Why Projects Succeed: Fostering Joint Accountability

Slalom Consulting Roger Kastner

A Consultant Manager with Slalom Consulting, Roger works with clients and other consultants in the delivery of Organizational Effectiveness and Project Leadership services and helps practitioners achieve greater success than previously possible.

Imagine this—an organization that celebrates its successes, both large and small, and also embraces its failures, so that it rewards the wins and reinforces a culture of learning and improvement. In this organization, individuals will identify others’ contributions to success and will also freely stand up to take personal responsibility for their contributions when things go wrong.

Sounds like a utopian workplace that only exists in management philosophy books, right?

Well, maybe it is Pollyanna-ish to presume that a culture of accountability is possible within a large organization. Maybe it is unlikely that leaders who rely on punishment as their form of accountability, or lack the skills and knowledge of what accountability truly means, can repeatedly demonstrate strong and healthy accountability behavior.

However, as a successful project manager, accountability is a key behavior you want your team members and stakeholders to embrace and exhibit. And if you are fortunate enough to be able to select team members and stakeholders who already act with accountability, you are living the good life. But for the rest of us, we need to be proactive in fostering joint accountability amongst the team, as this is how the best teams coalesce, compete, and succeed together.

The successful project manager establishes and cultivates a team culture of joint accountability, which results in a culture of winning.

The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves

I used to be skeptical that joint accountability was something that teams could exhibit. In my experience, it was the rare individual who took responsibility when mistakes were made.

A while back I worked for a large, matrix-organized company where there was an expectation that matrix-relationships would enable innovation, collaboration, and success because of the sense of “shared accountability.” And when things went well, there was definitely a sense of “shared success” or “shared contribution” to the success.

However, when things went wrong, “shared accountability” would have been better described as “no accountability,” because I witnessed a lot of finger-pointing, a lot of flaming emails written in ALL CAPs, and a lot of complaining in the hallway about those in influential and decision-making positions. (Actually, the ongoing joke was that the bigger the failure, the more likely the sponsor would be promoted rather than be “held accountable.”)

Prior to that company, I worked in an organization that did hold people “accountable,” however, the form of accountability those leaders embraced could only be described as punishment. People did what they were told out of fear of being punished. When something went wrong, individuals would say “I did what I was told.” People were truly afraid of doing something different (e.g., innovate, improve, etc.) because fear of the punishment was greater than any possible reward.

In both instances, those companies did not have a true culture of accountability, and the resulting behavior exhibited by employees and leaders reinforced that lack of accountability. And as a project manager in those companies, when things went wrong, as all projects have things go wrong, it was always challenging and time consuming to get team members to get beyond blamestorming and on to something productive, like resolving the issues.

At that time, I wasn’t naïve enough to think that I could change the organizations’ culture, but I did want to know how I could influence the behavior of my team members.

 There’s Got to Be Another Way

While reading The Oz Principle by Roger Connors, Tom Smith, and Craig Hickman a few years later, I learned a new process for producing a culture of “joint accountability” that really challenged my previous experience and gave me hope that maybe I had found the way to proactively influence the behavior of my team.

Simply put, the authors prescribe a process for leaders to establish joint accountability on their teams:

1)     Set clear role and responsibility expectations with team members

2)     Have team members individually ask two questions when something goes wrong

3)     Establish the behavior of reminding others when they act without accountability

I like three-step processes; there’s magic in the simplicity (it’s always easier to remember the steps). But, I was still skeptical if these steps would work. Fortunately for me, I was able to try it out immediately on my project. Here was my experience following the above steps.

1)     Set Clear Expectations

Fostering joint accountability requires establishing what it means to act with accountability on the team. And as The Oz Principle authors astutely identify, it is not fair to hold someone accountable without setting clear expectations for their roles and responsibilities.

On projects, most project managers attempt to do this through managing project schedules and developing RACI charts. But successful project managers will go further to also identify behavioral and stakeholder expectations.

The authors also give three suggestions for expectation setting with team members:

1)     Make the expectations clear and attainable

2)     Establish the limit of the expectation

3)     Identify support for fulfilling the expectation

By identifying those role and responsibility expectations, now the team is ready to have a dialogue about what it means to behave with accountability.

2)     Acting with Accountability

Once clear expectations have been set, the successful project manager will define what it means to act with accountability and what behaviors demonstrate not acting with accountability.

We’re familiar with the behaviors that show a lack of accountability:

  • Blaming others
  • Pointing fingers
  • Telling stories
  • Asking what they should do

The authors refer to those behaviors as being “beyond the line,” as in the line of accountability. To act above the line, or to act with accountability, the authors suggest that each individual involved should ask two questions when a problem occurs:

1)     What did I do to help contribute to the problem?

2)     What can we do to move toward desired results?

That’s it. It’s beautiful in its simplicity. Those two questions will drive individuals to act with accountability. The results of answering those questions honestly will lead to quickly identifying options for resolving the issues.

The first question requires humility on the part of the individual. And by publically asking and answering this question, others are more likely to reciprocate and also contribute to identifying where the issues were created.

The answers to the second question will drive collaborative solutions and allow for “yes and” thinking, where the team builds on ideas for resolving the issues.

Going through the exercise of answering both questions, in the absence on those non-accountable behaviors (e.g., finger-pointing, CYA, etc.), the team will foster a more open, collaborative, and honest environment. This will be necessary for the third step to take effect and cultivate true joint accountability.

3)     Holding Each Other Accountable

Achieving joint accountability, or being successful at holding others accountable, is really quite simple once expectations are established and the team individually exhibits the behaviors of asking the two accountability questions.

To hold each other accountable, the only thing team members need to do is to gently remind other members when they are doing anything other than asking those two accountability questions in step 2.

Remember that individual accountability is simply asking oneself two questions when a problem occurs:

1)     What did I do to help contribute to the problem?

2)     What can we do to move toward desired results?

With that as the definition, any time anyone is pointing fingers, complaining, or playing the self-preservation game of CYA, they are not acting with personal accountability. And if the project manager has already set the expectation for “joint accountability,” then team members will be able to remind that person about the two accountability questions.

Holding each other accountable is not telling someone how they contributed to the issue, nor is it telling them how they can help move us toward results. Instead, it is simply letting them know that they are not acting with accountability. If “joint accountability” has been set up correctly, the likely response should be, “Oh, you are right, thank you. Let me get on that.” At least, that is what should be said out loud.

Winning

So not long after reading The Oz Principle, I was working with a client whose team had a hard time demonstrating accountability. The issue was acerbated by stakeholders who leaned toward the “beating” side of accountability, publicly humiliating people for mistakes. And as other things that fall downhill, the client was also not immune to partaking in this shared manifestation of “holding people accountable” when something went wrong.

I counseled the client that while the prevailing brand of punishment-accountability was something that wasn’t going to be remedied overnight, the client could change the definition of accountability on his team. He agreed and we took the team on The Oz Principle journey, first by reading the book and discussing the principles, then by putting them into effect.

The team liked this approach, and would chuckle when someone would use a mocking tone when saying “My contribution to this problem was …, and this is how I think WE can move it forward toward desired results….” Someone else would reply, “Yes, well my contribution was…, and I think we should do … to solve the issue.” Mock as they would, they were putting the Oz Principle’s individual accountability behavior into practice.

Now, of course it wasn’t easy to change the behavior of the team, and it did have to start from the top down with leadership. As I wrote in Change is Good: B is for Behavior, successful organizational behavioral change requires change from both the team and the leader, and it usually requires more change on the part of the leader. New habits are hard to take hold; therefore the leader needs to reinforce the desired behavior.

The first time someone acted below the line, that is, acted without taking accountability, instead of reminding the person to act with accountability as we agreed to as a team, my client sent the person the PowerPoint slide from our Oz Principle book club presentation that outlined the “below the line” and “above the line” accountability behaviors. Similar to a soccer referee handing out a yellow card to a rule-breaking player, the client chose a non-verbal and private way to remind the person to act above the line.

Unfortunately, that is not the ideal way to reinforce the right behavior. Once I heard about the “yellow carding” incident, I reminded the client that there are many ways to remind people how to act with accountability, however, “yellow carding” them feels more like a punishment. Rather, it would have been incredibly valuable for the individual, and the team, to have chosen to speak up in the meeting and demonstrate how to remind someone of the steps of behaving with accountability. This public reinforcing of the desired behavior, when done respectfully, can be a positive and impactful form of driving accountability.

Summary

Fostering joint accountability means informing others when they are not acting with accountability. Instead of yelling at someone when they didn’t do what they agreed to do, which would likely lead to a defensive response with excuses for why they didn’t get the task done, you simply remind them that they are not acting with accountability. By helping the individual re-focus on those two important questions, “how did I contribute?” and “what can we do to move forward?”, the leader will cultivate a culture of joint accountability and ultimately help the team be more proactive and constructive.

In my experience, the successful completion of most tasks and deliverables are dependent on a series of inputs from others, and the need to embrace the concept of fostering joint accountability reflects the reality that our work is dependent on the work of others. Although I commonly see the approach of focusing on individual accountability and individual achievement, rarely are tasks so independent that anyone truly “owns” any one thing. Between inputs and outputs, handoffs, multi-threaded communication, integrated project planning, and garbage-in/garbage-out realities, possibly we are too interdependent in project environments for any one individual to be truly an owner and fully, independently accountable.

Successful project managers will run into issues so frequently on projects that as a standard practice they will have the opportunity to demonstrate their own personal accountability by asking those two questions publicly. To foster joint accountability, they should set the expectation for “accountability,” then remind others who slip “below the line” to act with accountability.

When individuals on a team hold each other jointly accountable in a positive way, behavioral changes occur that strengthen the team dynamic and increase productivity, rather than tear the team down in a defensive game of blamestorming.

About Roger Kastner
As a member of the Organizational Effectiveness practice at Slalom Consulting, I'm excited to share my perspectives and experiences with Change and Project Management to help clients and practitioners achieve their goals and objectives.

2 Responses to Why Projects Succeed: Fostering Joint Accountability

  1. Pingback: Accountability is Your Responsibility | montyrainey

  2. Roger Kastner says:

    A reader submitted a comment that we decided not publish the comment due to use of profanity, however, because the essence of the comment questioned the validity of this approach, I wanted to reply. In essence, the comment was: ‘[fostering joint accountability] is pseudo accountability, you have to be accountable, but you don’t dare hold anyone else accountable.”

    I want to first thank the reader for posting the comment and allowing me the opportunity to respond.

    To be clear, this should be thought of as a “and” approach and not an “or” concept. ‘Fostering joint accountability’ is not about replacing longstanding performance management and setting role expectations through performance measurement. Those are crucial to setting the right expectations with employees, ensuring that they are focused on the drivers to their contribution to the organizational objectives, and it’s how we manage out poor performers when they fail to deliver desired results. And yet, they are like guardrails on the freeway: great to have them to prevent a catastrophic event, like going over a cliff or into head-on traffic, however, there’s a lot of damage when you plow up against them.

    There is a time and place to hold individuals accountable when their performance is below target, however, ‘fostering joint accountability’ is about setting expectations for the desired, positive behaviors when something goes wrong so individuals will start engaging in correcting mistakes before they are told or forced to. Which environment would most people want to work in: A) An environment where you and your coworkers attempt to hide mistakes and are punished or publically shamed when discovered, or B) one where mistakes are tolerated and people work together to resolve issues quickly and move on? Most of us will pick B, however, most of us don’t have individual performance metrics that create that type of environment.

    Since most are not measured on contribution to solving problems and most Project Managers do not have authority over the individuals on their project, the Project Manager must rely on their ability to influence team members to “do the right thing,” especially when something goes wrong. ‘Fostering joint accountability’ is a proactive approach to creating a team shared value about tolerating mistakes and working individually and collaboratively on fixing those mistakes and moving on toward the desired objectives.

    Thanks for reading.

    Roger

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