Freelance fish

“I’ll need two more weeks”, he said with a sigh on our weekly zoom call. This wasn’t exciting news for anyone in the team.

Being restless and not understanding his point of view, I confronted him saying “But we decided two weeks back that you’ll get this done by today”

“I didn’t think we’d have so many iterations” he said and I could feel that he was irritated with my line of questioning.

This was fair as we kept going back and forth on the design of the product.

I was like, “Why didn’t you tell me this over the week, we could have planned better, this delay will slow down everyone else. We could have prioritized different things for the rest of the team.”

He apologized, but I realized it wasn’t entirely his fault. As a freelancer working with a team remotely, its extremely hard to maintain mutual accountability. Especially because of the transient nature of freelance consulting work, it becomes harder to coordinate with a team that I've just been added onto.

Be it a designer, an engineer or a marketer, as an freelancer I know that people quite frequently go back on their word, a lot of times for no fault of their own.

Sometimes it could be because they were overloaded with work, and sometimes it could simply be that the task at hand was underestimated. The challenge though is that it slows everyone else down.

The cost of one person’s delay in a team can be devastating as everyone is working towards a common goal and his delay will affect everyone’s work.

“It is the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) that those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” 
— Charles Darwin

Joseph Grenny and his team found that teams break down in performance roughly as follows:

  • In the weakest teams, there is no accountability
  • In mediocre teams, bosses are the source of accountability
  • In high performance teams, peers manage the vast majority of performance problems with one another

Results of Harvard research on 45 teams in five knowledge-based organizations show that team mutual accountability is positively associated with team performance, controlling for performance pressure.

What is a team ?

To understand team work better I”ll use The best definition of a team I’ve found till date is by Katzenbach and Smith, in the book Wisdom of teams

“A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable. “ — Katzenbach and Smith

An early stage startup is a perfect example of the above definition,

  • they are a bunch of people with complementary skillsets that have a performance goal which is getting more users/revenue/customers,
  • they generally have a common purpose which is the mission and vision of the startup
  • but something a lot of teams lack is a specific approach to hold each other mutually accountable.

Most people approach accountability cautiously. In large part, this resistance springs from undeniable experiences and convictions about individual responsibility and the risks involved in trusting other people.

Most of us grew up with a strong sense of individual responsibility. Parents, teachers, coaches, and role models of all kinds shape our values based on individual accomplishment. Teams demand a merging of individual accountability with mutual accountability

In the medium post by Warren Tanner, he clearly explains why accountability is essential, and how execution suffers otherwise.

This happens in two ways:

The first is that when we don’t hold ourselves accountable to getting work done well and on time, there’s a tendency to become even more lenient and forgiving for slippages. A day becomes a week, a week a month. If it happens once, it’s that little bit more acceptable for it to happen again.

The second is that when we don’t hold ourselves accountable, the impact is exponential. Your delay becomes your team’s delay. The work they had planned gets impacted and that work potentially has further downstream effects. The post, The Importance of Accountability on Teams, explains the lesson of punctuality on the Canadian ski team: when 10 people are waiting for you, if you are 2 minutes late — it’s not just 2 minutes lost — the team has lost 22 minutes.

When you are billing by the hour, time is worth its weight in gold.

We can clearly see the disastrous effects it can have on a team that lacks mutual accountability from the above example. Hours of the team can be lost if someone doesn’t reach their goals on time, or if changes are made to the scope constantly, or if people go on a different tangent from what was decided. I could go on and on about this but you get the drift.

I've had freelancers who've lost their contracts because the team couldn't complete their part of the job in time. There's been several cases where people have to sit idle and wait until someone else from the team finishes a task.

This can be disastrous, especially if you're a freelance consultant billing the company by the hour. The company wouldn't prefer to compensate you for the delay, and it's going to be hard for you to get any other work, because you know once the person finishes the job, you'll have to commit a lot of time. This means, that you'll have to site idle for a few days, unpaid, waiting for someone else to finish their task.

“Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success.”
 — Henry Ford

So you may ask, “ What is team mutual accountability?”

Mutual accountability is a process by which two (or multiple) partners agree to be held responsible for the commitments that they have voluntarily made to each other.

So basically in a small team of 4, consisting of a freelance marketer, two engineers, and a designer, if all of them decide that MVP is priority. Everyone will take up tasks that will work towards the realization of the MVP.

Everyone knows what each other is working on and how their task is important in the realization of the MVP. They know that they have to communicate any problems with each other if they arise, especially if the task needs to change or will be delayed.

Everyone is also committed to this goal. To realize the vision of the startup, they need to build an MVP and everyone on the team has a strong desire to achieve this goal together.

If let’s say the freelance marketer focuses on building a growth funnel, anyone from the team can be like, “Hey man, we decided we are prioritizing the MVP three days back, why are you optimizing the growth funnel ?”. This would stop the team from straying in the wrong direction. But this could only happen if the freelance marketer updated the team on what he’s up to and was open to criticism from the team.

Some teams solve this with daily standups so that everyone is on the same page and knows what everyone else is up to. Most teams don’t have a specific structure for this, and things start to break apart in remote teams.

Some of the clear benefits of mutual accountability are:

1. Improved performance

Most research that we’ve come across clearly indicates that mutual accountability is a common trait in high-performance teams. As a productive freelancer, you not only help the team acheive their goals, you'll most likely be recommended by the client/team members in their networks.

As a freelancer, one of the highest leverage marketing activities, is word of mouth, and if you do a good job with one client, its most likely that you'll land another client through the happy client. Here is an article on what 10 professional freelance consultants said about finding clients

2. More participation and involvement

Everyone on the team has to look at each other and help the team move forward, and this can only happen with involvement and participation.

3. You feel more included

In a team that is mutually accountable, everyone is talking to everyone. They all feel more ownership towards the project and this makes them feel like they’re a part of the team. As a remote freelancer, this also solves the isolation/loneliness problem.

4. More creativity and innovation, and

You tap into the wisdom of the team vs the wisdom of one individual in the team. This will help foster more ideas to come into the fray, which would directly lead to more innovation and creativity.

5. Higher satisfaction with the work you do.

Have you ever seen a successful sports team? Almost all of them that I have analyzed consider the team a family. These stronger bonds will foster better relationships.

If you’ve stuck around this far, you obviously understand that mutual accountability is essential when you'er working. The bigger challenge for you now is to convince the team you're working with.

Here are some pointers to make mutual accountability stick in your team:

  1. monitor progress towards goals, and provide feedback that includes credible useful performance measures
  2. provide the training and resources for team members that need to do the work; and
  3. recognize team members for good performance, both formally and informally.
  4. Share this article with your team members as a reference so that they know where you’re coming from.

Other than this you should also focus on the team culture. A culture should foster the team to have certain qualities that would promote mutual accountability. With the CHRO interviews, survey respondents kept returning to two foundational qualities of high-performing, accountable teams: clarity and commitment.

Both words are quite straightforward but if you needed to ask this question to yourself as an freelance consultant

Clarity: Is everyone in the team on the same page?

Commitment: Is everyone on board with the current path ?

Clarity and commitment should be ingrained in the team early on, if it doesn't exist when you're onboarded as a consultant, try to make sure you establist clarity and commitment atleast on the work you're doing. This will not only help avoid scope creep, but you'll maintain a fantastic relationship with eveyone you work with. It will also decrease the stress everyone has to go through which in turn would increase your productivity.

You will face resistance and that is okay. Accountability is a strong word and people may have mixed feelings about it.

One thing you can do to help individuals that resist accountability is to help them understand the difference between accountability and making a judgment about how well they’re doing their job.

Failure to meet an objective is OK if the individual let the team know with as much notice as possible, why it happened, how they intend to correct it and to ask for help if it’s needed.

Approaching failure in this way is demonstrating accountability. There’s an opportunity to learn from it and seek coaching or support to ensure future success.

In this case, the individual is doing their job well. It’s OK to fail from time to time. You just need to be upfront and proactive in your communication of it.

The goal of this exercise is to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts, but that can’t be done by being critical about someone’s failures.

It’s very hard for you as a consultant to enforce accountability because of the reality of being remote and temporary, you don’t work from the same place and hence don’t have 5-minute water cooler meetings or can’t just walk up to a co-collaborator and ask them what’s going on.

I have faced some of these problems in multiple projects especially when I need to collaborate with a team. Hence I spent a significant amount of time reorienting myself in the meetings instead of rapidly executing on my goals and moving forward.

“Great things in business are never done by one person; they’re done by a team of people.” 
— Steve Jobs

If you’re wondering, what happened to the story I started off with initially.
We started forcing each other to take take ownership of tasks, fostering a culture of open constructive criticism of ideas and work.

The team not only decreased the number of conflicts, people stuck to deadlines more often and to be honest the team was just more fun to work with.

If you found this helpful, please do share it with whoever you're working with. Always open to hear feedback, and let me know if you'd like me to write about any topic as a freelancer.