Increase accountability through commitments and follow-up
26 January, 2018
Right now I'm an engineering manager at Codecademy, but previously I ran a small start-up. Our team consisted of engineers and salespeople. We'd regularly set out to accomplish certain goals, but it was unclear if we were traveling at a good pace and how we could be moving faster.
We began a weekly status meeting. We wrote down our key metrics and which specific actions we'd take during the upcoming week to move those metrics. Each person would list the items they were planning on working on, and then in the next meeting we would mark what had and hadn't been done. The results varied pretty widely – sometimes 80 percent of the tasks had been completed, and at other times just 30 percent had. So we split tasks into two buckets: pledges and goals. Pledges were 100% commitments. We limited pledges to work that we had data on how long it would take and the probable effect it would have. Goals were tasks you'd try to do but may not be able to. They were reaches. Defining the two types of actions helped us to think more seriously about whether we could commit to a task, and motivated us to ensure that we understood a problem so we could fix it.
This changed how we worked. When something was taking longer than expected and you had made it a pledge, you would then work more to get the task done. When it was a goal, we were more likely to examine whether we had made a reasonable commitment. Asking those questions was important.
One issue was cross-person prioritization. Everyone prioritized their own list of pledges and goals, but it was difficult to prioritize across people. While I had my list of tasks, if I depended on someone else who was busy, this might cause me to miss my deadlines. To combat this problem, each week we would agree on a single task that had the company's top priority. If someone needed help with that item, everyone knew to prioritize that work.
Write out the plan to make it clear. Make the tasks specific to make them accountable. Write reports of your metrics and plans before your meeting so that everybody comes to that meeting prepared. It also focuses the conversation on collaboration and concerns instead of reporting updates.
Questioning how hard a team works is also very important. While pledges don't make sense for every organization, it's useful to understand the commitment that people have towards a given goal. I'm personally a fan of more accountability but committing to less, so that you can guarantee that what you commit to will be done.
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