Accountability is generally a good thing. We are at our best when we are held accountable to our colleagues, our efforts and ourselves. So how can accountability ever be a bad thing? The way it’s done today is a vehicle of unparalleled destructive power.
There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.
― Peter Drucker
Avoiding accountability is never a good thing. On the other hand too much overbearing accountability starts to look like pervasive trust issues. The concomitant effects of working in a low-trust environment are corrosive to everything held accountable. As most things the key is balance between accountability and freedom, too much of either lowers performance. Today we have too little freedom and far too much accountability in a destructive form. For the sake of progress and quality a better balance must be restored. Today’s research environment is being held accountable in ways that reflect a lack of trust, and a complete lack of faith in the people doing the work, and perhaps most importantly produce a dramatic lack of quality in the work (https://wjrider.wordpress.com/2014/10/23/excellence-and-accountability/).
Accountability can be implemented in many ways, and today in science it looks like micromanagement. How can we make accountability (a generally good thing!) destructive? We define work that should be innovative and creative in terms of well-defined deliverables and milestones (https://wjrider.wordpress.com/2014/12/04/the-scheduled-breakthrough/), which must never be failed to execute. An important thing that comes from research is finding out what are distinctly bad ideas. The right thing to do is stop when you something is a bad idea and finds a new idea. Today we continue to plow along a path even when we know it’s the wrong one because of the sort of contracts we are accountable to. Perhaps most importantly the quality of the work rarely if ever enters into the accountability. We live in an environment where quality is simply assumed to be in place, and no one seems to have a direct and unbreakable commitment to it. In today’s accountability culture, quality is simply not part of the expectations.
It shows in everything we do.
We divvy up the work into smaller and smaller bins with well-defined deliverables and quarterly progress reports. The same principles that are corrupting our business world are being applied to science (https://wjrider.wordpress.com/2014/10/10/corporate-principles-do-not-equal-good-management/). Where these principles are arguably appropriate for business (the whole shareholder value concept as the point of business), they are unremittingly damaging to science. Yet apply them we do gleefully and wantonly. It is strangling the quality of the work that is being made accountable as surely as it wastes precious resources. Time and money are interchangeable, but the most unforgivable aspect of this is the waste of careers, talent and human potential to a cause that undermines more than it builds.
Small minds just like small stones can never create giant waves.
― Mehmet Murat ildan
The accountability we see today is destroying the ability to define, think about, and executes big ideas. We live in an era of small-minded, small ideas and a general lack of accomplishment of anything that matters. People are encouraged to work very prescriptively and narrowly within their prescriptively and narrowly defined scope of work. Success often (if not always) depends on things outside the scope of the work we are accountably doing. How can we do something “out of the box” if we are driven to always stay in “the box”? We then say that since it is outside our scope of work, it is outside what we are responsible for. We then feel that ignoring things out of scope for our responsibilities is a duty we are accountable for. The present form of accountability allows one to ignore the big picture and execute the body of work promised whether it matter or not, whether it is useful of not, and whether it is quality or not. It almost assures that work done is not well integrated or adaptive to deeper understanding.
…If there is no risk, there is no reward.
― Christy Raedeke
Another impact of the small-minded thinking is a complete lack of ownership of anything bigger than what you are directly accountable for. You are encouraged to focus only on what you are directly being paid to focus on. Coupled with naïve intellectually shallow management you have a recipe for systematic mediocrity. Just as damning is the extreme risk aversion of the management and increasingly by rank and file scientists. This pervasive risk aversion almost assures that nothing of significance will be accomplished. One can work hard on meaningless tasks and feel successful empowering an ever-diminishing quality standard for all the work touched by accountability. It assures that we will never accomplish anything big or important. In many cases this sort of approach is appropriate for building bridges, repaving roads or putting up a skyscraper. For research, science or high-end engineering it is harmful, damaging and ultimately a giant waste of money. We follow plans that do not stand the test of time and we fail to adjust to what we learn.
Our accounting systems are out of control. They spawn an ever-growing set of rules and accounts to manage the work. All of this work is nothing more than a feel good exercise for managers who mostly want to show “due-diligence” and those they “manage risk”. No money is ever wasted doing anything (except increasingly all the money is wasted). Instead we are squeezing the life out of our science, which manifests itself as low quality work. In a very real way low quality science is easier to manage, far more predictable and easy to make accountable. One can easily argue that really great science with discovery and surprise completely undermines accountability, so we implicitly try to remove it from the realm of possibility. Without discovery, serendipity and surprise, the whole enterprise is much more fitting to tried and true business principles. In light of where the accountability has come from, it might be good to take a hard look at these business principles and the consequences they have reaped.
We exist in an increasingly risk adverse (https://wjrider.wordpress.com/2015/10/23/we-want-no-risk-and-complete-safety-we-get-mediocrity-and-decline/) and fearful society beset by massive inequality of income, wealth and opportunity. Many of these terrible outcomes can be traced directly to the sorts of business principles being applied to science. Such principles are completely oriented toward driving outcomes preferentially toward the “haves” and away from the “have not’s”. Ultimately, the biggest threat to the rich and powerful is change in the status quo. The sorts of management and accountability used today mostly works to undermine any real progress, which favors the status quo. Science is one of the major societal engines of progress and change. The rich and powerful are fearful of progress, and work to kill it. We are tremendously successful at killing progress, and modern accountability is one of the best tools to do it.
Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties.
― Erich Fromm
Quality suffers because of loss of breadth of perspective and injection of ideas from divergent points of view. Creativity and innovation (i.e., discovery) are driven by broad and divergent perspectives. Most discoveries in science are simply repurposed ideas from another field. Discovery is the thing we need to progress in science and society. It is the very thing that our current accountability climate is destroying. Accountability helps to drive away any thoughts from outside the prescribed boundaries of the work. Another maxim of today is the customer is always right. For us the customers are working under similar accountability standards. Since they are “right” and just as starved for perspective, the customer works to narrow the focus. We get a negative flywheel effect where narrowing focus and perspective work to enhance their effect.
Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.
― Robert Heinlein
This has manifested itself as the loss of the Labs as honest brokers. The Labs are simply sycophants today who work on what they are paid to work on. A large-scale extension of the customer is always right principle. They never provide even a scintilla of feedback to government programs because of the fear of having their funding cut. Instead they pile on to poorly constructed and intellectually shallow programs because they promise funding. Thus we get programs that are phenomenally shallow and intellectually empty, but are managed at a level that provides no freedom or innovation to rescue them from their mediocrity. The accountability means that the empty intellectual goals are executed to a tee, and any value that might have arisen from the resources is sacrificed to the altar of doing what you’re told to do.
When programs of the sort that the government is funding are integrated over decades you see an immense decline in the institutions due to the loss of autonomy of the staff. Our National leadership in science simply corrodes and younger scientists do not develop in any sort of coherent way. Careers are starved of the sorts of efforts needed to build them. We have created a generation of mediocre scientists who excel at obedience and simply grinding through projects. They are distinguished by their ability to produce the deliverables they promised and little else. Once great institutions are steaming caldrons of mediocrity and mostly just pork barrel spending (I often joke that the execution of the Lab Mission is best achieved by going out and buying a car).
An inappropriate focus on money is the root of many of these problems. These days we will do almost anything for money, and money is the primary measure of everything (https://wjrider.wordpress.com/2014/08/29/money-makes-for-terrible-priorities/). In particular the accountability of what money is spent on provides the standard form of success. Did we do what the money was supposed to pay for? If so, success is declared. Never mind that the money has been sub-divided into ever-smaller bins that effectively destroy the ability to achieve anything bigger and more coherent. The big ideas that would really make a huge difference to everyone never happen because we can’t ever produce a body of work that is coherent enough to succeed. We are always doing work “in the box”.
The end result of our current form accountability is small-minded success. In other words we succeed at many small unimportant things, but fail at large important things. The management can claim that everything is being done properly, but never produce anything that really succeeds in a big way. From the viewpoint of accountability we see nothing wrong all deliverables are met and on time. True success would arise by attempting to succeed at bigger things, and sometimes failing. The big successes are the root of progress and the principal benefit of dreaming big and attempting to achieve big. In order to succeed big, one must be willing to fail big too. Today big failure surely brings congressional hearings and the all to familiar witch-hunt. Without the risks of failure we are left with small-minded success being the best we can do.
Big goals, trust and leadership are the cures. We need to prioritize progress and discovery by producing an environment that is tailored to produce it. Hand in hand with this is a level of faith in the human spirit and ingenuity. Let people believe that their work matters with proof that they are contributing to a meaningful goal. Daniel Pink wrote a book called “Drive” where a workplace is described that is the utter antithesis to the sort of accountability science labors under today (http://www.amazon.com/Drive-Surprising-Truth-About-Motivates/dp/1594484805/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1447431195&sr=8-1&keywords=drive). I was stunned by how empowering his description of work could be, and how far from this vision I work under today. I might simply suggest that my management read that book and implement everything in it. The scary thing is that they did read it, and nothing came of it. The current system seems to be completely impervious to good ideas (or perhaps following the book would have been too empowering to the employees!). Of course the book suggests a large number of practices that are completely impossible under current rules and opposed by the whole concept of accountability we are under today.
It is completely ironic that the very forces that are pushing accountability down our throats are completely free of any accountability themselves. Our current political class is virtually invulnerable to any accountability from the voters. The rich and powerful overlords rule the masses with impunity. Their degree of wealth makes them completely resistant to accountability. The accountability thrust upon the rest of us is simply a tool to maintain and magnify their power through killing progress and assuring that the status quo that favors them is never threatened. Accountability is simply a way of crushing progress, and making sure that the current societal order is maintained.
I worry that only some external force and/or event will be able to dismantle the current system, and it will not be pretty or pleasant for anyone. The forces in power today are quite entrenched and resist any move that might reduce their stranglehold on the World.
The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.
― Ernest Hemingway