From my work with countless teams over the years, I have learned this: facts don’t help anybody increase accountability.

Does that seem shocking to you?

I discovered that while there are an endless number of facts in the world, they are simply tidbits of information we may or may not agree on. And, they may or may not be relevant to your situation. After all, since the 2016 U.S. national election cycle, we have become accustomed to hearing the confusing term “alternative fact.” If we can’t even agree on what a “fact” is, we can’t hold each other accountable, right? Not so fast.

What I also came to understand is “knowns” are an important key to accountability – when they are stated and shared. Knowns help you neutrally describe the set of circumstances that define any aspect of a team or project. Therefore, as your team or project changes, knowns must change over time. 

Here are the 3 steps to make a known work to increase accountability.

  1. State it.
  2. Share it with your team.
  3. Decide how to act on it.

After all, you can’t be held accountable for information you don’t know.

I define a “known” as a piece of relevant information that adds significant understanding to a situation. When you are working with a known, you can take action based on that information. And when you can take action, you can be accountable.

For example, a fact would be, “Susie hasn’t taken a vacation in 8 months.” To turn that into a known, you might say, “Susie hasn’t taken a vacation in 8 months, but I just learned she won a vacation to Jamaica! How can we help her take time off to go?”

A list of knowns related to a given situation doesn’t have to be exhaustive. Most often, even a complex issue can be adequately described in a handful of knowns stated in these areas:

  • description of the group or team involved
  • written agreements (such as contracts or relevant portions of a law)
  • historical occasions (such as a founding or merger date)
  • significant upcoming events (such as opening a new facility or laws that are about to change)
  • commonly-held assumptions or cultural beliefs (such as, “since 2012, we have worked half days on Fridays in the summer”)
  • differences of opinion (such as “we don’t all agree the upcoming merger is in the best interests of our company”)

When facts aren’t helping you increase accountability, state your knowns instead. Then take action and dramatically increase the odds that your team can and will be held accountable.

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2 Comments

  1. Gary Monti

    Another great post! I used to get all caught up in what people knew. Over the years I’ve learned it is better to understand what they believe. Why? There are facts and there are truths. Facts just are. If it’s 68 degrees outside, well that’s a fact. If I believe it’s cold, well that’s part of my believe system. I do better first asking what makes the person feel comfortable and THEN talk about the weather.
    Or, as you say, Kay, have the facts but get to the “knowns.”

    – Gary

    Reply
    • Kay Coughlin

      Thank you, Gary, you are right on – it’s the way our facts and our beliefs intersect that cause so much confusion. Humans can learn to work together happily and productively, even when our beliefs are different! And yes, the knowns is the place to start.

      Reply

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