The buck stops here


by Simon Kent

everyone on a project team will embrace accountability if the work is running success-fully—and no one will touch it if there are difficulties. Project managers must spotlight accountability at the very beginning of a project. However, they also must use it to guide work throughout the project life cycle, rewarding the successes and penalizing the failures of team members. “A project manager is more than someone who just signs off on stuff,” says Joseph S. Balcer, president of International Decision Strategies, Alexandria, Va., USA. “You need to be a mentor, a taskmaster, a cheerleader and sometimes a disciplinarian.” And the first step to fulfilling any of those roles is to establish accountability.

executive summary

img   Establish accountability at the start of a project.

img   Each team member must understand his or her responsibilities, and executives and sponsors should know how progress will be reported.

img   Accountability should be used to reward or penalize team members according to their project contributions.

At the simplest project level, accountability means being responsible for an action or to a person. Within every project there is a chain of accountability—members of the project team are accountable for different aspects of the work, answering to the overall project manager directly or through their superiors, depending on the project size. Project managers, in turn, are accountable to their project sponsors, a senior executive or a client. At each step along the way, creating accountability requires three elements: a complete and thorough understanding of what is expected for successful delivery, when that delivery is scheduled to occur, and clear consequences if the target is not met.

Kevin Mann, a corporate marketing consultant with Worksunit, Southampton, U.K., likes to start any project by holding a meeting with all the people who will be involved in the initiative. “I encourage them to put forward what they feel the issues are,” he says, “and from that we form a plan of investigation—how the project will move forward.” That plan makes clear how the difficulties the company is facing will be analyzed and researched, which members of the team will be responsible for the various areas of the investigation and when they will report back.

“It's something a manager should develop with the team rather than just sitting in an office doing it alone,” Mr. Balcer says. “If you all discuss the project and know what it looks like, then everyone has a sense of ownership. You get to see how different aspects of the project fit together and that helps to define everyone's purpose and contribution.” In this way, working together to define accountability helps build the team.

In spite of the team-focused environment, the project manager must ensure the accountability structure is coherent, fair and reasonable to each individual. “You cannot be accountable if you are not empowered,” says Jean-Pol Chapelier, a managing partner at IT consultancy firm IT Cortex in Brussels, Belgium. “If you are given the responsibility to bring something in on time and budget and according to specification, you need to be able to make the decisions that mean you will meet those objectives.”

Having established each team member's duties, and verified that each person has the authority commensurate with that level of responsibility, an effective communication program must be established to maintain each individual's accountability. The program does this by setting out delivery times for updates, discussions and reports. “The timetable set at the first meeting should include regular review dates with people inside the project team and stakeholders outside that group,” Mr. Mann says. In addition to these official meetings, he makes himself available as much as possible to receive feedback from the team and to offer advice if and when required. “When I am working on a project, I am in my client's offices two or three days a week,” he says, “I am actively involved in seeing that progress is made on a day-to-day basis.”



Rose Blackburn, PMP,
CEO, QuantumPM,
Denver, Colo., USA

Personality Test

Project managers should get to know each member of the team so they can more readily identify problems and deal with them at the earliest opportunity. “You need to know the personalities involved so you can tell what is going on in review meetings,” Mr. Mann says. “I'll always look out for people who aren't delivering or who keep saying they can't deliver on time.” He focuses on whether the objections raised are genuine, unavoidable reasons for delay or whether there are “motivational levers” that can be operated to get the desired results.

While enforcing accountability among team members, project managers also must establish their own accountability with the project sponsor. Just as delivery dates have been set for the team, there must be delivery dates agreed upon with superiors.

One of the greatest challenges for the project manager is dealing with the project sponsor when that timetable shifts, according to Rose Blackburn, PMP, CEO of QuantumPM, Denver, Colo., USA. “The executive leadership has to understand that project dates will change,” she says. “That is a natural part of scheduling. The executive leader must accept that [sometimes deadlines must shift] so people working on the project don't compromise their work by relentlessly sticking to that date.”

However, making reports to senior executives is not always a simple process. Sponsors may have firm ideas of what evidence they need to see at what stage of the project and how it should be presented. It may not be possible to meet these demands due to the way the project is executed, so project managers must be clear with their sponsors as to how progress will be recorded and what they can expect to see at each step along the way. “There tends to be an expectation that reports are created in a particular way,” Ms. Blackburn says. “One of the hard parts of making accountability work is training leaders to ask the right questions and to look for information in places they might not be used to looking.”

the enemy within

Sometimes team members can inadvertently sabotage projects. Here are some of the common situations, and solutions to deal with them:

Office Politics: Team members feel sidelined, undervalued or even used as scapegoat within the project. Establishing open communication lines with team members can help you identify problems quickly and address this perception.

Personal Life: Team members may be going through stressful events at home that negatively impact their performance. Solve the problem by enabling members to communicate with you on a range of levels, officially through review meetings and unofficially through an open-door policy.

Misreported Achievements: At review meetings, team members claim to have attained goals but, in fact, have not. Instead, they hope to make up the time between now and the next review—possibly resulting in a greater failure reported next meeting. Try to ensure project reviews include measurable and documented achievements. Also, remove the taboo of missed targets by establishing methods of making up time at the start of the project.

“Going Dark”: Team members may prefer to work quietly without giving status or problem reports, yet still deliver the goods on the designated day. This may be fine for their contribution, but the lack of communication can adversely affect other team members and aspects of the project. Try establishing “show and tell” sessions, free-form opportunities for individuals to show off their work outside the official structure and context of the project.

As with the rest of the team, precise dates for reports, key decisions and delivery dates should be set with project sponsors in advance of start-up, but how often this reporting is done will be determined by the nature of the project. Frequent reports are a common feature of disaster-relief projects, for example, where aid workers are under pressure to demonstrate clear and quick progress with the donations they receive.


It is at that first meeting that the project team should discuss the aims of the project and identify goals that could prove difficult to achieve. Within this discussion they can consider possible action plans to cover all eventualities.

Ms. Blackburn considers accountability to be one of the two most important things to a project manager. “For a successful project, you need to understand the scope of your project and you need to have a clear accountability structure,” she says. “The structure of accountability depends on the size and scope of the project. But however complex that structure might be, it needs to be crystal-clear to everyone on the project.”

The Blame Game

If accountability has been established correctly, the project manager can act decisively and immediately when a project deviates from plan. And that includes when they're at fault. “Project managers have to be clear and firm about performance. Just as they expect their team to pull their weight and assume their responsibilities, so too does the manager. If they missed something or miscalculated, they need to ‘own up,’” says Trevor Genis, project manager with petrochemical company Sasol, Rosebank, South Africa. When a team member is responsible for a misstep, he has a firm and thorough approach: “Make it quite clear what is expected of him and work out a plan together to get things back on track,” Mr. Genis says. “Once agreed, this can be managed into the overall project plan and project members and sponsors can be informed of the variation as necessary.”

In the case of an individual proving unresponsive, however, Mr. Genis stands by the adage: Don't percolate, escalate. “If a resource is clearly uncommitted and under-performing and there is no hope of rehabilitation, then for the good of the team and the project, they should be replaced as soon as possible,” he says. “It's not an easy decision to make, but if done objectively and after all the other avenues have been exhausted, it automatically becomes the next logical step.”

Dealing with under-performance is easier if an escalation process has been agreed upon in advance. Once again, it is at that first meeting that the project team should discuss the aims of the project and identify goals that could prove difficult to achieve. Within this discussion they can consider possible action plans to cover all eventualities. This way, everyone involved in the project knows what is at stake and what can be done if things don't go according to plan.

“Apportioning blame does not solve the problem,” Mr. Genis says, “but it can avoid a repeat performance. PM

Simon Kent is a U.K.-based freelance writer who specializes in human resources, IT and training.