Doesn’t Accountability Count Anymore?

Begin rant.

Recently I’ve noticed a trend which frankly really ticks me off. My observation is that more and more project managers are becoming hyper risk-averse and demonstrating an unwillingness to accept accountability for the projects they manage. One tell-tale sign which I’ve noticed is the usage of “matrixed” organization charts. In matrixed organization charts, the project team is depicted using different types of team leads shown vertically and horizontally on the organization chart. With a matrixed organization, team members may have a “solid line” reporting relationship to one manager and a “dotted line” reporting relationship to one or more managers. Now, I fundamentally don’t have a problem with the collaboration aspect that a matrixed organization enables; where I do have a problem is when the matrixed organization makes it difficult to pinpoint who has accountability for the project.

I recently reviewed a project plan and saw one of these matrixed organization charts. After looking at it for a while to try to understand what was going on, I asked the following: “Who gets the bullet if the project fails?” The answer I got back was “The team gets the bullet.” Now, some of you may think I was less than tactful in asking this question, but after studying this organization chart I honestly couldn’t tell who was steering the ship. Then when I heard that it was “The team” that was accountable I got my answer: No one was accountable. If something went wrong on the project this structure allowed for those in leadership positions to point fingers at each other because the leadership team was a team of equals. Sheesh.

In every single successful project I’ve ever been associated with there was a project structure which ultimately put responsibility and accountability for the project on a single project manager. Depending on the size of the project the project manager may have a number of project managers working with her on a project but at the end of the day there was one person ultimately accountable for delivery. Strip away singular accountability and you’ve now reduced your likelihood of success on a project.

OK, so by now you’ve gotten my point that I am manic when it comes to accountability. Hopefully a bit of my manic-ness will rub off on my readers. Consider these tips to better ensure project success through clear lines of accountability:

Ensure there is a published organization chart with a singular project manager ultimately accountable for the project. it’s OK for things to be matrixed below the project manager but at the end of the day the top dog has final say.

Avoid “two-in-a-box” project managers. As soon as you introduce a second person into the leadership mix you’ve now introduced the potential for finger-pointing and confusion.
Ensure that the PM understands his or her role as being ultimately accountable for the success of a project. As hard as this may be to believe, there are many project managers who see themselves as administrators and don’t see themselves as being accountable for delivery. Engage in a discussion with the project managers in your organization about the concept of accountability and do some level-setting where necessary.

Ensure the project sponsor enforces the accountability chain with the PM. If the project sponsor is wishy-washy about accountability then the project manager is less likely to view himself as being accountable.

Don’t allow for your project managers to skirt accountability and muddy the waters through confusing organization charts or unclear reporting relationships. Accountability drives success, and success drives results.

End rant.

Lonnie Pacelli is an accomplished author and autism advocate with over 30 years experience in leadership and project management at Accenture, Microsoft, and Consetta Group. See books, articles, keynotes, and self-study seminars at

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