How to Build Mutual Accountability

Infographic Overall

I love the term “brilliant flash of the obvious”. For me, it’s usually the product of long analysis, interesting conversations and deliberation. We get to the point where we’ve overthought something, and realize… the answer is simple and was just waiting for us to get to it! But, the fact is that we had to go through the process. When a thesis advisor of mine (Larry Harder) told me about the phrase, I believe he credited a Canadian landscape architect named Michael Hough. I’ve had this phrase/concept long enough that it’s a goal for me to find this elusive “brilliant flash of the obvious”.

Another thesis advisor (Dr. Robert Brown), left me with one of my most important “flashes of the obvious”. From his research methods course, I realized that if you outline your criteria for success prior to beginning your work, you have the power to define what success is. The power of this is that it encourages strategic thinking, the development of a concrete process to follow, and provides you with rigor that can be applied to the assessment of your final product. The easiest example is a playful one where you intentionally set the bar low for success. For example, if you state that your goal for a park design is to have it be an open space with seating… then success could be a parking lot with a bucket to sit on. Success!!!

The point of this blog post is to emphasize the value of entering into tasks with a goal (or goals), and understanding how these goals will be met successfully.

As a landscape architect, the most obvious application of this is the development of an agreed upon scope with your client. You need to establish not only what they want, but what they actually need. They often don’t know the ‘need’ part… and that is exactly why they have hired you with your expertise. Our success in this effort is directly proportional to our experience (knowing what to ask) and our communication skills. Good habits are often reinforced by avoiding bad outcomes. Losing money sticks in our minds.

The “brilliant flash of the obvious” part of this relates to the fact that we apply special tools and techniques with our clients in order to achieve solid communication (to avoid losing money)… and then we turn around and wonder why our staff do strange things? Why they didn’t approach a task the way we’d want them to approach it? Have we stopped to see if we’ve invested the time and effort into this the same way we do for things like losing money?

When we do think about it, I think the answer is that we didn’t establish an appropriate scope with staff… and perhaps more importantly, we didn’t establish how they would be accountable for their work.

Flogging Is NOT an Option

Our coping/communication skills are dependent upon the level of familiarity within our relationships. I can remain perfectly calm with a grumpy client. When I’m at home, an empty toilet paper tube in the bathroom can trigger an evening of passive aggression.

We spend most of our waking hours with our staff. This creates complacency with our relationship, and complacency leads to losing sight of the importance of good communication skills. We spend so much effort with effective client communication, but we just can’t seem to ‘find the time’ for staff. It’s not to say that things are dysfunctional, but there are certainly some things that we should be doing to set us all up for success. We can do better!

We Are a Product of our Baggage

Many of the strategies and processes that I employ are based on not wanting to revisit something bad that happened. I remember that fee where I forgot to include a certain typical scope item. My response was to create a fee template where irrelevant tasks are deleted, in order to benefit myself when I need to create a fast fee. Past Peter did Future Peter a favour by trying to protect him. So I say, “Thanks Past Peter! This one’s for you!”

So… back to criteria for success. If I’m working on a project on my own, I already have my own ingrained criteria for success. It’s easy to agree with myself and have a joint vision of where I need to go. In this case, there is an I in my Team. My Team is I.

Add another person to the mix (or more), and the need for a common vision and criteria for success becomes obvious! Right? Well… think about your project initiation process and see how it actively engages your team into shared accountability. If you DO have processes in place for this that you are successful… please share a comment on this post. Regardless… please read on.

Shared Accountability

We’re adults. We do our job. We can support those around us when they ask us to help out. BUT… until they bring us into a shared vision that we understand, we won’t be operating at our highest expertise. AND… we won’t be operating with initiative and passion until they craft a vision that somehow includes us. It’s human nature… we’re most involved when our tasks reflect us.

So… I’ll go back to the importance of establishing criteria for success. Below is a quick example of how this could happen. It relates to the importance of having a shared company vision that relates to all of your projects, and then project-specific vision.

Task 1: How Do We Measure Success?

Let’s assume that you haven’t had an office discussion like this. If you have a business or strategic plan, you’ll likely have all or part of these. The question is whether ALL of your staff have been involved in a discussion like this. The point of this is to develop a common language of common expectations that everyone is invested in. This should relate to everything that your organization does. Here’s a brief example of what it might look like organized within a hierarchy:

  • Happy Client (and most of these are for Happy Firm)
    • Meets Budget
      • Stay within design fee
      • Project within construction budget
    • Meets Schedule
      • Project bids on schedule
      • Meetings happen without rescheduling
      • Meetings are efficient
    • Meets Quality
      • Helps them achieve their organizational mission
      • Meets their operations and maintenance needs
  • Happy Community
  • Happy Environment

A good way to do the above is to give employees post-it notes and ask them to write one answer to the question “how do we measure success”, one per note. Use markers to make them bold and easy to read. Use different colors of post-its and markers to make it distinct and cool. Do not underestimate that the process itself it super important, and that includes how it looks and communicates.

Have each employee read their note, and put it up on a wall (whiteboard is great). As people add them, they should star to group them into similar groupings. As more are added, these groupings may also be divided into sub-groups. An important part of this is to discuss and examine hierarchies. Some of them might start to be specific, and they will lead into well the next phase of this process.

Use this as an opportunity to  stop and have those amazing “business of design” discussions that could result from this. You will likely find the perfect place to discuss your company’s mission and vision… if not even realizing that they can be improved to better reflect your company, staff and all. I’m assuming you have a business plan or similar that outlines your mission and vision. You do have that, right?

Task 2: How Do We Measure Task Success?

This discussion is specific to a particular project your office may be doing. It will expand upon and add specificity to items in Task 1. With this exercise, we’re walking a line between an internal agreement on what your firm is expecting of itself and its staff, and the development of project programming. That’s okay… final programming will lie with a client on any project, but your brainstorming may help you identify the questions you should be asking your client.

The conversation that spurred my thoughts on this blog post relate to a shared discussion of quality in my office. Our goal is to have our staff state what they feel represents the level of quality that we wish to achieve.

We’ve been talking about infographics in our office. We want to use the development of infographics to investigate our passions, refine our graphic design skills, and develop our approach to simplifying the presentation of potentially complex information. I could have issued this task by stating my top ten criteria for a successful infographic… but… that’s really kind of useless. Seriously. We’re designers, and as soon as I do that… I WILL limit what comes out of others. It might look like the easy way, but it does no one any good.

So… even on what might seem like the simplest of tasks, why don’t we take a few minutes and engage into this discussion of “what are the characteristics of the best infographic ever!!??!”

At the Task 2 level, here’s some of what we discussed:

  • What are the elements of a high quality infographic?
    • Tells a Story
    • Graphically Engaging
    • Simplifies complex information
    • ADDS to the discussion rather than duplicates
    • Comes from passion

Infographic Zoom

So now we have more details as to what we as a group consider to be the qualities of a successful product.

Task 3: How Do We Quantify Success?

This task gets down to the point of this entire blog post. We’re tying to remove opinion from assessment in order to increase the potential not only for success… but awesome success. If I were to have asked for a “great infographic” without any other information, I run the risk of setting my staff up for failure. Odds are that we would NOT have a shared vision of success.

So… down to the details. The discussion went into what exactly does something need to have to achieve it’s goals? The best part about this discussion is that we are working on a shared dialogue within the office that will benefit every project. When we understand what we mean by quality, by going through a specific case study, then we will start to open ourselves to small and large “brilliant flashes of the obvious”. OHHH!!! Peter has no idea what an infographic is!? He just wanted a bar chart??! Now we can open his eyes to how an infographic is soooo much better.

Or… we can at least talk about being intentional with story, graphic layout, etc…

  • The product is high quality
    • Tells a Story
      • Has a start, middle and end… and hopefully tension, conflict and the other things a good story has.
    • Graphically Engaging
      • Has a visual flow
      • Good color scheme

Task 4: Accountability

Where all of the above leads is that you have achieved a shared group vision. As a supervisor, you now have specific components to measure product success. As a peer working on the project, you have the tools to push each other when you say, “Is our story strong enough?”. Without this shared language, pushing another person can lead to conflict. With it, we can guide the conversation to how we get to our agreed upon goal.

Since we have agreed on what quality means, then we can review the product and congratulate the team on achieving success. If the product falls short, we can speak to what might be lacking and measure it against our group benchmark. I bet that most of the time people respect this accountability tool. BUT… recognize that communication is elusive. There might be the chance that what is lacking was not fully understood. Use it as an opportunity to continue the discussion. It’s about finding a shared understanding, and embracing the growth that will be a by-product of the right approach.

This shared vision is incremental, and experience dependent. You will hopefully have a common shared language with a person you have worked with for ten years. Don’t get complacent. These approaches have value, and allow evolution with each repetition. Also… they are critical to bringing new staff into the vision… AND… allowing the vision to shift with the good change that they bring.


Thanks for reading all of the way. The summary of this is that we spend our lives facilitating our clients and stakeholders, but we don’t seem to use those same tools to benefit ourselves and our staff. When we stop to do that, we reap many benefits… with the most important being strengthening shared communication and establishing accountability.

The only real accountability is that which we enforce on ourselves. In order to internalize accountability, we have to be a meaningful part of the process.

Postcript: For my staff that eventually find this blog, I truly wish that I were the perfect boss/mentor for you. I’m human and miss the obvious a lot. Please reference the ‘benevolent manipulation‘ post. Remember, you can also initiate things like the above. That would make me happy since it illustrates a shared understanding. Understanding is good. =)

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