Accountability and Scrum

Accountability is a very important concept in Scrum. Most people don’t really understand what it is; they really don’t understand the notion of a person being Accountable. In fact, there is not even a word for it in many languages. So, let me explain what it means for us when we’re talking about accountability in a Scrum context.

Here’s the basic definition:

Accountability is answerability, blameworthiness, liability, and the expectation of account-giving… Accountability is the acknowledgment and assumption of responsibility for actions, products, decisions, and policies…

Accountability is frequently described as a relationship between individuals; Person-A is Accountable to Person-B for Thing-C when Person-A may be held to account for Thing-C to Person-B. The phrases held to account or make an accounting both mean being able to explain yourself — and this is the essence of Accountability as we use it.

Generally speaking, we usually hold people Accountable either for ‘getting something done’ or for ‘making a decision’. Let me discuss each of these cases:

Accountable for Getting Something Done

If a person is Accountable for getting something done then that person needs to make sure that the something gets done (he or she doesn’t have to do it personally) and this person needs to be able to answer ‘Why? What happened?’ if it doesn’t get done.

Accountable for Making a Decision

If a person is Accountable for making a decision then that person makes sure the decision is made, and that person owns the decision. In other words, he or she needs to be able to explain the decision, and is also Accountable for all the consequences (both intended and unintended) of that decision.

Accountability on a Scrum Team

Generally speaking, only individual people can be held Accountable for things. Many people speak of Team, Group, or Organizational Accountability, but this is a difficult concept — and not one I’ll discuss here.

Even though wikipedia includes the word blameworthy in its definition of Accountable, this is not the main thing. We should think of accountability in the context of learning; someone who is accountable needs to be able to ‘explain him or herself’ in order to start a conversation that will help that person get better at what he or she is accountable for — accountability is an important facet of a learning organization.

With that in mind, here are the accountabilities we find on a Scrum Team:

  • Each Team Member is Accountable to other Team Members for doing good work and helping the Team get work done. Each Team Member must be able to explain to other Team Members what he/she is working on, what issues are cropping up, what help is needed, and so on.
  • The ScrumMaster is Accountable to Management to make the Team better through the use of Scrum. He or she must be able to explain what Impediments the Team has, and what is being done to mitigate or remove them.
  • The Product Owner is Accountable to Management for maximizing the value of the Product and the value the Team produces. This is actually two Accountabilities:
    • The Product Owner must be able to explain what the Product needs next, and why it’s important to the Product Stakeholders, and
    • The Product Owner must be able to explain what work the Team is doing, why it’s important to the Organization, and the status of it.
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