This is part of an ongoing series about overcoming common reasons behind project failure.

In the field of Internal Audit, lack of accountability over particular processes is an immediate red flag auditors are quick to point out. No company wants to deal with unnecessary high risk that eats away at precious resources. 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 and throughout a project.

Here are some accountability concepts that can determine the success of your projects:

Responsibility vs. Accountability

Mind the GapBefore going any further, we need to make a distinction of terms. A number of articles discuss the difference between "responsibility" and "accountability." These terms are often mistaken for being one in 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. As Michael L. Smith and James Erwin point out in their document, "Role & Responsibility Charting (RACI)," 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 over completing tasks are quite often not the ones accountable for the overall success of those tasks.

Often times, 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.

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?

UnicornIn a previous article in this series, we discussed the dangers of poor project communication. We won't rehash the content contained there, but let's solely discuss communication pitfalls related specifically to accountability and talk about strategies for avoiding them in your own projects.

Setting and managing expectations is one of the most important lessons in business. As an employee working with your 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 is the owner, the project will be set up such 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 for who was to take on the task.

Final Thoughts

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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