How to Effectively Empower Teams With an Accountability Framework

7 Jul 2022

by Deborah Theseira

Digital is woven through our everyday lives, making it impossible for organizations to ignore the massive potential it offers. Digital transformation can greatly enhance an enterprise’s customer value proposition, making it a huge area of interest. Whether or not an enterprise is born-digital, it has to consider the role of digital and how it can transform the way an enterprise operates to be more competitive and effective.

However, traditional, hierarchical frameworks often make it challenging for organizations to be flexible and agile enough for the digital age. Organizations find themselves in need of better, different approaches to govern and align teams, such as developing an accountability framework.

Why Traditional, Hierarchical Frameworks Aren’t Cutting It

The traditional command and control approach to management relies on hierarchy, which has worked effectively for organizations in the pre-digital age. This approach provides clear-cut structures for responsibility, keeping processes reliable and predictable. With command and control, leadership knows what to expect because employees have been given very clear prescriptions on how to execute.

However, in the digital age and with digital offerings, in particular, there is reduced emphasis on standardization. Innovation at speed is the bigger priority here. To stay agile and innovative, people in the organizations need space for flexible, less prescriptive ways of working which empower them to be creative and have room to explore.  

Empowerment doesn’t mean a complete removal of hierarchical processes and decision-making at the organizational level, but instead reducing both of these considerations. That said, organizations need to be sure that their people and teams are still working in a coordinated way towards the same organizational objectives. An accountability framework is one recommended approach to empowering people while coordinating their individual efforts.

What Is an Accountability Framework? 

Research from MIT Sloan Center for Information Systems Research (MIT CISR) has identified it as one of the 5 building blocks of digital transformation. An accountability framework is essentially an organizational capability that coordinates the efforts of autonomous teams. An accountability framework has several key goals: 

  • To enable agile distributed decision-making
  • To establish clear individual ownership over digital offerings and components
  • To maintain a balance between independence and alignment

“If businesses hope to succeed digitally — if they expect to develop valuable digital offerings at scale — they will need to empower their people to imagine and build great components.”- Designed for Digital

Here are some of the key differences between command and control governance compared to empowering and aligning teams through an accountability framework: 

Command-and-Control Management

Empowered Teams

Focused on standardized processes optimized for common, frequent problems

Focused innovation, optimized for speed and flexibility

Relies on slow hierarchical decision-making processes

Able to make dynamic decisions on an individual and team level

Clearly defined processes and rules for problem-solving

Has more flexibility to try different approaches for problem-solving

Managers are expected to prescribe how to achieve business objectives defined by company-wide goals

Teams are empowered to establish their own metrics and processes, adjusting activities to meet team goals that connect to larger company-wide goals

Decisions made by leaders who are not aware of all the nuances and changes in customer needs and demands

Decisions made by component or product owners who are able to respond quickly to new customer insights

Business organized around functions

Business organized around specific offerings 


New call-to-actionKey Principles of an Accountability Framework

While there is no standard recipe for an accountability framework, “Designed for Digital” has identified 8 guiding principles which can help frame and focus the process of developing one. These principles are formulated most specifically for businesses specializing in digital products and services. These businesses are usually looking to evolve their digital offerings at scale and are often structured around empowering product teams to build great business, data, and technology components for their organization’s digital platform. Components mean considering the business and its digital platform in terms of building blocks. These building blocks can be combined to swiftly create solutions from technology, teams, and data that already exist within an organization. This approach lends much more agility than building solutions or processes from scratch. 

The examples illustrated below for each principle focus on components in the context of empowered product teams creating software components, governing how they operate in an agile manner to stay aligned to the business's core goals. 

1. Component Owners, Not Project Managers

Creators fully own and retain responsibility for all aspects of a component. Work is not delegated, as it would be with a project manager, and they are expected to problem-solve independently in a timely manner. 

2. Mission, Not Structure

Rather than hierarchical structures, component owners have specific missions to ensure their activities maintain alignment with what they should accomplish, what other teams will accomplish, and how all of these activities are connected to the enterprise’s goals. They are free to make decisions and take action within the boundaries of the mission. 

3. Metrics, Not Directives

Component teams decide on metrics that will help them know if they are making progress on their mission. Management can review these metrics, guide their development and give feedback on suitability while making the most of a team’s creativity.

4. Experiments, Not Major Launches

Teams use smaller-scale experiments to test ideas that they believe will yield good outcomes for the metrics they have set. They write code, release it and assess the outcomes. They are empowered to assess the success of their experiments and iterate as needed.

5. Continuous Release, Not Scheduled Releases

Where the traditional approach would be working towards scheduled, periodic releases of code, teams work on the continuous release of new code as soon as it is developed. Technology-focused businesses have created DevOps for this purpose, reducing barriers to speedy development, release, and feedback. 

6. Fully Resourced, Not Matrixed

To deliver on their missions, component teams work cross-functionally with easy access to resources. With this liberal access comes heavy responsibility, so they are held fully accountable for the outcomes and costs.    

7. Collaboration, Not Hierarchy

Teams can work directly and effectively with other relevant parties when they are aware of who they depend on and who depends on them. However, the coordination with other teams should not introduce hierarchical bottlenecks for decision-making teams and development. Leaders can help support inter-team projects with collaboration tools and processes that help communicate and visualize interdependencies.

8. Trust, Not Control

Leaders shift their role from one of intervention, when something goes wrong, to being “process coaches”, helping individuals grow their abilities to lead, make decisions, and take responsibility for a component.

accountability framework

While these principles are very clearly written as guidelines for product teams working on and owning various components of a digital platform, there are some valuable learnings here on how to successfully leverage an alternative approach to organizational structure. To be successful, companies must be able to rapidly build, buy, configure and reconfigure themselves to generate or enhance their offering. This may mean considering cross-functional or “fusion” teams or a more flexible composable business. With these highly autonomous structures comes an even greater need to maintain alignment and accountability, making an accountability framework an important part of an enterprise’s success.

The Challenges With Adopting an Accountability Framework

Development of the Framework

Like most aspects or recommendations for digital transformation, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. The principles illustrated above are guidelines but not a full recipe that can be implemented. The accountability framework has to be shaped by a business’s needs, priorities and culture. Another challenge is getting full buy-in from senior leadership and having a board that is willing to trust employees with more responsibility and decision-making in exchange for more effective, rapid responses to market demand. 

Implementing It on the Ground 

Once a framework is developed, the next challenge is behavioral change. Incentives alone are not enough to change mindsets and ingrained habits across the organization. Letting go of well-established ways of working is always daunting, even more so with the pressure of profit and sustainability weighing it down. People tend to resist the pain of change, even if it means staying with ineffective ways of working so this process may need to be facilitated by external experts on change management. As you might imagine, the larger the enterprise, the more difficult this process can be so it is often the last building block of digital transformation put in place. 

Transparency Is Key

A core theme of developing an accountability framework is to improve transparency and empower more people in the organization to make decisions that can help take the business to the next level. However, to foster the trust needed to democratize decision-making, organizations need a way to better understand themselves and their people’s strengths. Enterprise Architecture offers one way digital enterprises can gain deeper data-driven insight into themselves and the way forward. Learn more about how valuable Enterprise Architecture insights can help you make better digital decisions across the organization.

Make Better Decisions Faster


Deborah Theseira Deborah Theseira Deborah is a Content Specialist at Ardoq. She wields words in the hope of demystifying the complex and ever-evolving world of Enterprise Architecture.
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