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Group vs. Individual Accountability

Boundary Managementsm refocuses accountability from individuals to groups.  This is a major shift.  Holding individuals accountable has been one of the central tenets of effective management practice, and includes its extension: that individuals should only be accountable for those things that they can control.  It is essentially a strategy of matching accountability and degree of control.  Everyone within the organization has a set of tasks and results over which they have control and for which they are accountable. 

What value does Boundary Managementsm’s focus on group accountability bring to an organization over individual accountability?  The most striking argument against the focus on the individual is one of the core teachings of quality management.  Any time you maximize a individual element of a process, the performance of the overall process diminishes.  Focusing exclusively on individuals does exactly this.  In fact, it is worse.  It is trying to maximize all of the elements, and is a sure way to reduce overall performance. 

The traditional accountability-control strategy gives a wonderful management structure over individuals and lousy control over the group.  Anything that is left unconnected to someone goes to the manager.  The manager is left with the all the white space in the organizational chart, everything between the boxes.  This might sound appropriate but the group and not the manager control most of these items, and what falls to the manager is not a small list.  These white space items are almost always in some state of flux and therefore require attention.  They require balance and definition.  It is difficult for one person to do this, and nearly impossible when no one else within the group feels accountable to help, and may actually be working against the whole. 

Another interesting aspect of the accountability-control strategy is its opposition to entrepreneurism.  We are never in control of entrepreneurial efforts.  Their very nature means that we are not in complete control.  They wouldn’t be entrepreneurial otherwise.  In the real world, there are really few things over which we have complete control as individuals.  Business itself is founded on an uncontrollable entity: the customer.  To establish an enterprise that must continuously shift to meet customer demands, and then design an internal structure that is static so people can be in control seems foolish at best. 

Boundary Managementsm is based on the concept that we almost always have some control and almost never have complete control.  Instead of trying to match accountability to control, we need to increase control.  We have been working with the wrong side of the equation.  Group accountability/control does this.  As individuals, we control little.  As individuals functioning as a group, we control far more than the sum of the individuals.  Individuals within a group can coordinate, negotiate, and collaborate.  This not only increases the current level of control but also gives the group influence where none existed before. 

Groups perform as groups when they are treated as groups.  If we treat individuals only as individuals, they will not perform as a group.  Organizations that can make this change from individual to group accountability will be able to move faster, change faster, and perform at a higher level.  Boundary Managementsm establishes group performance measures and a group focus through the use of Boundary Theory.  It sets up the structure for group performance.


Lynn A. Walker, Ph.D.
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