my concerns with HR and directly with my boss, it became clear I had to leave as things were not going to change. This left me feeling frustrated, demoralized, and unsupported. After reading your article, I realized that maintaining high performance is much bigger than a single department head. It has to come from the top and culminate in overall company culture.

What advice would you offer so I don’t mistakenly take a job in a company that tolerates mediocrity again?

Learning from the Past

Dear Learning from the Past,

We’ve got a terrific way for you to assess how healthy a future organization is around accountability. In fact, my colleagues and I did a study that was published in MIT’s Sloan Management Review that gives you the key to avoiding a company that tolerates mediocrity.

We were very interested in studying root causes for the shockingly high failure rate of cross-functional projects and programs. Estimates are that as many as 80 percent of strategic initiatives, IT projects, corporate programs, and the like are awful disappointments. For example, three years ago, the world watched as Gustav Humbert, the CEO of Air Bus, was dismissed from his job in shame when the A380 aircraft missed its delivery date by more than a year. The worst of it was that the announcement of the delay happened on the day the plane was due! At VitalSmarts, we scratched our heads in wonder that this information did not seem to be available to Humbert any sooner than the minute he was supposed to unveil the engineering marvel to the world. What was going on there?

So we began studying the early warning signs of project failure and found five. These are the five areas you should ask about when you’re assessing accountability in any company. How people handle these five crucial conversations predicts with up to 85 percent precision how well they achieve critical results. In fact, if people handle any of these crucial conversations badly, the odds of the project being delayed, of quality being compromised, and of costs escalating are better than 70 percent!

So, here’s my advice. When the tables turn in your interviews and you have a chance to ask about the company, let them know that one of the things you work hardest to bring to an organization is a strong sense of accountability for results. Then ask the interviewer to describe a case where one of these five problems happened on a project in their company and share how people responded:

1. Fact-Free Planning — Commitments to deadlines and limits on resources are made with little consideration for the real demands of the project.
2. AWOL Sponsors — The executive sponsor of a project is not leading as he or she should. He or she is not showing up for meetings, holding people accountable, or walking the talk.
3. Skirting — Powerful leaders bypass agreed upon decision-making processes or quality gates in ways that are allowing scope creep or putting commitments at risk.
4. Project Chicken — Critical aspects of the project are going over schedule or running over budget and it’s not politically popular to admit it. Instead, people play “chicken”—letting things get closer to the deadline without acknowledging problems.
5. Team Failures — Key members of the project team are not competent or do not follow through on their commitments.

Now, here’s the key. You are NOT interviewing to find out if these five problems happen. We know from the Silence Fails study that they happen in both great organizations and bad ones. The difference is whether people step up to the crucial conversations when they do occur.

For example, in a healthy organization, your interviewer would tell you, “Oh, yes, Fact-Free Planning happened on our project. Our VP of marketing pushed hard for a deadline that was incredibly unrealistic in order to meet a market window.”

Then you’ll follow up with, “Sure—I’ve felt that kind of pressure before too. So what happened?”

Now, this is the part you’ll listen for. You want to find out if people lower in the organization were respected and listened to. Did they even voice their concerns? And were their concerns considered? Or did people move to silence and feel like victims? Did they speak up but get their concerns dismissed?

Say the interviewer responds, “Well, we did our homework. We knew what resources would be required. So we made a proposal for how we could cut back on scope and meet the market window. And the VP agreed.”

If this is the type of response you hear, you’re on a good track.

These five crucial moments are a great interviewing structure to give you a good idea of what really happens in a company. In addition, no matter how well they’re performing now, if you focus on improving how people deal with these moments once you arrive, you’ll make a substantial contribution to your employer’s capacity to achieve critical results.

Best wishes in the search. People like you are hard to find. I’m sure you’ll be a gift wherever you decide to contribute.


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