You can't share accountability

If two people are accountable for an activity, then no one is.

As I was writing last week’s blog post about approaching Data Governance by identifying data-related activities and deciding who’s accountable for them, it reminded me of when my wife and I adopted a cat many years ago. The person filling out the adoption forms at the animal shelter asked us who would be responsible for the cat, and we said we both would. They shook their head and told us we had to pick just one of us.

The idea, as they explained, is that if you have two people officially responsible for a pet, there’s a risk that each of them will tacitly assume the other one is really responsible. Each person will assume that the other person is feeding them, scooping the litter, etc. They won’t automatically know whether the other person has done it, and as a result, neither person will. If a single person is responsible for the pet, that person knows what they have and haven’t done that day, so they’re more likely to recognize when they’ve missed something.

This explanation has stuck with me ever sense because it applies much more generally. In particular, it applies to the A for accountability in RACI. While the Responsible party is the person who does the work, the Accountable party is the one who’s finally answerable for it. In particular, the Accountable party is the one who makes sure the Responsible party is willing and able to do it and who intervenes if they’re not doing it.

Pretty much everyone is responsible and/or accountable for more than they have time for. So if two people are officially accountable for the same activity, it’s very likely that they will rely on the other person to make sure it gets done. So neither will do it, and since the responsible parties are just as busy, it’s very unlikely it will get done without intervention from someone who’s accountable.

On the other hand, if you know you’re accountable and that you’re the only person accountable, you know that no one else is checking on progress and clearing roadblocks. (And there are always roadblocks.) If you’re the only hope, it’s much more likely that you’ll take the time to make sure it gets done.

So when you’re assigning accountability, whether for a Data Governance activity or anything else, always remember: You can’t share accountability.