Betting Your Head

What's the difference between accountability and responsibility? It's an important question these days as businesses wrestle with decisions that will affect their destinies for years to come. You can be responsible without being accountable, but not vice versa. The folks who are accountable are the ones who go to the guillotine; those who are merely responsible get to watch, peering nervously from behind pillars and around corners. There's room for only one head in the guillotine. That's why it takes courage to accept accountability (just ask the chief executives of Ford Motor Co. and United Air Lines Inc., who recently became public poster boys for their companies' high-profile business calamities).

Career-long business survival consists of a seemingly endless series of decisions. But before any decisions get made-whether they are your's or someone else's-it's helpful to know who's really in charge of what. Who will ultimately be held accountable for success (and thus uplifted) or for failure (and maybe get beheaded in the town square)?

Problem is, sometimes it's hard to know who's accountable for what. Try this. Go ask 20 people in your business this question: "Who is ultimately accountable for the success or failure of our Web initiatives?" Get ready for some surprising answers, because they're likely to be all over the map.

You need to know who plays what roles. And this information has to be clearly communicated throughout your entire business. Yet how many companies out there are stuck in the mud because their sheer size creates massive inertia? Too many divisions and power centers, too many separate goals, too little time, too few people who stick around long enough in any one role to make a difference.

Accountability for the transition to a digital value chain must fall squarely on the shoulders of one individual. Responsibility for executing the chosen strategy may be spread around liberally, but accountability can't be. A czar is required. This e-czar should be firmly rooted in the business side, not in IS, because technology and strategy are not the same thing (as the failure of many dotcoms illustrates). But just as you'd never design a skyscraper without the aid of competent architects and engineers, neither would you develop a Web strategy without strong input from technology wonks.

Sure, creating an e-czar position will have its downside. Depending on how you structure the office, an e-czar could become a bottleneck when speed is of the essence. But sheer speed can be overrated. A lot of Information Age roadkill has resulted from driving too fast with the headlights off.

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