January 20, 2018

The Power of Accountability

Some months ago, I had a discussion with a friend and colleague of mine and ever since I’m planning to write this post. This post is about responsibility and accountability.


Unless people feel accountability and responsibility instead of just writing it down, RACI tables are a playbook for the finger-pointing game and not a tool for continuous improvement. Accountability and responsibility are the keys to successful products. For architectures this means that they need to be owned, maintained and challenged. Constantly. Continuously.

The reason for the discussion I mentioned was that he was asked to write a short report on the state of the IT department of one of his clients. The issue at hand was that there were a number of serious problems with the IT systems and although outages were fixed fairly quickly, the root-causes were hardly ever addressed. Instead people would blame each other. Fervently. After a couple of interviews, my friend concluded that there was a serious lack in governance in all areas of the organisation. And over dinner we were musing over this whole governance thing. And while enjoying a good meal and afterwards a really nice cognac, we more or less stumbled upon two words that I have been using more and more ever since: Responsibility and Accountability.

So that is what this post is about. This time I’m writing about responsibility and accountability and their role in architecture.

RACI explained

I think that you’re familiar with the concept of RACI tables. Tables in which on a variety of interrelated topics it is noted who is R(esponsible), A(ccountable), C(onsulted) and I(nformed). In my experience, the RACI table is typically very much discussed and eventually agreed upon. But hardly ever relevant in practice. Reason for this is that the RACI table is listed in some document and only looked at when there is trouble.

Let’s dissect the RACI for a moment. I’ll do this back-to-front as that is serving my purpose best. Starting with Informed. This depicts all people and parties that are to be informed about something. Could be an design decision, a contract, a change in a process, anything for that matter. For simplicity I’ll stick with ‘decision’. Then there’s Consulted. Where the Informed are merely told about a decision that has been made, the Consulted are asked their opinion about that decision. Their input is weighing into the decision. The main difference between the Informed and the Consulted is the fact that the Consulted have influence. Informed listen, Consulted talk.

Thirdly, there’s Responsible. I know, it should be Accountable, but I’ll address them last. The Responsible are about making the decision based on their own knowledge and understanding, taking into account what the Consulted said about the decision as well. The Responsible are the people that are all about that the decision is a sound decision. They (should) care about quality. In addition, the Responsible are in many cases also responsible for consulting the Consulted and informing the Informed. I agree with this. Then lastly there is the Accountable. Note the plural in Responsible, Consulted and Informed and the fact that the Accountable is not plural. Accountability is not a team-sport! The Accountable is held accountable for the results, the effects, the impact of the decision.

When we look at this in a Product context, then the RACI is as follows: Responsible is about the production of the Product, the quality of the product and the quantity of the product. The Accountable is about the money made (or lost) with the (sales of) product. Now when you factor in the Product Owner, it should be clear that the Product Owner is all about creating value with the Product she owns. Because of the accountability aspect, the Product Owner needs to find the perfect balance between quality, quantity and cost in order to generate the most value... but the Product Team is responsible for achieving this quality, produce the quantity and keep the cost level stable.
It goes without saying that the relationship between Product Owner and Product Team is to be very tight and based completely on trust.

RACI for the Architecture

You're probably asking yourself where architecture comes into play. I hope you've already read my post on the Agile Architect. In that post I am explaining the role of the architect in an agile environment. Just read it if you haven't already done so.

With architecture it becomes tricky, because architecture can be implicit as well as explicit. Implicit architecture is architecture that emerges. It is the Product Team that is formulating the product's architecture while creating and changing the product. As the product is developed, the team will find, define and adopt practices. Some will become best practices within the organisation as teams share their experiences. But as the team is identifying practices that they find supportive to their product development, they will become an integral part of the way the team works operates and there you go; Implicit Architecture. Mind that architecture is not some soft of diagram with blocks and arrows, instead it is a set of rules by which the product is developed. There's a team understanding that once you live by these rules, the world will be a nice place to live. The architecture is a framework of norms and values. Everybody in the team is held responsible for working within this framework. At best, the Scrum Master can be held accountable for the fact that everybody is following the rules of the team. But with respect to the architecture, this is a stretch.
Once these principles are formalised they become explicit. You'll be able to read them somewhere. The Ten Commandments of the team according to which they develop their products. At this point the team is still responsible for complying with the architecture principles, but since they're written down they need to be maintained. Mind that an architecture is something that needs to be nurtured. It needs to be constantly challenged, validated and maintained. And that should be somebody's responsibility. And that somebody should be held accountable for the relevance of the architecture.

Who da man?

Think about it, once you define an architecture, once you write it down, you create the architecture for somebody to be used. You have created a product. And there should be somebody owning that product and somebody developing that product. Somebody being accountable for the value architecture and somebody responsible for the quality of the architecture. Give it some thought and write down who is within your organisation accountable and who is responsible for any of the explicit architectures. And here's another challenge; ask them whether they feel the same way. For argument's sake, let's call the person accountable 'Chief Architect' and the person or persons responsible 'Product Architect'. And now ask them who they think should be consulted and who should be informed, just to make the RACI complete.

Yeah, that last one is tricky as can be. Traditionally and be aware that tradition is still prevalent, users are informed about products. And traditionally business is consulted about the product. Which of course is all backwards. Which product has the best product/market fit? Exactly, it's the product that meets the needs of the users best. And who better to define what product is meeting those needs best than the user. So users need to be consulted, not informed. I repeat, users should be consulted and not informed. That also holds true for the architecture.
Since the Chief Architect is accountable for the architecture, she will have to make sure that the architecture is relevant. That it is continuously validated for its applicability. Thus, the Chief Architect will need to consult with the developers whether their needs for an architecture, for the architecture are met, and that they can apply the architecture while developing the products. Consequently, the Product Architects are responsible for continuously consult the developers about what they need, how they need it, what works and what doesn't, etc.
In simple terms, the Chief Architect is accountable for the product/market fit of the architecture, and the Product Architect is responsible for making sure that the architecture addresses the needs of the developers. Obviously, when there are domain architects or other more over-arching architects, they befall the same faith.

RACI to solve problems

Now back to the discussion with my friend. The whole accountability and responsibility thing. I hope that you understand that unless the RACI is not only written down, but actually implemented, it doesn't mean a thing and can only be used to 'properly point fingers' when things go wrong. But it will not help you prevent problems. This is because unless you feel ownership, you feel accountable, you are not motivated to pro-actively work on improving your product.
So unless people feel accountable and responsible, they will not consult the right people, inform others in a timely matter and will work on preventing incidents. Finger-pointing is the result. And this is also the case for less obvious products like architectures, contracts, privacy policies and for example employee contracts.

Accept the Challenge

Again I challenge you to name the person(s) accountable for the explicit architectures in your organisation as well as those responsible for those architectures. And I dare you to hold them accountable and responsible. And I double dare you to make them consult their users and not just inform their users. Well, actually, start by asking who their users are, and you are likely to be in for a surprise.

Thanks once again for reading my blog. Please don't be reluctant to Tweet about it, put a link on Facebook or recommend this blog to your network on LinkedIn. Heck, send the link of my blog to all your Whatsapp friends and everybody in your contact-list. But if you really want to show your appreciation, drop a comment with your opinion on the topic, your experiences or anything else that is relevant.


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