How accountability enables autonomy

Autonomy and accountability are intrinsically tied together. To achieve great results, people need control over what they do (autonomy) and they need to be motivated by real business outcomes (accountability). Effective delegation requires a balance of these two forces. When startup leaders fail, it’s often the result of an imbalance between their autonomy and their accountability.

Autonomy is your ability to determine the strategy for your area of ownership. You’re autonomous if you can decide what you work on. If you simply execute someone else’s plan, you have low autonomy.

Accountability is about ownership of outcomes. You’re accountable if your professional performance is determined by the outcomes you deliver. If you are not held accountable for outcomes (because nobody is paying attention or because the buck stops with someone else), you are not accountable.

Autonomy without accountability

It is common for an individual or team to be given autonomy but not accountability. They define their own strategy and ways of working, but they are not held accountable for the outcomes of their work. This situation often emerges when individuals are promoted to lead areas of the business where clear desired outcomes are not yet defined.

Aspiring leaders often demand autonomy but fail to set targets and hold themselves accountable for outcomes. Individuals crave autonomy because control and leadership are fulfilling, and it sucks to have to implement someone else’s vision, especially if you disagree with it. Conversely, individuals avoid accountability because it sucks to be seen as a failure when things go wrong (and it sucks to be demoted, fired, or miss your bonus).

A party with strategic autonomy but no practical accountability will struggle to achieve tangible business outcomes. They care about business impact, but their judgement is clouded by what they find personally interesting or frustrating because they don’t have specific outcomes in mind. This impacts their ability to prioritise work and choose practical solutions1.

For example:

In both situations, people keep busy and have the business’s good in mind, but they fail to deliver outstanding results.

Accountability without autonomy

It is also common for individuals or teams to be given accountability but not autonomy. They are held accountable for the outcomes of their work, but they don’t have control over their strategy or ways of working. Usually, this is because someone is micromanaging the individual or team.

A party accountable for outcomes but with no say in strategy or ways of working is likely to fail. While it is conceivable that, with a perfect strategy dictated from above, a team or individual with little autonomy would succeed, it is unlikely because every good strategy requires feedback from the people who execute it.

For example:

Success will be unlikely in both situations if the people on the ground cannot influence the strategy.

Balancing autonomy with accountability

Most people think that strategy is step one, and execution is step two. You create a plan, and then you execute that plan. But this unnecessary bifurcation of the doing process almost always leads to mediocre results.

When you implement a strategy, you learn about its strengths and flaws. If you adjust your strategy based on these new learnings, you will achieve better outcomes than if you just stick to the original plan. The difference between a good and a great strategy is feedback from the people who execute it. No strategy is perfect, but iteration can get you close.

A mediocre strategy supported by tight feedback loops can evolve into a great one. This is the crux of why autonomy and accountability are inextricably linked. Autonomy is decision-making. Accountability is how you measure the quality of decisions. If you have both, you can achieve remarkable outcomes. You will flounder with just one because the decision-making process lacks a feedback mechanism.

To be autonomous and effective, you also need accountability. To be accountable and effective, you also need to be autonomous. To achieve one, you need the other, so you must balance these forces.

Advice for startup leaders

Both accountability and autonomy exist on a spectrum — neither is binary. To set up your people for success, you need to balance the accountability and autonomy you give them.

A more autonomous team should also be more accountable. If your engineering team has a say in how they build features but not what features they build, they should be more accountable for the parts they have control over.

People should be held accountable for the layers where they make decisions. Suppose your engineering teams can choose what to build, but the leadership team dictates the high-level vision or direction for the year. In that case, you should hold the leadership team accountable for the vision and the engineering team for much of the rest.

If you want your team or employee to step up and take more control of their areas of ownership, you need to give them more accountability. Work with them to set some goals, so they know what outcomes they need to achieve. Let them rise to the occasion and determine the path (though this should always be a collaborative process).

If a team or employee struggles to achieve defined outcomes, see what you can learn from them about the strategy. They might have some interesting insights into why things aren’t working out.

Advice for ambitious individuals

Individuals and teams often ask for more autonomy but rarely for more accountability. To gain more control over the strategy, start by demonstrating accountability, which increases success chances and persuades leadership to delegate control.

When requesting more control from your manager, you ask for their trust in delivering desired outcomes. To establish this trust, prioritise accountability by collaborating with your manager to set target outcomes. Then discuss how these goals can be better achieved.

Rising stars within startups often achieve autonomy when things are going well. People who deliver a lot of value are given more responsibility and control. These same people are usually given accountability when things are going poorly. This can be a painful process. If you work with your manager to establish desired outcomes early, you can align your efforts with these outcomes.


  1. People naturally gravitate towards the problems and solutions they find interesting. By focusing on outcomes, teams challenge this instinct and can deliver better results. ↩︎

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