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Responsibility, Ownership, Accountability

These are words we use often in an organisational context, but words that are seldom discussed; and when discussed, often done so opaquely or inaccurately.

In a business context, the terms responsibility, ownership, and accountability abound. Vexingly, for a philosopher, these words are frequently used interchangeably, indifferently, or inaccurately. To redress this deficit, I penned some definitions.


This concept generally sees the biggest overlap between what it means and how it can be observed in an organisation. A composite of surveys about what responsibility means to professionals found: “Responsibility is when I deliver on my promises, on time, on spec and with the highest level of quality possible in the amount of time given.” – Forbes Survey 2021

This situates responsibility as a very individualistic attribute and is often the result of a manager outlining a job description and the tasks to be carried out by that role based on a person’s competencies. A useful analogy for responsibility is the ‘to’ and ‘cc’ fields on an email. People in the ‘to’ field are responsible for any actions arising from the email. Those in the ‘cc’ field are merely being informed about what is happening.

Golden sentence: Responsibility can be seen when role-based output is delivered by an individual.

When responsibility is discharged, we can assess the ownership a person has taken.


Ownership is often defined by its absence. ‘Anne takes on too much ownership because John does not take on enough.’ An example of this is if a Business Analyst writes a single user story when asked but does not write additional stories that are natural additions.

Technically they have discharged their responsibility by writing the story requested. But by not being active in thinking about additional requirements or stories their initial work creates, they are failing to take ownership of their responsibility.

Golden sentence: Ownership is the extent to which a person follows up, or ‘owns’, the responsibility discharged. 

After the responsibility has been discharged, and ownership has been taken, we can assess accountability.


Due to its outcome-based nature, accountability is often confused or conflated with responsibility and ownership. However, accountability goes beyond ownership by taking on not just the proximate, but the long-term consequences of an action. In the context of a negative project outcome, an individual displays accountability by accepting the liability for the failure to meet expectations, rather than seeking to shift accountability to other people or processes.

Golden sentence: Accountability takes responsibility and ownership from ‘me’ to ‘we’.

What are your thoughts on responsibility, ownership, and accountability?

Good night, and good luck.

Photo by Adeolu Eletu on Unsplash.

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