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Accountability in Major Projects is Key

Managing large projects is tough. Some of the hurdles are external (think: shift in customer expectations, new regulations, tight capital markets, etc.). However, many of them are self-imposed by the organization itself. One of the biggest is failing to clearly outline accountability in major projects.


For straightforward projects, it is clear who owns what (e.g., a marketing executive will naturally lead his or her department to launch a new ad campaign). However, for projects that are complex or need to be delivered quickly, accountability can become muddled.

John Kotter in HBR suggests that to accelerate execution, a collaborative network should be instituted alongside the traditional hierarchy. With our clients, I’ve observed that the highest impact projects require the most collaboration across multiple parts of the organization. If innovation, pace of execution, or cross-functional collaboration is a priority, your organization is bound to face an issue of unclear project accountability.

What Is the Benefit of a Single Accountable Executive?

Common wisdom tells us there is more order when one person has ultimate accountability. One teacher leads a classroom of students. One sergeant leads a squad of soldiers. Similarly, traditional corporate structures appoint an executive in charge of a single business unit, function, or division.

When it comes to leading a strategic project, the single accountable executive (a.k.a. the Project Sponsor) plays a critical role in setting the vision, allocating resources, and steering the project team activities. He or she is invaluable for breaking down barriers, making the final decisions, and aligning fellow leaders. Ultimately, the project sponsor paves the way for the project team to execute.

What Happens When There Isn’t Clear Accountability?

There are two common situations I have seen when it is not clear who is in charge. On one end of the spectrum, all the cooks try to take the lead. The motivation for this is clear — it is in the best interest of one’s career to obtain credit for the success of an important project. This, however, is not in the best interest of the project team. When multiple leaders are in charge, project teams end up spending unnecessary energy aligning the various stakeholders or doing rework because of conflicting direction.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are occurrences when no one takes leadership. The diffusion of responsibility is a psychological phenomenon in which a person is less likely to take responsibility for action when others are present (think: innocent bystanders witnessing a crime and doing nothing). This plays out in the corporate setting as well, particularly when a challenging situation arises, with finger pointing or switching focus to another project. Sadly, it is times like those when project teams are in the greatest need of leadership.

How to Establish Clear Accountability?

In medieval times, disputes over jurisdiction were solved with a formalized, public battle between the two opposing leaders. While jousting has gone out of fashion, taking a structured and open approach to resolving the conflict is key.

RACI charts, in which individuals are identified as Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, or Informed for each project activity, have proved invaluable in my experience. Facilitating a dialogue among the multiple suspected “cooks” at the start of any project is essential.

We’ve covered this in more depth in our post on creating a culture of accountability.

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