An old friend, Marcia, owns a cookie business that in 20 years has grown from a tiny kiosk to a fine store employing 12 workers and a manager. She recently visited me to discuss a personnel accountability problem. Not uncommonly, however, she didn't see it as an "accountability" problem, but rather as a "people" problem.
"The business is stagnating, and so am I," she complained. "Production is down, deliveries are late, quality is worsening...and so is my throat from yelling at my manager. I don't want to have to look over everyone's shoulders all the time. I just want to play bridge with my friends."
"But Marcia," I said, "if after 20 years you still have to be there every day to oversee everything, apparently your people don't really understand what they're supposed to be doing."
"Listen, we're just making cookies, not splitting the atom," she sighed. "I hire good people, tell them what to do, and they do it. Except that sometimes - too often, in fact - they don't."
Marcia's dilemma was the classic lament of a business owner unwittingly managing by assumption: She assumes each employee knows what to do, while they assume someone else is responsible, and, ultimately, all accountability falls with a splat at the feet of the owner.
Management by agreement...
"The cornerstone of a working relationship that works is called Management by Agreement and Exception," I told Marcia. "Whether we're talking about accountability for an entire position or a single, specific project, you and your employee need to mutually understand, and formally agree on, the terms regarding the work to be done."
This, obviously, is the Agreement part of the equation. For example, the employee will sign a written document accepting full accountability for performing the required work and achieving results, while the manager agrees to provide the employee with resources and guidance, as requested.
With this formal agreement in place, the manager can then assume that all work will be done as agreed unless otherwise notified. The goal, besides obtaining the stated results, is to avoid unpleasant surprises.
... and by exception.
"OK, I understand all of that," Marcia responded, "but stuff happens. There are breakdowns and blackouts, foul-ups and freak-outs. And the bane of my existence is to be caught unaware."
"So, your employees need to agree to an important condition," I counter. "The moment they know they won't be able to complete a task on time, whatever the reason, they'll notify the manager. This is the Exception side of the equation." For example, some businesses use Exception Report Forms that state the original commitment, the reason the commitment won't be met, and a proposed alternate solution.
"I like that idea," Marcia nodded. "I would much prefer knowing in advance that something isn't going to happen. I may not like it, but at least I can make adjustments before it becomes a crisis. I'll also get to decide whether the reason for missing the deadline and the proposed alternative are acceptable or not. Either way, I'll have kept communication channels open, preserved the chain of command, and maintained my ability to manage strategically."
"Remember, Marcia," I said, "if employees don't understand and agree on their accountabilities, you can't count on their results, and you therefore won't be free to do your own thing. The beauty of Management by Agreement and Exception is that employees will proactively deliver as promised, your manager will provide constructive support, and relationships built on trust will be strengthened. And with these personnel accountability issues resolved, you'll be free to spend your time concentrating on winning bridge tournaments."
- Employee must understand the terms of the work s/he is to perform
- Agreement is made to be accountable for performing the work and achieving results
- Management agrees to give employee support and guidance, as required
- Employee agrees to notify management if an accountability cannot be met