“Empowerment” of employees, where they are given the competency, data, tools and authority to do their job independent of supervision is a good thing in most organisations. But “empowering” people or delegating borders on abdication too often (from my observations).

Leaders who allow decisions to meander about a labyrinth of subcommittees, postponing hard decisions until consensus is reached are, in my view, abdicating their accountability more often than not.

Responsibility and accountability are two terms thrown about like confetti at a wedding in many organisations. They are, however, two of the more important words in organisational design and behaviour.

Responsibility lies with the individual. I am responsible for my actions as a person. I am responsible for a task or process at work.

Responsibility can be shared. As a sales person I am responsible for part of the collection process at work and accounts receivable are responsible for another part of the process.

Accountability cannot be shared. Many people may be responsible for my upbringing including me, my parents, my siblings, my extended family, communities and friends. I am singly accountable for how I act today even though it is influenced by my upbringing.

As CEO of the organisation, I am accountable for the actions of others. If an employee acted irresponsibly and defrauded the organisation I lead, I am accountable for there being insufficient controls. I am accountable for the organisation’s response to the fraud.

My Finance Manager will bear heavy responsibility for having insufficient controls, but is not accountable. As Harry S. Truman famously said, “The buck stops here”.

If I have delegated the accountability to my Finance Manager then he or she bears the accountability. I bear the accountability of delegation.

Accountability of delegation is no light matter. Delegation is not as simple as assigning accountability for a task or outcome to an individual. The individual must have the competence, authority, data and tools to be able to complete the task or devise a means of achieving the outcome.

Failing the test of ensuring the competence exists in the individual or can be supported through mentoring and coaching is a failure of the accountability of delegation.

Failing the test of ensuring the individual has access to data and tools necessary is a failure of the accountability of delegation.

Failing the test of providing the authority is a failure of the accountability of delegation. It is not sufficient to provide rapid and easy access to the authority. Where authority goes, so does the accountability.

Several aspects of accountability not being accepted squarely reveal themselves for too many organisations each year of that organisation’s life. For example, the building and execution of business plans.

Business plans are drawn up, debated, rejected, revised, discussed and finally accepted. During the year, however the estimated sales are not being delivered, or the costs of distribution are higher than expected or the ability to implement a project on time and on budget are severely hampered.

If one is accountable for one of these outcomes then one must do something about it, at speed. If delegating to a cross functional team to get a broad consensus on an appropriate set of actions is the best way to achieve a turnaround in the result, then so be it. It is not acceptable however, to allow the team to wallow in monthly meetings meandering nowhere.

The accountability is to achieve the result which requires fast action. Delegating to a committee without giving them the authority and ensuring they have time and the data required to make fast decisions is the accountability of the delegator, not the committee.

Putting together a committee in the first place which finds it difficult to work fast because of a lack of decision making skills is the accountability of the delegator.

Delegating the building of the business plan to others without taking a personal interest in how it is built, what the important parameters are and what values of those parameters will equate to success is not delegation. That is close to abdication.

There are, in business, some tasks which cannot be delegated.

For instance, the accountability for strategy development cannot be delegated away from the leader of the organisation. Many people may be responsible for a contribution to a strategy, but the accountability must lie with the leader.

Elements of strategy execution can be delegated. The Finance Manager can be accountable for strategies that impact financial risk levels, controls or financial processes. The operations manager can be accountable for strategies to improve customer service, improve safety or reduce costs.

Accountability for the development and overall execution of strategy, including the level and quality of delegation lies with the leader of the organisation.

Anything else is abdication, not delegation. It is then someone else’s accountability to look for a new leader.