Line-Drawing Fallacy and Accountability

There’s a beautiful logical paradox, a line-drawing fallacy:  it’s difficult to tell when quantity transforms into quality. Which of the cuts killed an elephant?.. Which of the thousand-dollar checks made a company go bankrupt?..

It’s so difficult to tell when an incremental, continuous process turns the corner and radically changes its character, and a temptation – a very pragmatic temptation – is to allow for wiggle room and ignore the little deviations. Meh, just another check. Our company’s big and strong, and our success depends on macro efforts – who cares about a thousand dollar check for paper clips?.. Let’s concentrate on something bigger!

I’m typically not a fan of idealistic, black-and-white / cut-and-dry judgment philosophies. I try to look for the trade-off curve – if we give up a little bit here, can we win a lot there? I usually find that an obvious decision is typically not so obvious, that for each radical judgment, there’s a set of counter-arguments that deserve to be explored.

Yet, today, I found an area where a hard-line view – a view that doesn’t allow for a gray area – is extremely important. That area is about managing accountability. I had an amazing conversation with my CEO, Ben Elowitz, and he crafted a very convincing argument – I know that it’s one of those that will be pretty transformative to my leadership style. Here it is.

There are two ways to run an organization.

One is the way of the pragmatic.

Have flexible standards – we ship when software is ready; we are OK slipping a little bit. We value commitment, but we value flexibility as well. We are reasonable – we don’t create a panic around a missed expectation unless it really cost the business.

The other is the way of commitment.

Draw a hard line: EVERY commitment that we make, we keep. Our organization does not tolerate a single hour worth of slippage. Create symbols of accountability: generate gigantic, loud, visible stinks every time a tiny expectation is not met. Don’t do it to be an asshole – do it to prevent the tiny little bit of a creep.

Oh, it’s OK to be a day late. It’s just a day…

And then we’re three days late…

How is five days late bad? It’s almost the same as how we did last time (four days late), and you, our fearless leader, seemed to be perfectly happy with the results?..

And then when you have a deadline that your team must meet, how can you expect them to deliver – with this kind of culture?

Ben argues that there are three elements to high accountability, which he equates with high performance:

  1. High standards: we set difficult goals, and hit them every single time. I don’t care that it’s 5pm on a Friday. You said that it’ll be done by the end of the week. Get to work. 
  2. Symbols of these high standards: as leaders, we celebrate victories and are VERY, very upset when any commitment is missed.
  3. Reinforcement – rewards and punishment – is immediately tied to the performance management / review process.
A couple related materials if you found this topic curious:

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  1. Great post Al, in fact, there must be something in the water, because I just did a post on a similar vein, and after reading your post, feel the two could be merged easily! 🙂 One thing I have found, and it’s heavily linked to expectancy theory (, is that if you can’t find a way to motivate people from the inside, you’ll always find you and your team short. I think the main part of your post that I like the most is supporting agreement and contracts through shared values and accountability, and not through rules and policies.

  2. You don’t really say which end of this spectrum you’ve taken a hard line on. My experience is that either end as an absolute is a bad idea. Frankly, you can be pragmatic about what you commit to.

    The problem with not “tolerating” a slipped commitment is that the commitment itself was likely made with too many assumptions and a picture of the future that you can’t possibly have foreseen. The three elements to accountability that you list are completely reactive. In my experience, it’s far more effective to be proactive and not get into the business of assumptions and crystal gazing in the first place.

  3. Hey Alex,

    Not to play the devil’s advocate, but there is a serious underlying issue under what you are saying. Similar to Jeff’s reply, you cannot make predictable guesses at the future.

    For instance, when we were working together in our early team, our dev manager was all about “Give me work *estimates* for each of your tasks” (special highlight on the word estimates). Then whenever you would miss an estimate by even one day, he would create an enormous stink.

    The result? Everyone was *padding* their estimates SO MUCH that nothing was ever getting done. People would refuse to do extra work on the account that it would potentially destroy their schedule.

    Where is that organization today? Well, pretty much down the drain; and pretty much every talented person left.

    People are scared of punishments, if you punish for wrong estimates, people will start stretching their estimates. Then you end up with a bunch of losers producing nothing, and good people will flee.

    At my startup, we had something similar, except the schedule was made of milestones about 1 month long. We would have the first 3 weeks be normal coding (i.e. “I don’t care what you do as long as it’s towards the monthly goal”), and the last week was a sprint to finish all remaining tasks.

    This created very strong collaboration, since being on time was a team victory (usually at the Pub St-Paul, in Old-Port Montreal), and a missed month’s work meant forced weekend work plus a bunch of random punishments.

    Sure, sometimes the monthly goal didn’t make sense, and we all realized it (usually at the end of the month), so we would be less punishy on ourselves, but usually we were good enough to play the game and win.

    The result? We finished in 8 months what was supposed to take 12 months, and we were all very happy. Less-performing employees felt part of the gang and useful, and better-performing employees could shine.

    The lesson I learned was: Don’t ask for individuals to produce estimates, you’ll get screwed (and we lived it, so it WILL happen), make a group-plan that everyone agrees on, and make each milestone a team victory.

    Same principle you are mentionning, but at the team-level, not the individual level.

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