The Oz Principle

Getting Results Through Individual And Organizational Accountability

Craig Hickman, Roger Connors, and Tom Smith
Rating: 9.4

Above and Below the Line

A fine line separates achievement and its opposite, whether that’s failure or inertia. To work above that line, take these sequential “steps to accountability” : “Muster the courage to see it, find the heart to own it, obtain the wisdom to solve it” and execute your solution by “exercising the means to do it.” The opposite actions are below the line, in the realm of non-achievement, victimization and apathy. These actions include making excuses, blaming others, being confused, refusing to accept responsibility, feeling helpless, looking out only for yourself, and covering up problems or denying them altogether.

“It’s a lot easier to preach accountability than to practice it.”

Accountability is, if not a magic solution to everything, certainly a solution to many things. Business books are full of examples of companies that hit serious difficulties because people refused to take the steps to accountability. Cisco Systems earned its reputation for bold, imaginative management and amazing success during 40 quarters of uninterrupted growth. But Cisco risked its standing when its customers ran into trouble with the implosion of the technology stock bubble. Having missed some cues at first, management came to understand the problem and grapple with it, but the solution required billions of dollars in write-offs and a layoff that claimed 8,500 jobs.

“While Dorothy had worn the magic slippers throughout her journey, she had not tapped their power until she had learned ‘The Oz Principle’: People hold inside themselves the power to rise above their circumstances and get the results they want.”

Cisco isn’t unusual, except in the positive sense that it recognized its problem and took the necessary steps toward a solution. Refusing to face problems and to accept responsibility and accountability seems to be human nature. People don’t see what they don’t want to see. One of the few outright fiascos in General Electric’s abundantly successful history was a $450 million mistake involving the use of powdered metal components in refrigerator compressors. GE and other companies had previous problems with such components, but the design team went forward with them. When events made it clear that the components didn’t work, insiders blamed each other and tried to hide the problem; denial led to inaction. The mechanical failure would have been difficult if people had tackled it earlier, but delays in facing the facts magnified the problem.

Are You Below the Line?

To discern when you or your organization are slipping below the line between achievement and a dead-end, try this quick self-diagnosis:

  • Do you feel that you have little or no control of your circumstances?
  • Do you listen when people tell you that you are not doing all you could be doing?
  • Do you blame other people? Are you defensive?
  • When discussing the problem, do you talk more about why you can’t do something instead of finding solutions?
  • Do you avoid situations that require you to report on your responsibilities?
  • Do people look for you to tell you how someone took advantage of them?
  • Do you avoid asking yourself questions whose answers might point a finger at you?
  • Do you feel that people are treating you unjustly and that you can’t fix it?
  • Are you a pessimist? Do you say, “It’s not my job”?

“When you encounter a difficult situation, ask…whether you want to remain mired in the difficulty or attempt some sort of breakthrough to extract yourself from it.”

If you have these issues, confront them and recognize them as “impediments to accountability and results.” Beware: Life below the line goes through a recognizable six-stage “victim cycle”:

  1. “Ignore/deny” – Just recall how management and labor refused to recognize the US steel industry’s obvious decline.
  2. “It’s not my job!” – Many people prefer to dodge responsibility, especially when accepting it creates personal or career risk. They prefer to do nothing, but they don’t realize that they must accept responsibility for that as well.
  3. “The blame game” – To avoid responsibility, companies include elaborate disclaimers when they ship products or deliver services. These disclaimers let them shift the blame for problems onto consumers or delivery people but they don’t solve the customer’s problem. Blame is invasive and infectious. In the blame game, everybody accuses everybody else, and nobody accomplishes anything.
  4. “Tell me what to do” – People generally don’t want to be accountable for their actions. They wait for someone to offer a solution and give orders. If you are following orders, you can duck the blame and toss it to the person giving the instructions.
  5. “Cover your tail” – People who focus on protecting themselves do not innovate or progress. Some people will refuse to attend meetings or will leave during a crisis just so that no one can later hold them responsible for actions that go wrong.
  6. “Wait and See” – Paralyzed employees assure themselves that something good may happen if they do nothing so, instead of acting, they let the situation drift.

Being Accountable

First, define accountability correctly. At many organizations, “accountability” really means “blame.” People only hear about accountability when something sinks, blows up or crashes. When everything is great, no one asks who’s accountable for the success. Define accountability as “a personal choice to rise above one’s circumstances and demonstrate the ownership necessary for achieving desired results.” Accountability includes success, not just failure. A sales manager put a bell in the office corridor and rang it when anyone closed a sale. Sales reps paid attention to it. They wanted to be accountable for making it ring. People who are imbued with a spirit of accountability will:

  • Ask for constructive criticism and candid feedback.
  • Demand the truth even when it hurts and face facts, no matter how scary or nasty.
  • Don’t waste time or energy on things you cannot control or influence.
  • Commit yourself 100% to what you are doing, and if your commitment begins to wane, strive to rekindle it.
  • Take full ownership for their work and its results.
  • Enjoy responsibility for what happens.
  • Always ask yourself, “What else can I do?”

“All too often people view unhappy circumstances as accidents of chance; yet when they find themselves in more pleasant circumstances, they automatically take credit for a job well done.”

Real accountability is shared. People are mutually accountable. Every member of a team must be accountable, which means owning a problem so you can attain the right outcome. Address problems by using the “see it, own it, solve it and do it” approach.

“The Crucial First Step Above the Line: See It”

Imagine how Jim Copeland, CEO of Deloitte & Touche, felt when the accounting profession came into the public eye in the aftermath of the Enron, WorldCom and Arthur Andersen scandals.

“Focus your efforts on removing the obstacles standing between you and the outcomes you desire.”

Deloitte and Touche had been doing exactly what the critics were inveighing against – mixing consulting and audit services. Within hours of hearing that a major client was leaving for that reason, Copeland and his key executives worked out a plan to separate audit and consulting.

Copeland had to take a big risk. Consulting was a very profitable part of the firm’s business. But he saw the problem, faced it and grappled with it; then it wasn’t a problem anymore.

“It can take time for people to change their perspectives and adopt new attitudes and behavior.”

Contrast his decisiveness with the inaction and procrastination of so many businesspeople. When people lack courage – think of the timid lion in The Wizard of Oz – they don’t fail to see problems; they deliberately refuse to see problems out of fear. What they can’t see, they can’t solve. Therefore, in their cowardly minds, they are not responsible or accountable. Now, think how laughable their evasions and excuses really are. Instead, do as the cowardly lion did: Get some courage.

“The Second Essential Step Above the Line: Own It”

People in an organization who see a problem and take responsibility for fixing it are golden. People who reject accountability do nothing. If you have ever seen yourself as the victim of a terrible injustice, reflect on that experience and ask yourself:

  • What did you know to be true and that you simply closed your eyes to?
  • If you were in the same circumstances again, what would you change?
  • What warnings were flashing?
  • What did experience teach you that you could have used but did not?
  • Why were you responsible? What did you commit or omit?

“A society of observers is not a society of participants. If you sit on the sidelines watching the ‘game of your life’ play out…you relinquish your ability to affect the final score.”

Face facts. Don’t let things slide while indulging in a fantasy that they are sliding your way. Like the Tin Man, find your heart and learn to care enough to own your circumstances.

When people don’t take ownership, catastrophes result. The astronauts in the space shuttle Columbia paid with their lives for the failure of cost-cutting bureaucrats at NASA and elsewhere to see and take ownership of problems. Have a heart.

“The Third Challenging Step Above the Line: Solve It”

The Scarecrow “symbolizes the wisdom to solve problems, a capability, as it turned out, he possessed all along.” Own and solve problems, but don’t try to solve situations that aren’t problems. Do not act just for action’s sake or change just for the sake of change. Managers in new jobs find it very tempting to bustle around making changes, because looking busy is usually a good way to move ahead. They solve problems that aren’t problems. Not solving the real problem and solving the non-problem are two sides of the same coin.

“Only when you assume full accountability for your thoughts, feelings, actions and results can you direct your own destiny; otherwise someone or something else will.”

How do you know a problem when you see it? The 10 most dangerous unresolved problems organizations face are: “poor communication, people development, empowerment, misalignment, entitlement, work and personal life imbalance, poor performance, senior management development, cross-functional strife and programitis,” that is, blindly following all the faddish programs that come and go.

“Back home in Kansas, Dorothy would never be the same because she had learned, through her arduous journey, that she was the master of her own fate.”

Exercise your leadership, wisdom and prudence to distinguish what needs to be done from what does not. Wasting time on unnecessary action takes away time that you need to spend acting effectively. Use your “solve it skills”:

  • “Stay engaged” – Be awake and focus on the possible.
  • “Persist” – Hang in there stubbornly until you have it right.
  • “Think differently” – Look for strange and shockingly different points of view.
  • “Create new linkages” – Build new and unfamiliar relationships.
  • “Take initiative” – Go first; don’t wait for someone else.
  • “Stay conscious” – Get involved and stay involved.

“The Fourth and Final Step Above the Line: Do It”

Dorothy clicked her heels to unlock the magic of the ruby slippers. Yes, taking action may seem risky even when you’ve seen the problem, owned it and devised a solution. Acting amid a crisis is always a bit frightening. Act anyway. The alternative is paralysis, which means that all of your other efforts were in vain.

“There’s a lot to learn in Oz. Enjoy the lifelong journey.”

Leaders must apply these principles to themselves and to their organizations. Intervention, itself, is risky. Leaving the team to figure things out for itself is important, but it can also be a way of shirking leadership responsibility. Try to fulfill this checklist of leadership characteristics:

  • Act accountably, the way you want your staff members to act.
  • Tolerate occasional “below the line” statements. Recognize that your team members sometimes have to deal with frustration. Check into their complaints to make sure that they are not indulging in self-victimization.
  • Know a dodge when you see it and an evasion when you hear it.
  • Make people accountable in order to empower them.
  • Ask for honest feedback and coaching, and coach others patiently and respectfully.

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