How to Create Powerful Accountability Questions for Self-management

By Rupert Snook and originally published in Enspiral Tales on

This article is a followup to an article republished here in Enlivening Edge Magazine.

Why does the question process work so well? … it forces us to confront how we actually live our values every day. ~ Marshall Goldsmith

Kia ora! Rupert here from Optimi. We wrote something recently about how we use accountability questions as a self-managing team. People wanted more, asking to see more examples of our accountability questions. So now it’s time for a follow-up. I want to give you everything you need to start making your own questions! This is a great step into finding your own value in self-management, and living by that value every day.


Accountability questions are useful if you have:

  • A list of roles that describe the work your team does
  • A well-defined purpose and set of accountabilities for each role
  • One person to be accountable to each role
  • A time to meet regularly to ask each other your accountability questions

The point of accountability questions is to help a team to maintain the practice of self-management, after all the glamorous and fun work around role definition has subsided. It’s our solution to a hard problem: how do you maintain energy and direction around self-management, once you’ve kick started things with a role definition workshop?

Start with habits

The easiest way to get started with accountability questions is to think about habits. What habits do you need to form in order to do justice to your role? What are some yes/no questions you could ask yourself about that habit?

Here’s an example: Optimi has a facilitator role, which is all about making sure we have really understood a client’s problems. To do this role well, we need to build a new habit. We need to start asking the client for regular feedback on how well we have understood their pain points. So here’s the accountability question:

Facilitator: Have you requested feedback on the accuracy of your problem diagnosis?

Notice how this question is set up to have a simple answer. Yes or no. Either you did it, or you didn’t. When someone asks you this question, they are essentially inviting you to reflect very honestly on whether you have successfully practiced your new habit.

Credit where credit is due: I borrowed the technique of using yes/no questions for accountability. It’s from a personal development tool called the Daily Questions Process.

Ask yes/no questions for honest reflection.

The habit of asking for feedback is quite a simple one. The facilitator runs a session with the client, they ask for feedback after the session. It’s essentially a mechanical habit. Sometimes we want to build up more complex mental habits too.

A key accountability for Optimi’s facilitator role is to make sure the client’s perspective is front and foremost in our work. So we need to keep up a mental habit of staying focussed on the client’s problems, even where we’re right in the middle of a big solution brainstorm. Our facilitator is the person we can rely on to keep us focussed. So we can add another accountability question:

Facilitator role: Did you keep the team focussed on the client’s problem during solution design?

This one is a bit more complex. It’s not so much asking whether you learned a new habit or not. It’s asking whether you helped the entire team to form a new mental habit. The point is — there’s different ways you can think about habits. And habits can help you to generate lots of useful accountability questions.

More examples of habit-based accountability questions

Have you engaged with an online community in the last month?

Have you posted a monthly financial update?

Have you read all the latest Loomio threads that could impact us?

Have you sent out an internal update about our social impact?

Have you checked the time balance sheets are up to date?

Have you read 2 security articles this month?

Think about outcomes

If you want to go deeper, you can think about outcomes as well as habits. This means probing into why you might want to build a certain habit, and what the underlying intention might be.

Let’s think about one of the questions that we talked about earlier.

Facilitator role: Did you keep the team focussed on the client’s problem during solution design?

There’s an intention behind this question — we want to be client-focussed. Perhaps we don’t mind what habits the facilitator uses to get us there. We trust the facilitator to do whatever they can think of to achieve the right outcome. So we can reword the question to focus more on the outcome of being client-focussed.

Facilitator role: Are we keeping the client’s problem in our mind as we’re designing solutions?

Notice how the wording shifts here from “Did you” to “Are we”. We’re not asking if the facilitator built a new habit or not. We’re asking if the team has achieved an outcome or mindset.

More examples of outcome-based accountability questions

Do you know how each team member is progressing on their learning goals?

Do you know what % of capacity we have left?

Is Optimi’s Xero up to date?

Do we have a clear tactic for each lead?

Have you ensured Optimi is staying within scope on each client?

Do you clearly know deadlines for all your client work?

Doing your best

This is an awesome pattern for accountability questions. Ask yourself whether or not you did your best! This encourages personal accountability, and helps to make sure that unforeseen blocks don’t derail people.

Here’s an example of why this pattern works. I hold the Content Crusader role for Optimi. I could be asking myself a question regularly around whether blogs have been published. Perhaps something like Did you publish at least one blog last month? Now, imagine that all our blogging platforms simultaneously go down. There’s no way I can publish a blog now. When my team mates ask me if a published a blog last month, I can be secure in my excuse that all our blogging platforms are down, so I couldn’t do it.

Now, let’s try rewording that accountability question.

Content Crusader role: Have you done your best to progress Optimi’s blogs?

Suddenly, excuses don’t matter any more. When I get asked this question, I’m encouraged to reflect honestly. Did I do my best? Even if I have an excuse for not publishing any blogs, did I do my best to make progress?

More examples of “doing your best” accountability questions

Have you done your best to increase the readership of any recently published blogs?

Have you done your best to contribute to conversations about strategic direction?

Have you done your best to see opportunities in Optimi’s future?

Have you done your best to contribute to Enspiral conversations?

Have you done your best to ensure every Optimi team member has well-formed learning goals?

Have you done your best to help new product ideas be considered, fleshed out and validated?

Imagine what success looks like

If you’re still looking for inspiration for your accountability questions, it’s time to dream! Start imagining an ideal future. Ask what success looks like. To start with, you could ask some questions like these:

Imagine everything goes perfectly and we achieve all our goals over the next few years. How did this role support us in our perfection?

What actions could we take in this role, which would set a great example for years to come?

How might this role be done so successfully that we could start teaching other people how to do it?

By the time you’ve finished this conversation, you might have some pretty ambitious ideas for the role to fulfil. Great! Now it’s time to commit to those ambitions, by turning them into accountability questions.

Here’s an example. We have a role called “product developer”, which exists to make sure that Optimi has products to offer clients with a clear pitch and clear audience. We decided on the following definition of success for the role:

The products that we’re designing have real users who are getting real value from them

And here’s the accountability questions that we dreamed up, after agreeing what success looked like:

Product Developer role:

Have you done your best to find real users who would benefit from Optimi’s products?

Have you done your best to help new product ideas be considered, fleshed out and validated?

Does the current state of our product development give you hope for Optimi’s future?

Accountability questions don’t take long

One of the challenges of being self-managing is that it’s easy to spend a LOT of time in conversation and negotiation. It’s easy to run out of energy, for things to start feeling directionless. Accountability questions are our solution to that problem. They are lightweight, powerful yes/no questions that you can ask each other regularly.

We’ve covered a few different ways you can generate accountability questions, from thinking about simple habits, to dreaming about the future. We’ve talked about some good patterns to follow, and provided some examples. Now the next step could be for you to think of some accountability questions for yourself!

If this writing has sparked an interest for you in self-management and you’re looking for more context, please read the previous post in this series. Otherwise, share your thoughts below! I’ve left a conversation starter in the comments section.

— Rupert from Optimi

Republished with permission.
Featured image/graphic link added by Enlivening Edge Magazine.