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Accountability and Performance

A recent experience with my local phone company and some discussions in a recent project management class I led brought up the importance of accountability as a motivator, and the difficulty of really making it work in a large organization.

The phone company event had me waiting for five hours for an installer who never came and never bothered to call to say he wasn’t coming. When I called around 4:30 PM to see what was happening to my 12 – 4 window appointment they said we’d have to reschedule. No apology, no explanation. Then, to make matters worse, the central office did something that made it impossible for me to check my messages. This time an apology and another appointment but no one to hold accountable. No attempt at a lessons learned process. No one seemed to care that someone did something that caused client dissatisfaction and rework.

In my PM class, participants (all team leaders and project managers) identified lack of accountability as a chronic cause of performance shortfalls and conflicts. They said people make commitments and do not fulfill them. They make errors that cause rework and client dissatisfaction. No one is accountable. The same problems occur over and over again until they became the norm. Because PMs could not get candid progress reports from the functional groups and performers they relied upon, the PMs often failed to report progress accurately and found themselves blamed for late and over budget projects.

Accountability, Not Blaming

Accountability, according to the Business Dictionary is the “Obligation of an individual, firm, or institution to account for its activities, accept responsibility for them, and to disclose the results in a transparent manner.” Accountability is critical in project management. Without it projects cannot be effectively controlled and managed, nor can performance be improved. This is widely agreed upon and yet we find that there is little or no accountability in many organizations and their projects. Instead we see finger pointing, hiding and blaming, among other practices to avoid accountability.

A big part of the problem is the tendency to equate accountability with blame. Who wants to be accountable when owning up to a shortfall or defect or late delivery results in a tongue lashing or worse? So as Dr. Deming advised, banish blaming and focus instead on an attitude that is built on the idea that it is only by clearly acknowledging things as they are that we can make them better, or at least make the best of the current situation.

Promote Accountability

The effective project manager makes accountability an issue at the earliest possible time in the project’s life. It becomes a topic for discussion at kick-off and is built into the project’s communication and project control plan. Ideally, commitments are made and documented in the project plan. The control process requires that performers candidly and regularly report their effort and progress. Everyone understands and agrees that the project manager will make sure that progress results, issues, problems, etc. are regularly and candidly reported. Issues such as probable or actual late delivery are addressed by looking at their impact and cause and then taking appropriate action. Action in the short term attempts to mitigate negative effects within the project. In the long term, action seeks to eliminate the cause, through training, staff changes and/or process improvement across future projects.

People with a positive work ethic recognize the need for accountability and accept the fact that, even when they have to own up to errors and omissions they have made, both they and their teams and organizations will benefit. People with less positive work ethics, especially if they work in punitive, blaming organizations, must be made to understand that avoiding accountability by hiding the reality of their actions is completely unacceptable.

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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