We've covered how poor communication can kill a project, but unclear expectations and roles can cause just as many issues. Accountability starts with clearly defining project objectives and ensuring team members know who is responsible for what. But as scope and roles change, it becomes even more crucial to address accountability early on and throughout a project.
Here are some accountability concepts that can determine the success of your projects:
Responsibility vs. Accountability
Before going any further, we need to make a distinction of terms: "responsibility" versus "accountability." These terms are often mistaken for being one and the same, but knowing the difference between them can mean the difference between a successful project and a failed one.
For our purposes, a responsible team member can be defined as an individual that has been assigned a task. Responsibility can be shared. Meanwhile, an accountable team member is ultimately answerable for the activity or decision, and only one accountable person can be assigned to an action. This is an important distinction because people with responsibility to complete tasks are quite often not the ones accountable for the overall success of those tasks.
Oftentimes, a project manager will depend on a number of large and disparate teams to complete tasks at particular deadlines. Unfortunately, responsibility and accountability are not always linked. In those cases, team members with a lot of responsibility, but not much accountability might step aside and let the hammer fall elsewhere.
This is not to say that those team members are stepping aside out of laziness or maliciousness. Very frequently it comes down to the fact that team members have a multitude of responsibilities competing for their time. The problem is that if enough people step aside, the gap becomes real, the project objective falls through, and the blame game begins.
To build accountability before work on the project even begins, it's important to not only be clear on tasks and who they're assigned to, but also the context of how the overall project ties to larger team goals. Accountability also means there should be check-ins to assess progress and performance. Acknowledging successes and areas that could use improvement are a key way to keep your team accountable and build a culture of continuous improvement.
If you are a project manager, make sure to not only define responsibilities but also understand the structure of accountability within the project. Always ask yourself upfront, "Is there someone accountable for this task in the project?" If the answer isn't yes, then for all intents and purposes it is you until you address that gap.
What Did You Expect?
Communication is an important aspect of creating accountability with your team, and it starts with setting and managing expectations.
Whether you're an individual contributor or a manager, it is vital to manage expectations so that there are few mismatches or misunderstandings regarding what your responsibilities are and how you perform against those responsibilities. The same can be said about a project manager and the expectations of executives or project stakeholders. As this article from Team Gantt puts it, "If they expect a unicorn, it's your fault."
Similar to a project manager working with a team, avoiding mismatches and misunderstandings is just as important to your project success, but it's up to you to set and voice your expectations with accountability in mind.
During kick-off meetings, always dig deeper if a team member says "let's ____" or "we'll ____." It's not always necessary (or correct) to make that person accountable for the tasks that they mention. However, for the sake of accountability, make sure that called out tasks will have a proper owner who will be the one to report on the status of that task going forward. If "let's" and "we'll" slip through without agreement on who the owner is, the project will be set up so that the team is responsible, but no one is accountable should it fall through.
It is important to note that this is not intended to be a tool for issuing blame. In fact it is meant to serve as a tactic for avoiding blame that might come from misunderstandings later on about who was to take on the task.
In an ideal world, each project is like a cheer routine where a team of cheerleaders hoists up one member into the air and catches them on their way down. Every team member is invested because they have a relationship with the falling cheerleader and their success depends on their collective effort in bringing their fellow down safely. If you can bring about that same investment and motivation in your project team, you will have the best chance of success.
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