Project Team Principle #5: Demanding accountability

Projects move forward by the accumulation of outcomes: decisions, completed tasks, successful milestones and so forth.  Each outcome is achieved based on someone taking accountability for its completion.

Principle #5: Demanding accountability

A team must enthusiastically embrace accountability, first at the individual level, then at the team level.

Accountability requires a level of integrity, professional maturity and self-awareness of one’s role, responsibilities and other obligations. Accountability requires a level of moral courage and sureness to stand up and be counted for the things that you have committed to do.

 “The buck stops here” – Harry S Truman, 33rd President of the USA

Increasing individual accountability, even slightly, has a big payoff in team output

Accountability phobia

Have you experienced situations where a capable professional surprised you by seeking to avoid taking accountability for parts of a project that are clearly within their scope of control?

I was managing a project to reduce the end-to-end delivery timelines for a portfolio of relatively small but complex projects. The work was relatively simple, but there were many handoffs between multiple teams. I spent a lot of time working with the key teams, briefing their leaders, getting their people up to speed, driving plans and getting resources assigned. I wasn’t familiar with their processes or the personalities, so it was tough going.

I was working with one particular team manager on how to accelerate the work at his stage, by using my allocated project funding to add more resources to his team. The only issue was how many new people.

The team leader was reluctant to specify the number of people, and I was reluctant to offer an opinion because I was not the expert. The team leader suggested that in a similar situation, he had 3 additional resources. Based on this experience, we decided to fund 3 additional resources.

Inevitably, we started to fall behind in the project, I found the root cause for the delay: the 3 additional people were not sufficient to handle the transaction load.

When I raised this with the team leader, his response was, “But you only requested that I hire 3 people.” Somehow, he had assigned the accountability of the number of people required for his team to me, the non-expert. He did not want to take accountability for the estimate, so he just turned the handle of his operational role.

This ultimately costed the company an opportunity to satisfy the customer.

Accountability failures

Accountability failures such as the above seem to be more and more common.  The project takes a double hit from this kind of accountability failure: the rework, and the increased control and processes that the project manager introduces in an attempt to avoid further symptoms of accountability failure.

Symptoms of accountability failure in project teams include:

  • “I’m waiting on” an email or a person to get back to me.
  • “Getting signoff” is the project manager’s job.
  • You didn’t send out minutes from the meeting, so I didn’t know my actions.
  • I can’t do anything without…
  • I didn’t know that…
  • I don’t have any training on…
  • The process says…
  • <author/expert name> says…
  • The methodology says…
  • My boss says…

Who else is going to solve the problem if someone on the team does not? – Adam Russell

At the end of the day, accountability failures are failures of honesty.

Fostering a cult of accountability

It would be awesome if accountability was a trait in evidence every day, but it isn’t. Fostering a cult of accountability involves two very distinct actions:

  • Clear understanding of what it means to be accountable: an “Accountability Model”.
  • Constant gentle reinforcement accountable behaviours in day-to-day activities.

To paraphrase a saying: accountability means never having to say you’re sorry.  Project leaders and key team members should call out these issues as and when they arise.  Gently and firmly, but without derision or embarrassment. That means the project leader must find ways to avoid the team members “losing face” with their team, but still being very clear when failure arises.

Your team is making itself accountable when you see them displaying these behaviours:

  • Delivering outcomes
  • Highlighting blockages to you and/or team mates
  • Finding a way through blockages for their own work
  • Clearing blockages: if you need something from someone, go talk to them in person instead of sending an email
  • Having all “must have” enablers in place before starting
  • Seeking help (e.g. seeking someone else’s opinion) if you feel blocked
  • Putting your hand up if you have space to take on more


 “When your teammate looks you in the eye and holds you accountable, that’s the greatest kind of leadership there is.” Doug Collins, Philadelphia 76ers Coach

As the project manager, if you can reduce symptoms of accountability failure and promote the cult of accountability, even by a small amount, there is a double-payoff for you:

  • Work gets done more easily
  • You raise the “moral bar” of behaviour and set a new standard

If you can continue to push these standards of behaviour, then you can continue to foster a cult of accountability.

Team Charter Clause #5: I embrace a cult of accountability

Clause #5 is critical because it drives both honesty and efficiency that sets examples for other team members not only to follow, but to exceed.  This lifts the whole team towards supreme performance.

I acknowledge that the only true control point for work in the project is one of personal accountability. There are no prescriptive methodologies that will replace accountability as a basic method of driving outcomes in projects.

I will accept and fulfil my accountabilities fully and generously as a team member of this project.   I will define these accountabilities for myself, in conjunction with my team-mates, to ensure that the full scope of work for the team is fully allocated across the project team. 

I understand that not all situations can be determined in advance, and that some areas are likely to emerge which are not covered by original agreements.

To understand my accountabilities, I will not rely on some generic document, past or isolated conversations, or any other mechanism other than an explicit agreement with my team mates. 

I regard it as my accountability to identify “unallocated work” and to bring it to the team’s attention if needed.

I understand that administrative and secretarial work is not allocated to any single individual but is evenly distributed across the team. 

I will take end-to-end accountability of my deliverables and project team responsibilities.

If I join the team, and do not do these things fully and without reservation, then I’m a Project Asshole.


Next Steps

What are your thoughts on the objective of this clause? Do you have any suggestions for modifications to the wording?

What do you think your team’s reaction would be to this Charter if you introduced it to your current project(s)?

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