If two or more people are working on a project, who is accountable for ensuring that tasks are accomplished and goals are met? (Hint: the answer is not “everyone”!)
We have often found in our consulting that people confuse “working on a project” with “being accountable for the project.” For instance, a client may say with regard to a project, “Well, John and I are both working on that. Let’s put us both down as being accountable.” Or, a client might say, “We have a team assigned to that. Susan and Bob are the heading the team up, so they are both accountable.” Our answer is always the same: “Nope; sorry. Only one person can truly be accountable. It’s great that people are working together closely or even sharing leadership responsibilities, but you have to decide which person is ultimately accountable for the project. One person needs to be able to explain if tasks are on-track or off-track. Just one.”
Part of the confusion is because “accountability” refers to two different things in a team setting. On the one hand, each team member is accountable for doing his or her job on the team. But, on the other hand, only one person can be accountable for making sure the whole team gets the job done. It is the latter definition of “accountability” that we are talking about here.
Why only one person? What is wrong with two or more people being accountable for the management and completion of a project? Especially if there are just two or three people involved, it can be tempting to want to “share” accountability. Here are the problems we see every day when people try that approach:
- Lack of ownership. When people say that they want two or three people listed as accountable, what they are really saying is that they want to avoid accountability. They want to avoid the responsibility of ensuring that the work gets done. When one person is truly accountable, they have far greater ownership and commitment to seeing the project completed.
- Lack of clarity. We’ve all been there: the boss asks, “Why didn’t thus-and-such happen?” and one or more people reply, “I thought he was doing it,” or “I assumed she was in charge.” If you have one person named as accountable, that ambiguity is squeezed out of the equation. The person who is accountable brings clarity by organizing the work and assigning tasks, eliminating deadly assumptions.
- Lack of results. Lack of ownership and lack of clarity always lead to lack of results. Tasks fall through the cracks, timelines slip, quality suffers, and motivation levels drop. Strong accountability is the only way to consistently achieve the results you want on a high level.
Consider this example. One of our clients had a large team assigned to a very complex project that had to be completed over the course of six months. There were a lot of moving parts, and intensive, careful coordination was essential for successful completion.
One person on the team raised her hand and said, “I’ll be accountable.” From the very first day, this person organized the larger team, made sure that the assignment of roles and responsibilities was clear, and had regular check-ins with the team to keep track of progress and address issues.
The team finished the project a month ahead of time, with far less churn, angst, and expense than they had expected. The truth was, all the team members had entered the project with trepidation because of how complicated and challenging it was going to be. But at the end, they were thrilled: they had achieved their goals and done so in less time with less cost and with less strain than they had imagined possible. And it was all because one person stepped up and owned the accountability to drive the project forward.
Leadership Takeaway: Look at the teams you have in place. For each one, ask, “Who is accountable?” If more than one hand is raised, you have a decision to make – there can only be one person truly accountable. Just one.