Running an Effective Mobile Team, Part 6: Encouraging Accountability


Accountable: People can have expectations of each other. This includes leadership.

Problem: Often these things result in mobile being a bit disconnected. Server side changes can break clients, and then mobile teams take the heat from users and leadership. This can lead to resentment, which makes accountability hard.

Accountability comes last, because it builds on everything else.

  • Being erratic undermines accountability – the chaos can always be blamed.
  • Lack of prioritisation undermines accountability – who is to say what was most important?
  • On a disconnected non-team – who even is accountable? And for what?
  • The less a team is automated, the more crucial but repetitive things can fall through the cracks.

If you want to hold someone accountable, assuming you’re not a sociopath, it needs to be clear what you’re holding them accountable for. But you individually holding people accountable doesn’t scale. In a healthy team, people will hold themselves accountable to their team.

I want to tell you a story about the worst manager I ever had. He hid deadlines, concealed missing deadlines, until eventually – unsurprisingly – the team and product was killed. One time I told him I was worried because we’d missed a deadline, and his response was “what deadline? There was no deadline.”

He made it impossible for other people to know what was going on, because he discouraged all communication that wasn’t to him. No-one on the team could really hold anyone else accountable because no-one knew what was going on. It was kind of farcical. The best way to know there was a deadline, is that when they happened the tech lead would disappear. One time he disappeared for three days to search for his cat.

Anyway we had this meeting, a post mortem, about why the team was a disaster and couldn’t ship anything. This tech lead made subtle digs at another guy on the team, and then said something super inappropriate and unfair to me. Everyone sat there in silence, and later people in that meeting told me how appalled they were. Another woman on the team said it was the first thing she had seen happen at work, that was blatantly happening to a woman because she was a woman.

My manager was in that meeting, but he didn’t handle it. I told him I was not OK with it, expecting him to do something about that. And he told me I should handle it myself.

This is probably what we should expect from a guy who dealt with deadlines by pretending they didn’t exist. Note: he didn’t say this about any of the minor complaints I’d had about this guy. Those he took under advisement. But when it was that inappropriate. It was on me.

Anyway, I got this dude 1:1 and I told him… well I told him everything he’d done to annoy me in the previous six months, why what he’d just done was completely messed up, and my conclusion: he had no leadership skills.

You might be surprised to learn this did not go well.

Now in my defence: I was right. This guy spent 4 months reinventing how to build an android app, and 8 months doing “UI polish” before shipping. The project he led was a disaster and when that was clear… he spent three days SEARCHING FOR HIS CAT.

Someone really needed to tell him that he was doing terribly at his job – but I was not the right person to do that. Firstly, I was a ball of rage. But secondly, I was trying to hold him accountable for something he hadn’t agreed to be accountable for – on a team that had no culture or norms of accountability. And I was starting not with a small thing, but with a major crisis thing.

This is not how you start building a culture of accountability. It’s not when you go “wow! I do not want to deal with that.” You start smaller.

First up: you hold yourself accountable.

Second: you encourage people to own up, and create space for them to do so.

Third: you create ways that team members can hold each other accountable.

How do you hold yourself accountable?

When we move into leadership, it’s really easy for our work to become less visible. The output is the team, no longer individual. Good leadership and management are both a lot of work, but often it’s nebulous and harder to surface. If our work is too visible, then it’s pretty likely we are not doing what we should be, or that we are taking too much credit for the work of the entire team.

Often we demonstrate accountability 1:1. We set 1:1 meetings, and we show up to them. We listen to what people say, and follow up on it – even if we can’t fix the problems right now. Now my work is more meta, I write an internal blog post every week where I share what I’ve spent time on and sometimes the less concrete things that I’m just thinking about. When I was a manager of ICs, I used to post my standup every day same as everyone else. Sometimes it’s just “1:1s” “code review”, but I find being transparent about how I spend my time goes a long way – even if my outputs are not as clear anymore.

How do you encourage people to hold themselves accountable?

You can’t make someone hold themselves accountable, but you can encourage accountability. I think standup is a great tool for this. I love written standups in Slack – because is doesn’t depend on everyone being around at once – my team is distributed across Europe, Asia, North and South America – but even for teams all in once place, people start at different times. Standup forces someone to start their day with some kind of intention about what they hope to achieve. As it’s written down, people can scroll back if things don’t go to plan or if they forget what they thought was important when they started in the morning.

You can invite accountability by asking people to share what they hope to get done over a given period – and giving them the opportunity to surface when things don’t go to plan. You can also invite accountability by asking questions before giving feedback or assigning blame. It’s much more powerful when someone owns up to what they need to do better, than when you tell them.

How can team members hold each other accountable?

Code review – done well – is such a good entry point into peer accountability. Because this is when people look at each other’s work, and ask hard questions, and give feedback. How do you get accountability outside of code review? A lot of that is about encouraging a non-judgemental space, where people can be open about what hasn’t gone to plan. There is nothing more toxic to a culture of accountability than blame – only when people feel like they can own up to each other will they be able to ask questions of each other without judgement or fear of seeming judgemental.

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