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Managing by Accountability

It is widely accepted that many, if not most, project managers have little or no formal authority, particularly when it comes to people who are assigned to the project from functional groups and user or client organizations.  We have yet as a field implemented projectized or even strong matrix scenarios in which project managers have hire/fire power or even the ability to create on-the-record performance reviews.

This would not be a problem if all performers had work ethics that drove them to actually do what they said they would do and if performers were not over scheduled, working multiple projects and day to day operational tasks simultaneously.  But, alas, that is not the real world.
In the real world people are often assigned to projects with little regard to their actual availability, some don’t view your project as a priority, many don’t know how to estimate their tasks and many have poor work habits that lead to the inefficiencies related to multitasking.  Informal PM in which the manager must manage without authority in a matrixed environment is the norm rather than the exception.  Often, in complex projects and programs there are conflicts between project and functional managers over priorities, authority, management style and more.

To manage in an environment where this complex of conditions exists is a challenge.  As a PM, you are responsible and accountable to the client and sponsor for the successful outcome of your projects.  That means getting them done on time, within budget and to the satisfaction of the stakeholders.

What can one do?

That is where management by accountability comes in.  If there is a plan founded on a clear  and practical approach, where the plan includes a set of activities with deliverables, dependencies, target dates and responsibility assignments, and there is a  communications plan with regular progress reporting, then the PM has at least a chance at success.  These are the requisites for management by accountability.

When people know that their task performance against commitments will be clearly reported, it is more likely that they will make commitments that they can meet and then meet them or clearly state why they haven’t.   Transparency promotes effective performance.

If reporting is regular and based on the activities in the project plan, that implies that tasks that are not completed by their due date will be identified and published as part of the project record.  If tasks are associated with individual performers, then there is personal accountability.

In many organization cultures, this kind of reporting is resisted.  Blaming Is confused with holding people accountable.  Nobody wants to be the one who identifies the cause of project schedule slippage.  Some see the reporting as too much overhead.  Others passively resist by not doing the work of updating the status of their tasks.

We need to find a way to overcome cultural resistance and recognize the value of effective reporting.  Reporting has to be simple and as automatic as possible.  Project management tools make this possible.  If the plan is well created and makes use of dynamic scheduling, reporting against the project baseline relatively simple.  But there is still overhead.  Someone has to enter actual completions for tasks, people have to explain their status, issues, risks and changes must be managed.

Getting effective reporting to be adopted in an organization is part of a culture change that comes when disciplined PM is implemented.  The PM who is working in an immature environment and has little formal authority must convince the stakeholders at all levels that management by accountability is in the best interest of the organization and the individuals on the project who are committed to project success.

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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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