Line-Drawing Fallacy and Accountability

There’s a beautiful logical paradox, a line-drawing fallacy:  it’s difficult to tell when quantity transforms into quality. Which of the cuts killed an elephant?.. Which of the thousand-dollar checks made a company go bankrupt?..

It’s so difficult to tell when an incremental, continuous process turns the corner and radically changes its character, and a temptation – a very pragmatic temptation – is to allow for wiggle room and ignore the little deviations. Meh, just another check. Our company’s big and strong, and our success depends on macro efforts – who cares about a thousand dollar check for paper clips?.. Let’s concentrate on something bigger!

I’m typically not a fan of idealistic, black-and-white / cut-and-dry judgment philosophies. I try to look for the trade-off curve – if we give up a little bit here, can we win a lot there? I usually find that an obvious decision is typically not so obvious, that for each radical judgment, there’s a set of counter-arguments that deserve to be explored.

Yet, today, I found an area where a hard-line view – a view that doesn’t allow for a gray area – is extremely important. That area is about managing accountability. I had an amazing conversation with my CEO, Ben Elowitz, and he crafted a very convincing argument – I know that it’s one of those that will be pretty transformative to my leadership style. Here it is.

There are two ways to run an organization.

One is the way of the pragmatic.

Have flexible standards – we ship when software is ready; we are OK slipping a little bit. We value commitment, but we value flexibility as well. We are reasonable – we don’t create a panic around a missed expectation unless it really cost the business.

The other is the way of commitment.

Draw a hard line: EVERY commitment that we make, we keep. Our organization does not tolerate a single hour worth of slippage. Create symbols of accountability: generate gigantic, loud, visible stinks every time a tiny expectation is not met. Don’t do it to be an asshole – do it to prevent the tiny little bit of a creep.

Oh, it’s OK to be a day late. It’s just a day…

And then we’re three days late…

How is five days late bad? It’s almost the same as how we did last time (four days late), and you, our fearless leader, seemed to be perfectly happy with the results?..

And then when you have a deadline that your team must meet, how can you expect them to deliver – with this kind of culture?

Ben argues that there are three elements to high accountability, which he equates with high performance:

  1. High standards: we set difficult goals, and hit them every single time. I don’t care that it’s 5pm on a Friday. You said that it’ll be done by the end of the week. Get to work. 
  2. Symbols of these high standards: as leaders, we celebrate victories and are VERY, very upset when any commitment is missed.
  3. Reinforcement – rewards and punishment – is immediately tied to the performance management / review process.
A couple related materials if you found this topic curious: