Accountability vs Responsibility

Who's accountable? (Photo by  Ming Jun Tan )

Who's accountable? (Photo by Ming Jun Tan)

If you get these two things right, you're going to be one of the few.

I've seen a misunderstanding of accountability and responsibility through all levels of seniority. I've seen people who have been in this industry longer than I have completely mix these things up — or even worse, not know how to deal with either of them.

The common misconception is that as creative people it's clients that are the bane of our existence. That they are the ones who will be responsible for the most amount of stress and angst in our careers. The misconception is that we are all happy being creative, that we don't have any internal pressures to deal with — only clients are in the way of great creative work.  Not counting the stress and angst of winning new clients, this is in fact completely incorrect.

The people who will be the bane of your existence and largely responsible for the majority of angst, stress and confusion in your career are the people you work with.

Your colleagues.


Because there will be many cooks in your kitchen. 

People will forget who said what.

People will forget what they agreed to.

People will over promise and under deliver.

People will rearrange deadlines on you.

They will say that they were only responsible for one thing, not all the things you agreed they'd be responsible for.


Yes. People.

Another common misconception is that we can all be held accountable for the things we do on a project. All of us. The entire team. That we're all responsible and 'in this together for the common good'. This is common in small - medium creative agencies.


If you look up the definition of 'communism' you will find that the common thread through it is as follows:

A theory or system of social organisation in which all property is owned by the community and each person contributes and receives according to their ability and needs.

Communism isn't that successful for a reason.


When communications/design/strategy projects lack the fundamental clarity of assigning accountability and responsibility. They're doomed.

If you, as a Creative Leader don't know the difference, you're contributing to that doom. If you as an emerging, new entrant into the industry—I don't use the term 'junior'—don't know what responsibility and accountability mean, you're two steps behind those who do.


On a project, the entire team needs to know who the buck stops with. 

If the project is failing, whom do we turn to for guidance?

When the project succeeds who has the ownership of the team’s success?

Harvard Business Review wrote that one out of every two managers is terrible at accountability. That means that it’s pretty much a guarantee that you’ll know someone or are currently working for someone who has no idea what leadership actually means.

It’s also true in my own experience that accountability is one of the most neglected behaviours of Creative Directors, senior leadership and business owners.
To be accountable means you need to demonstrate extreme ownership over a situation and within your team. Success of failure — that success or failure is yours if you’re accountable.

Accountability is about owning a commitment you’ve made and delivering on it. Accountability is also being completely responsible for all the responsibilities — all the commitments. 

Harvard Business Review states it well: "It’s complete responsibility to an outcome, not just a set of tasks. It’s taking initiative with thoughtful, strategic follow-through.”

Accountability can not be shared. Only one person is accountable. 

Think of it this way, on a project, the project owner is accountable for that project’s success. They drive the project, they build and drive the team. They manage expectations with clients and ensure that the project delivers the agreed outcome. If the project succeeds, they get a pat on the back. If it doesn’t, you can be sure there’ll be a meeting held with them asking them why.

If you need a shortcut in the right way to hold people accountable. Here it is:

  1. Set clear expectations. Be crystal clear and make sure you both understand one another.
  2. Clarify capabilities. Can they do the job? Do they have everything they need?
  3. Clarify how success will be measured. Define what ‘done’ looks like.
  4. Give very clear feedback. Don’t beat around the bush. Be direct. Be honest.
  5. Set clear consequences. 


Responsibility can be shared. Accountability can not.

When the project owner meets with the team, and the team decides who will handle the strategy, the design, the art direction and the research — each individual in team essentially takes responsibility for those tasks.

In some cases, these tasks might turn into mini-projects within a project. If you’re doing one of them, you’re responsible.

If you’re doing the art direction, you’re responsible for the art direction. If you’re doing the strategy, you’re responsible for the strategy.

If there is confusion as to who is responsible. It’s your job to ask and it’s the project owner’s job to make it clear to you. 

It takes two to tango. 


  • Only one person should be accountable
  • Many people can be responsible
  • It's OK to hold people accountable
  • Responsibility can be shared, accountability can not
  • If everyone is responsible for one thing, no one is responsible for that thing
  • Remind people of the things they're accountable and responsible for.

If you’re new to this journal, I post to subscribers every Tuesday — you can subscribe here. If you're not new and you enjoy these posts, I'd love it if you shared them. :)