Interview with John G Miller: On asking questions that increase personal accountability

John G MillerVera: What is personal accountability, how is it different from personal responsibility and how does it help organizations?

 John: They’re the same! We use the words interchangeably. Personal accountability helps organizations in that each individual within the organization is accountable for his or her contribution, in their sphere of influence. So whether a frontline employee or the CEO, the individual who embraces personal accountability makes a powerful impact. This can be seen in providing outstanding customer service, enhancing communication between departments or simply starting each day with a QBQ like, “What can I do to do my job to the best of my ability today?”

Vera: Tell me about your famous QBQ (The Question Behind the Question) and how it furthers personal accountability?

 John: Without the QBQ, accountability is just another term tossed around by executives with little meaning and no impact. With the tool of The QBQ, personal accountability becomes practical and powerful—and very real. When we ask QBQs, questions that begin with “What” or “How,” contain an “I,” and focus on “action,” the individual takes control, and is able to practice ownership, provide service, enhance creativity, and build trust. The QBQ tool provides a framework- a language- that brings accountability to life.

Vera: I like what you say- that personal accountability is not a group activity. But what is the dividend to a group or team when individuals are more accountable?

 John: Teams are terrific and groups are great, but personal accountability is just that—it’s personal. It’s something individuals choose to do, and no one else can choose it for them. However, when each individual on the team or in the group is practicing personal accountability, the output is much more powerful!  Decisions are better, action is quicker, and solutions are more creative.

Vera: Sometimes the principle of team working can overtake fundamental ones like personal accountability. How should personal accountability be approached in organizations where theres often a strong focus on team skills?

 John: Again, teams are more effective when each individual on the team is taking personal accountability for the team’s outcome. And what organization wouldn’t like more effective teams, committees, and task forces? Instead of asking poor questions such as, “When will the group solve the problem?” “Why didn’t the team get the job done?” QBQ helps team members ask, “What can I do to help us all reach the goal?” and “How can I help the team?”

Vera: What are some of the challenges youve seen in the corporate setting that make it difficult for staff to feel accountable and how can leaders create an environment that fosters personal accountability?

 John: I think one of the most difficult things for people is when they feel like they have no control. Decisions are made without their input, or input given is not used, and individuals grow bitter and resentful. When we work with groups, we often share what we call “The Ultimate QBQ!” It’s this: “How can I let go of what I can’t control?” This seemingly simple, but extremely powerful question helps the individual to stop focusing on all of the unknowns or “uncontrollables” and instead focus on what she or he can do to move forward, deal with change, accept reality, and make a difference.

Leaders can foster personal accountability by (a) practicing it themselves. Modeling is the most powerful teacher, so if leaders want personal accountability, it starts with the leader! (b) allow people to speak up and share ideas and opinions. People will not take action and practice accountability if they feel trapped, stuck or unheard. There has to be some give and take and (c) Teaching QBQ! Speaking the language, using the framework, talking honestly about concerns and struggles and how QBQ can help.

Vera: How does one develop higher personal accountability and become part of the solution an idea you encourage in your other book ‘’Flip the Switch’’

 John: It all begins with awareness. Recognizing when one’s tempted to whine/blame/complain/procrastinate and pausing, taking control of one’s thoughts, and choosing to practice QBQ. As with all good things in life, it takes intentionality and time. Over time, the more one works with QBQ and implements it in life, the more practicing accountability comes naturally.

Vera: You mention in your book ‘’Personal Accountability’’ how you decided not to share an idea until it had made a difference in your life.  How do you determine which part of your personal experiences will have wider appeal?

John: That’s easy. If an idea resonates with me, the odds are huge it will resonate with others. Said differently, if I needed it, then others probably need it. Humans are alike around the world, so if you discover something that works for you—share it! In our case, it was a tool (QBQ!) that helps us and others practice personal accountability!

Vera: One of your quotes is ‘’If we have not changed we have not learned’’- How so and what approach to learning have you seen to be most transformative?

 John: We say this at the end of all of our live training sessions. “Learning equals change!” We adults are lousy at learning. We attend a training and say, “Hey thanks! I learned a lot!” but we go back to our lives, and do nothing differently, therefore having learned nothing at all. If I’ve truly learned something, I will make changes in my life—improvements based on what I learned. There are many worthwhile approaches to learning, but honestly I believe working with the content is the best way. Discussing it, practicing it, digesting it, applying it—that’s how we learn. By making mistakes, and trying again. There’s no better way to learn!

Vera: What are you hearing/seeing is the biggest impact your work is making?

 John: It’s all about the individuals. People email us their personal stories of how QBQ! impacted their lives—at work and at home – Improved careers, healed relationships, better lives all because of learning to practice personal accountability using the QBQ! There are organizations who have seen drastic changes in their people because they’ve chosen to make QBQ! a foundational part of their culture. When they’ve done this, everything has improved! Personal accountability and the QBQ! tool has the power to change a person and therefore an organization from inside out. It all starts with that choice to ask better questions.


John’s profile

John G Miller is an author and founder of QBQ, inc, an organisational development firm dedicated to helping organisations make personal accountability a core value. John has been involved in training and speaking since 1986. He believes that personal accountability is foundational and needed before any other training because all other training will only succeed if accountabilty is established.


For more information on Vera Ng’oma’s work and resources in leadership, personal and career development and excellence building, click here.