Happy effective collaboration requires responsibility, commitment and accountability

Photo by  Marion Michele  on  Unsplash

Collaborating effectively with others requires you to embrace and uphold the very essence of responsibility, commitment, and accountability. Think for a moment about the meanings of the following words:

  • “commitment” in the context of marriage,
  • “responsibility” as a parent, and
  • “accountability” for your actions, say in the eyes of society or the law.


noun; the state of having a duty to deal with something
noun; the state of being accountable for something
noun; the opportunity or ability to act independently and take decisions without authorisation

Responsibility cannot be assigned; it can only be accepted. If someone tries to give you responsibility, only you can decide if you are responsible or if you aren’t.
— Kent Beck

In companies where responsibilities are assigned, consent is implicitly purchased by tying responsibilities to the pay scale. The unrealistic expectations of your boss or coworkers are easily dodged by hiding within the ambiguity of poorly defined responsibilities. Deming spoke of a call centre operative who was asked to “be courteous” while taking 25 calls an hour. Which goal do you think she dropped? The ambiguous one. Often, even when you willingly volunteer and therefore accept responsibility, the terms of that responsibility remain ambiguous. And when things go wrong you hear yourself saying things like: “we failed to manage expectations” or “there was a failure in communication”.

The failure in communication starts up front when you don't make the terms of your respective responsibilities explicit, be it for a role you assume or a task you take on. That failure continues as you're required to make constant small refinements and share new information when becomes known. We’re all infected with the Responsibility Virus. Without setting clear responsibilities, as situations come and go, we can become under-responsible or over-responsible. Collaborating effectively with others requires us to inoculate ourselves against this virus. Collaboration doesn’t afford heroes grabbing the wheel and others taking a backseat. The critical improvement is for the division of responsibility to be explicit, equitable, and discussable.

I'll introduce the Responsibility Ladder later. For now, the aim is to facilitate constant dialogue so you can set out your responsibility in the open, according to your capabilities, and in so doing make your reasoning explicit and invite contrary views. Through dialogue you seek to jointly explore mutual responsibilities with your coworkers to achieve the desired outcome. The only real difference is in the level of responsibility you accept in agreement with the others. At the same time you must build your capabilities. Set your responsibility to exceed your current capabilities by a small amount. That way you’re challenged beyond your comfort zone to broaden your understanding, learn new skills, improve your competency, and gain confidence without being overwhelmed.


noun; the state or quality of being dedicated to a cause, activity
noun; a pledge or undertaking
noun; an engagement or obligation that restricts freedom of action

Sadly the word “commitment” has become scary because accountability gets imposed against unrealistic expectations, and without the freedom, authority, and resources to really act and achieve. Blame lies just around the corner.

Here are some examples of misusing or abusing the notion of commitment:

  • Being asked to commit to the delivery of a list of specific user stories by a certain date rather than a goal. Prescribing features in a given iteration is imposing fixed scope, fixed time, and fixed cost. The only freedom you have is along the quality axis. What happened to Scrum’s sprint goal? Being asked to commit to a goal with the freedom to figure out the necessary stories and how best to achieve it is a different thing entirely. There’s still room for an unrealistic goal but you’ve got a lot more freedom and authority, and with Gilb techniques up your sleeve you have the means to refine the goal, remove ambiguity, and come up with options to make it realistic.
  • Someone else estimating your work for you. Whether it’s the intention or not, chances are, the estimate will be received as your commitment. There's nothing like someone else making bets on your dime. This is unfair, and for me, it's unethical too but I recognise that traditional managers might consider it their duty.
    A commitment is something i offer you. A mandate is something you impose on me. Not the same thing.
    — Kent Beck

    A commitment is a pledge that you can only make willingly. That right should always be respected. If others have unrealistic expectations you have a personal authority to call them out and renegotiate. If you’re asked to make a commitment under duress you have the right to say no. You must learn or be brave enough to do this.


    Collaborating effectively requires your commitments to carry currency in the form of accountability. In accepting responsibility you make yourself accountable for those commitments you willingly make. In this way any one of us can reasonably hold another accountable to the responsibilities they explicitly set for themselves. A commitment made unwillingly is not a commitment and therefore carries no currency.

    Dilbert on accountability

    Dilbert on accountability

    Commitments need to work because they constitute peer agreements that provide the means to maintain focus and direction, and prevent things falling into disarray without there being a hierarchy of people in charge.

    Making a commitment is one thing. Managing the communication around a commitment is another thing entirely. This is where most of us drop the ball.

    You can’t control others’ expectations. You can tell them what you know so their expectations have a chance of matching reality. It’s not my job to “manage” someone else’s expectations. It’s their job to manage their own expectations. It’s my job to communicate clearly.
    — Kent Beck

    Regardless of how explicit the responsibility, failure can still strike at any time–maybe there was an error in dividing responsibility; perhaps one person involved did a bad job; or there was just bad luck. Not informing people with expectations in a timely fashion, especially of changes, issues, or situations that impact your ability to fulfil your commitment is remiss. Not telling them anything is negligent. Either way, you’re effectively withholding opportunity for them to adjust their expectations, provide help or assess the options. Is it any wonder they’re disappointed (and often angry) when they only find out come the due date that you haven’t got the goods? People may not welcome the news that you need to adjust your commitment but most will understand that shit happens and will appreciate early notification. Being brave enough to reveal bad news early can help build trust.

    Manage the information around your commitments well and you can retain flexibility for adjustments without losing the trust of others and risking a reputation for being unreliable.

    Collective ownership

    With all this talk of explicit responsibilities don’t think that commitments are black and white. You own your commitment but you can have dependencies on work done by others. Likewise, other people with their own commitments may require your input or involvement. This is basic work administration. In collaboration there must be constant dialogue to resolve dependencies and enough slack to work on things other than your own commitments. That greater good is usually some overarching goal or purpose that aligns everyone. Think about the collective ownership a team has for delivering agreed business outcomes to a client. A self-organising team will implicitly prioritise commitments by prioritising the work–usually highest value first. This can provide everyone with an agreed running order.

    In a working environment of explicit responsibilities and commitments, collaboration must remain front and centre, e.g. you may own a story but you collaborate by pairing with other people to deliver it and fulfil your commitment. The responsibility ladder demonstrates this point.

    The Responsibility Ladder

    A key aim in collaboration is to eliminate one person’s over-responsibility and another’s under-responsibility to enable both to test and build their skills, thereby advancing their individual capabilities and the capabilities of the team or community.

    There are six levels or rungs on the responsibility ladder. The rungs are designed to represent the natural breakpoints in taking responsibility for decision-making.

    The lowest rung at level 6 involves taking no responsibility. This is classic dumping of a problem onto the lap of another (usually someone designated or perceived to be the leader). You’ve probably all experienced someone coming to you and informing you that something terrible has happened, then standing there, wide-eyed, waiting for you to make some decision. This tempts the other person to step forward or else the decision won’t get made and whatever problem spurred the decision will only get worse, not better.

    Level 5 appears almost identical to level 6 with the notable difference that you make it clear you'll apply to the next case what you learn from the other person’s involvement this time around. You’re saying that you will gradually take on more responsibility and the other person will not be asked to assume total responsibility every time. It signals a willingness and interest in developing your own decision-making capabilities in order to share a greater portion of the burden going forward.

    At level 4 you ask the other person for help in structuring an issue or task. Problem structuring is the most abstract part of decision-making and the most difficult. By thinking about the decision at hand you take a vaguely defined problem or issue and frame it as a choice among mutually exclusive options. This signals to the other person that you don’t want them to just take over and make the decision. Rather you wish to collaborate as they lead in the structuring. The critical point here is that you deal with the ambiguity rather than, for example, expecting a well-formed story card with acceptance criteria.

    At level 3, you take on responsibility for structuring the decision and developing options, but you do not feel capable of coming up with a recommended choice from among the options. You’re saying: “I’ve noticed a problem, I’ve thought about it, and I think there are four options for dealing with it. What do you think?” You’re essentially asking for support.

    At level 2 you feel capable of analysing the options and coming forward with a recommendation. You’re not sufficiently confident to make the decision yourself and accept the consequences. You’re taking on a large portion of the decision-making responsibility, even if the other person takes responsibility for making the final decision.

    At level 1 you’re operating unilaterally. After structuring the decision, generating options, analysing those options, and making the final decision, your only interaction with the other person is to tell them the decision you’ve made. This is the definition of heroic leadership.

    Operating at level 1 or 6 reinforces the negative frames that feed the responsibility virus and undermine any inclination to collaborate. In contrast, taking responsibility between levels 2 and 5 causes both of you to work and think together. This has the effect of building relationships, growing positive frames, and inoculating against the virus. We want to spend most of our time between levels 2 and 5.

    Responsibility isn't all or nothing

    You don’t have to be completely responsible or not responsible at all. The Responsibility Ladder gives you the language and structure to reach agreement on intermediate levels of responsibility, matched against your capabilities, when you share a goal or the tasks to solve a problem. The ladder enables a more sophisticated conversation that distinguishes between the types of tasks and allows for more precise adjustments to responsibility as capabilities grow. By growing capabilities and distributing responsibilities equitably we can achieve more, deliver more value, and work better together.

    A happier work experience

    For the most effective, richest and rewarding collaboration, the need for explicit responsibilities and the practice of true commitment with accountability are paramount.


    Dilbert and trusting employees

    Dilbert and trusting employees

    You turned up. You're here, right now. By taking greater responsibility you can increase your capabilities, resourcefulness, and engagement. By sharing responsibility, risks, and rewards you can get past any worries you might have about failure and embarrassment, and start to see your actions consistent with a developing sense of collective ownership for the outcomes of your work. Go for it.