NASA, the All Blacks and more – Cultures of Accountability

As part of this series of blogs on operational resilience, we now turn to the topic of accountability. Instilling the right culture is absolutely critical for many reasons. Whilst operational resilience might not have been the first reason for having a good culture, it is as relevant to operational resilience as it is elsewhere, and it all hinges on accountability. You can have all the disaster plans and procedures in the world, but if the people operating those playbooks aren’t culturally aligned, then there’s going to be an element of risk.

Before we begin to consider what good culture may look like from an operational resilience and accountability perspective, let’s first consider what bad / ugly cultures might look like. There are many characteristics of bad, ugly or toxic cultures and whilst it’s easy to be “academic” about it and state you need to avoid all these the truth is that it’s a balance and being aware of these is key to creating the culture that befits the organisation.

So being aware of the long and short term issues associated with driving the team and individuals to levels not sustainable, the subconscious desire to recruit people in your own image and not look for a diverse organisation with fresh and original thinking, and to be inaccessible to your team, all contribute to a toxic culture. We also find that when individual performance is viewed significantly higher than team/department/organisation performance this can lead to a culture of individual blame, scapegoating, lack of accountability and the fear of failure which can stifle an organisation.

If that’s what a terrible culture of accountability looks like, then what does a good one look like? There are three key characteristics in a culture of accountability: Shared vision, Leadership, and Permission to fail.


Shared vision

Having a vision that is fully bought into is essential in generating a culture of accountability. If everyone in the organisation can clearly articulate a clear and ambitious vision, it will go a long way to stimulating a sense of accountability and alignment to that goal. If people feel like they belong to an important mission then they are less likely to go off script from that which they have been given accountability. This is best illustrated by the story of the janitor at NASA. During a visit by President JFK the janitor was asked what he was doing, “I’m helping put a man on the moon” was the response. The janitor had completely bought into the vision and, despite his peripheral role, he did not deviate. He understood that he was accountable, in a small way, for achieving that vision.



The second characteristic is leadership. Great reams of literature have been written on the subject, so I’ll keep this brief. Leadership plays a crucial role in stimulating a sense of accountability further down the organisation. The most wonderfully simple example is the All Blacks rugby team – the most successful sports team in professional sport. They have this principle of “sweeping the sheds”, which is essentially cleaning the changing room once you are done. But the nub of it is that this is not done by the squad newbies but by the senior leaders in the team. The tone that is set from the top is one of accountability, but also being humble when in positions of leadership.


Permission to fail

This is our third and final characteristic. Operational resilience may not seem a likely place to be talking about permission to fail but it is an important element. The PRA are shifting their emphasis from one of zero-outages to outage response. They are recognising that things will go wrong at some point so it’s about minimising the impact and having a speedy response. Incidents precipitated by cultures of covering up and fear of failing will be more strongly penalised than those who fail but respond quickly and openly. Monzo is a great example of a firm that have had a few issues around resilience, but their response has been swift and set a new paradigm for transparency. Employees are more likely to take real accountability if they do not cower in fear of failing and will thrive if their leaders promote a culture of transparency.


This post has covered some fairly disparate examples, but hopefully paints a picture of what a good culture looks like in terms of accountability. Questions to ask when determining what kind of culture your organisation has may include: “Does everyone in this company respond the same when asked what the vision is?”, “Is the leadership humble in their words and exemplary in their behaviour?”, and finally “Do colleagues own up to their mistakes?”. If the answer is ‘yes’ to all of those, then you’re well on your way to creating a culture of accountability.


To hear more on this topic, and to get the views of the Regulator and a financial services client of TORI Global, come along to our Business Resilience breakfast on 10th September. More details can be found here >>