Project team members are both responsible and accountable for their tasks. Despite the similarities, both terms aren’t identical. A good project manager must be able to distinguish “accountability” from “responsibility” to ensure project success. And the key is being clear and transparent and performing on-going reporting.

Be Clear

First things first, let’s define “responsibility” and “accountability.” Be clear about what they are and how they differ. According to the Project Management Institute, RACI is an acronym that stands for responsible, accountable, consulted, and informed. RACI is a matrix of decision-making activities taken by authorities in assigning team members’ roles.

If you say a team member is “responsible” for a task, it means the outcome for that task is solely reliant on that person. However, in the event they fail to complete it, they are “accountable” for the outcome. Accountability, therefore, is about ownership of outcomes. These definitions apply across the hierarchy. e.g. If you’re a person with authority and you must make the right decisions, including hiring and delegating, you’re also an “accountable” person.

Thus, an “accountable” person is both responsible for completing a task and delivering favorable outcomes.

The second part of being accountable, which involves delivering “favorable outcomes,” often is spread out among several team members. As an authority figure, a project manager or an assigned leader then becomes “accountable” for the process of achieving outcomes and the outcomes itself. However, the premise of managers and supervisors taking accountability for everything their team members fail to deliver comes with its own pros and cons. And the cons outweigh the pros. For instance, when a deliverable doesn’t match the requirements, failure is imminent. When team members who are responsible for the task, fail to deliver, they should be made aware of it and organizations should ensure that there are processes and frameworks for such communications. Every team member must be accountable for their task, even though the complete project accountability may not officially lie with them. In the RACI matrix, accountability is placed in the person who is accountable for a specific task.

It’s the project manager’s job to set a clear determination of roles and responsibilities by developing a detailed RACI matrix to ensure clarity and avoid misunderstandings. Determine the A (accountabilities) and R (responsibilities) upfront. Be as detailed as possible. Consider all ambiguity and misunderstanding possibilities. Create a list that can be re-used in future projects.

Transparency and Reporting

Next, ensure that complete transparency is maintained throughout the project lifecycle through consistent reporting. Transparency requires openness and good communication facilitated by the project manager. It includes detailed information on a clear set of deliverables, dependencies, contingencies, target dates, and responsibility. Also, include a communication plan that comes with set dates along with an itemized to-do list. Reporting regularly based on the project plan allows early identification of incomplete tasks. Thus, whenever a team member hasn’t completed a task, they can be immediately informed of their personal accountability.

In some corporate cultures, making people accountable can be mistaken as “blaming.” Some see the reporting activity as intrusive, inefficient, and cumbersome. Others even refuse to report at all. One of the solutions to appearing less intrusive is by using proven good project management software that makes data easily available and provides a variety of reporting and analysis features and functionality. With such tools and well-laid processes in place, project managers can manage accountability of team members with a data-oriented approach.

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