Owning up



Institutionalizing accountability helps move the team beyond turf wars.



Ed Blow, Nielsen-Wurster Asia-Pacific Pty
Ltd., Melbourne, Australia

Accountability can seem like an elusive concept— tangled up in vague terms like answerability, enforcement, liability, responsibility and governance. Yet, without it, project managers and team members aren't always clear on their roles—and don't always feel like they must abide by a set of standards.

It's as if everyone winds up pulling in a different direction. People start making their own decisions, often based on their own needs or whims. Some tasks are duplicated while others are simply left undone. And when things go wrong, as they inevitably will, people start pointing fingers. That's when the project can start to fray—or completely unravel.

“Oftentimes, it's difficult for people to put the project and overall goals ahead of their individual objectives,” says Steven Lang, PMP, program manager at Project Management Leadership Group, a consulting firm in Atlanta, Georgia, USA.

To combat this, many organizations are turning inward, building accountability into project management processes. This often starts with a project charter that puts forth the mission, problem, business objectives and scope. The idea is to promote ownership in the project by identifying the goals and values associated with the task at hand.

Then, accountability contracts can clearly outline who is responsible for what, along with a list of metrics, incentives, and consequences for making or missing the assigned tasks. “There must be a single person who is responsible for each deliverable,” Mr. Lang says.

The end goal should ensure that “people have the opportunity to act in an accountable way,” says Elizabeth Harrin, the London, England-based author of Project Management in the Real World [British Computer Society, 2006] and founder, writer and manager of Rebel's Guide to Project Management blog.

They're Watching You

For accountability to work, companies must institutionalize it “from the top of the organization to the bottom,” says Ed Blow, managing director at Nielsen-Wurster Asia-Pacific Pty Ltd., a Melbourne, Australia-based provider of engineering and management consulting services.

“The key is to create a system where there's consistent monitoring of actions and behavior,” he says. “Too often, governance processes become muddled and systems break down somewhere between management directives and employee actions. Accountability must exist at all levels of the organization.”

Companies need to create a well-defined reporting structure with set check-in points. Once a month is often ideal, though some organizations require weekly or daily updates or even 24/7 access through dashboards, Mr. Blow explains.

“It's important to understand how a project is progressing—in terms of costs, schedule, risks and cash flow,” he says. “When an organization defines roles and responsibilities and everyone is aware of where things are at, it's possible to create an environment that drives accountability.”

Finally, put a performance review process in place that measures and rewards accountability.

“When people know that their actions and behavior are being seen and that they're being evaluated or assessed, they're far more likely to pursue the desired course,” Mr. Blow says.

Culture Club

Although companies can certainly post impressive gains by establishing a governance structure and creating detailed documentation, there's another side of accountability that centers on building the right mindset and culture.

Organizations have to find ways to reward risk-taking and encourage creative thinking—even if it leads to occasional mistakes and failures. “Playing it too safe is equally risky because you're not going to unleash people's minds and find the best solutions,” Mr. Blow says. “Ultimately, you need to empower people and trust that they're going to do the right thing—until they prove otherwise.”

Governance efforts take on even greater visibility when you're responsible for launching risky projects, like shooting spaceships into the sky. Even the slightest error or mishap can result in tragedy—as well as the loss of billions of dollars.

“It takes a lot of courage to run an agency or a system in which there's clear accountability,” says Rex Geveden, who was associate administrator at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in Washington, D.C., USA until last August. He is now president of Teledyne Brown Engineering Inc., in Huntsville, Alabama, USA.

“There have to be consequences for bad behavior … [but] you also have to be careful not be overly harsh,” he says. “People must be willing to take on risk.”

While at NASA, Mr. Geveden oversaw technical operations and was directly responsible for NASA‘s 10 field centers as well as 18,000 employees and another 60,000 contractors. Over the last few years, he had ushered in sweeping governance changes, mostly revolving around the chain of command and who handles what. In the past, some roles hadn't been spelled out. Today, responsibilities are more clearly delineated, which helps eliminate turf wars.

“If we have successful missions and we perform on cost and schedule, then we'll know that our governance, strategic management and organizational principles mattered,” he says.

At the same time, Mr. Geveden recognizes the need to create an environment that can withstand a divergence of opinion.

“Constructive disagreement is a sign of a healthy culture,” he says. Ideally, an organization should be able to “debate vigorously yet civilly about tough issues. An unhealthy organization is one that can't tolerate disagreements.”

Curb the Chaos

Of course the matter is complicated by the fact that project managers don't usually call the shots, but they're still held accountable for project results. But, establishing a dispute-resolution process can help set boundaries and control the chaos.

“Since disagreements within the team can rapidly lead to loss of control for project leaders [who possess] minimal authority, having a process for dealing with disagreements promptly is crucial,” says Tom Kendrick, PMP, San Carlos, California, USA-based author of Results Without Authority: Controlling a Project When the Team Doesn't Report to You [AMACOM, 2006] and senior project manager responsible for project management consulting at Visa.

“A good process that treats everyone with respect, focuses on issues not people, and seeks alternatives and resolutions that are win/win can result in both an improved project and better ongoing team cohesion,” Mr. Kendrick says.

In the end, it's essential to have a chain of command and defined decision-making processes in place— and expect team members to abide by the structure. This approach, Mr. Geveden says, brings out the best in all.

Make no mistake, when an organization gets accountability right—and managers establish an environment that emphasizes respect, credibility and a belief that people will follow through—productivity spikes and success grows.

“In an accountable environment, people feel empowered to do what needs to be done,” Ms. Harrin says. “They accept responsibility for their actions and understand the consequences if they don't measure up. They are motivated to tackle projects to the best of their abilities.” PM



Holding people accountable means finding ways to torpedo the blame game. Here's how to do it:

Encourage areas of expertise. Turf battles are destructive. An organization that clearly defines its domain experts and identifies roles will streamline and improve decision-making, says Rex Geveden, formerly of NASA.

Promote honesty and transparency. When project teams and executives aren't fully informed about the status of an initiative—and the problems swirling around it—they're not able to make effective decisions, says Ed Blow, Nielsen-Wurster Asia-Pacific Pty Ltd. Worse, once the truth comes out, trust and loyalty are usually gone.

Insist on executive sponsorship. If executives can't get behind a project and provide more than lip service, it's almost certainly doomed. Not surprisingly, when a project fails, the credibility of participating project managers sags. And rebuilding it is a long and arduous process.

Create alignment throughout the organization. Different messages and conflicting actions create confusion and chaos. Make sure everyone is on the same page. Also, develop a holistic system—performance reviews, governance procedures, workflow, accountability contracts— to ensure participants are functioning in lock-step with one another, says Tom Kendrick, PMP, Visa.


Sam Greengard is a West Linn, Oregon, USA-based journalist who covers business and technology. His articles have appeared in American Way, Business Finance and Workforce Management.