Holding People Accountable (Part 1) | Systemation Blog
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June 3, 2010
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June 16, 2010
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Holding People Accountable (Part 1)

You’ve heard the talk in the hallways. “He’s not holding so and so accountable.” “They never deliver on time.” “If I were the project manager I’d sure hold them accountable.” Or, how about, “If they worked directly for me I could hold them accountable.” “That’s the problem with this company. No one works directly for their supervisors.” There always seem to be an easy fix, yet no one seems to make it work.

It’s sad but true. Project managers are at the mercy of others when it comes to producing a finished product, on time, and within budget because they don’t produce the product themselves.  Project managers actually coordinate and integrate the work of others into something bigger, the end product. Getting team members and suppliers to be accountable for their piece of the project puzzle is paramount for project success, but this is easier said than done. So, what usually happens is project team members are late, over budget, and deliver less than what is required. This in turn causes the project to be late, over budget, and with an end product less than what the client wants as well. As a result, project managers are not being accountable for their project results, causing them to catch heat from their management. The process of establishing and holding people accountable can be a source of tension, frustration, pointed words, and angst. As tough as it may be, there are steps that can be taken with project team members, suppliers, and management to maximize the opportunity for success.

The definition of accountability is being responsible to someone or for some activity. It’s commitment — an agreement between two parties, one providing something to the other that is either tangible or conceptual. To build a healthy agreement you must set clear expectations, provide complete and accurate information, and remain open to negotiation. If any of these components don’t exist in an initial agreement between two parties the opportunity for success is greatly diminished.

Let’s examine the elements of good accountability practices through a personal example, painting your house:

You’re no professional painter, so you hire someone, painter Pete. Pete shows up at the agreed-upon time – so far so good. You relay the house’s history of paint jobs, and express what you envision for this job in regards to colors, detail, prep work, and time frame for completion. You relay project particulars like the neighbors have forbidden placement of ladders on their grass when painting the sides of your house. Also, you don’t want him painting when your guests are in town visiting you for two days next month.

Pete then explains his expertise and how he can meet your needs. He sounds like the kind of worker you’d like to hire, so he gives you his initial bid. It’s more than you budgeted for, so you ask him if he can lower the cost. But for a lower price, he says he can only paint the house’s body, and you’ll have to paint the trim. You need to save money where you can, so you agree to these terms and the lowered price, and hope he follows through as promised. Before he parts, you tell Pete you’ll monitor the work daily.

In establishing this agreement, you’ve set the foundation for holding Pete accountable. You have:

  1. provided complete and accurate information by giving him the house’s history and  your neighbors’ restrictions. This is crucial because when either party withholds or provides misleading information, the planned course for action becomes invalid and commitments cannot be met.
  2. set clear expectations by outlining items such as the related costs, timeframe, and project direction. Expectations are pivotal to accountability and are usually expressed in terms of time or deadlines, cost, and scope (what the final product should look like). Pete must finish the job in two weeks and for $4,000.
  3. remained open to negotiation. It’s only after you’ve provided accurate, complete information and stated your expectations that Pete will be able to offer an estimate. At that point, he must be allowed to negotiate so that when the agreement is set, he takes ownership in his choices and final decisions. Without negotiation, it would be absurd of you to demand that Pete paint your house to a certain level of quality, within a specific period of time, and for a price tag of your choosing.

As in this personal example, when you’re a project manager you’ll want to ensure success by setting guidelines and then reinforcing them with some additional steps:

  • Provide team members with an understanding of the project’s envisioned “big picture,” by clearly communicating their role in making that big picture a reality. When employees realize how their efforts, no matter how small, contribute to the big picture, they’ll respect and take ownership of their work, and feel motivated to see it succeed.
  • Keep an eye on assignments and progress by obtaining periodic statuses based on a level of reasonable trust. For example, if a project manager knows a team member is reliable he will take a hands-off approach to track the team member’s progress. However, you might need to “babysit” less-competent team members who are given the same assignment. If too much trust is shown when it isn’t warranted, team members may slack off on the job. If too little trust is shown when it isn’t warranted, they’ll feel you’re nagging for no reason. Both situations lead to decreased employee morale, possibly resulting in a distrust of your integrity, which will ultimately undermine the good intentions of the established healthy agreement.
  • Infuse staff with the desire to commit to the assigned job or activity by offering valuable incentives. To enhance bonds with the project manager, sometimes care and appreciation can be given to teams in advance of an upcoming request. They’ll connect better with the project manager and feel obligated to perform at maximum capacity when the opportunity presents itself. Ideas include a box of donuts, coveted tickets to a show or sporting event, or a gift certificate to a favorite restaurant.

In the next post (part two) we will talk about what to do when you have followed the guidelines above and commitments are not being upheld.