COUNTLESS times I’ve been asked, “Who’s accountable for the performance of a scrum team?” I take this question in with curiosity. Often, I find the person asking this question is looking to point blame at a single individual for the failure of an outcome they expected to happen. As I dig deeper into this situation, I uncover there is a definite misconception of the application of “accountability” within the agile space. Sure, we want to hold the Product Owner accountable for the success or failure of a product. How many times have we heard that the Product Owner is the single most wring-able neck of the product? Yet how realistic is this to do? How can we truly hold one person accountable for the success or failure of a product that has so many moving parts to it? Many of these parts are largely out of control of the Product Owner. Still we want to hold them singularly accountable and responsible for things they really don’t have complete control over.
Some people apply this “singular accountability” phenomenon upon the Scrum Master too. Many people believe the Scrum Master is responsible for the success or failure of a scrum team. I ask again how can we hold a Scrum Master accountable for something they have no complete control over? Scrum Masters have no control over whether a team or team members want to be coached and guided in the ways of scrum, agility or lean thinking. A Scrum Master cannot force a team to be coached. The team must be willing to be coached. A Scrum Master cannot be held accountable for the success or failure of a team that doesn’t want to be coached. Why? Because the team is being coached to become self-organizing. This means the team answers to itself for the things that are within their sphere of control. Accountability means being able to answer for the things one has power to control. Neither a Product Owner or Scrum Master have complete control over the things they are responsible for therefore they cannot be held accountable for those things.
There is no room for singular accountability in the agile space. I would even go deeper and say we shouldn’t worry about any type of accountability in the agile space at all. Instead, focus should be on waste removal and continuous improvement. When someone asks who is accountable for team success or failure, they are asking the wrong question. The true agile, lean thinking question is, “How can we help our teams perform better?” Or “What’s getting in the way of our team’s performance?” Looking for a single wring-able neck is outdated and really wastes time. If we truly embrace agility and lean thinking, then we think of ourselves as a team working together to create great products and great teams. Accountability shifts from a blame game towards self-reflection, self-awareness and finding the best ways to increase success within the team and the organization. If you need to hold someone accountable for something, hold yourself accountable for creating an agile, lean culture within your organization. Hold others accountable for behavior that doesn’t support agility and lean thinking. In the end, it is our behavior and mindset that truly defines accountability in the agile space.