Avoiding the accountability wasteland

Accountability wasteland - where there are unclear responsibilities at work
Make sure your next project isn’t an accountability wasteland

Hopefully most of the time, it’s pretty clear who is accountable for doing something in your workplace. Linda is the Project Manager on this project, Colin is the team leader for this team, Anna is the General Manager for this office. That’s pretty clear – everybody knows basically where they stand.

Unfortunately, sometimes work comes up that does not fit nicely within the boundaries of anyone’s role. If you don’t identify this up front and decide who is the accountable person for it, a chaotic free-for-all can develop, where nobody is sure who is responsible for the task.

Surely work like this doesn’t come up very often?

You’d be surprised! Here are some examples that I’ve encountered of the type of work that can slide into the “accountability grey zone”.

  • Pitching for new business: Normally, accountability for pitching for new work lies with some sort of Business Development team. However, when a large pitch needs to be completed, requiring input from many people (who have other things to do), you need somebody appointed who is accountable for coordinating the whole task and bringing it all together. If this isn’t clear from the start, you’re in trouble.
  • Internal initiatives: Internal “people” initiatives like creating committees, running “lunch and learns” or internal training courses can be an accountability free-zone, since everybody has other things to do. Appointing somebody to be responsible for coordinating these and ensuring they get done is critical for them to have any lasting impact.
  • Office fit-out / decoration projects: Ever tried to redesign a meeting room in your office? Sometimes these tasks can be done by committee, dragging on for a long time as nobody is assigned full responsibility. This sometimes occurs because they often aren’t critical to the success of your business.

What happens when there are unclear responsibilities at work?

There are a few things that can (and do) happen when there are unclear responsibilities at work:

  1. Everybody can step away from the task at once, to focus on their other priorities. After all, they are accountable for other tasks. When this happens, the work has a relatively high chance of not getting done, or at least getting done badly.
  2. Everyone can try to lead at once. Since nobody has been assigned the leadership role, people might just take it on. Sometimes this is great, unless several people try to do it at the same time. The main impact this has is that others in the team have no idea who they should be listening to or taking guidance from and often conflict can arise about whose baby this project is.
  3. Nobody has the final say. When nobody is given accountability for a deliverable or task, it is unclear as to who has the final say on its quality or what comprises it. Have you ever had a discussion about changing a document, when nobody is able to make the final say? I have, and I can tell you that it is a prolonged, frustrating experience. It can result in a situation where nobody backs down from their idea and you get no headway on the issue for a long duration.

Ensuring that everybody knows who is accountable

To make sure that you know who is accountable for a particular piece of work going on in your workplace, try the following.

Have a kick-off meeting with everybody involved

Don’t skimp on this. Sometimes it is tempting to just get everybody to “go do it”, because having a meeting about it seems unproductive. Whereas going away and “doing stuff” seems like things are getting done!

In the kick-off, make sure it is clearly stated who is going to be coordinating the activity, and how decisions will be made during the project. Also discuss the timeline and how people will provide updates to say how they are progressing. If there are any budgets involved, ensure who controls the purse strings is clearly assigned.

Set the parameters and targets clearly

Often during the kick-off meeting it’s a good idea to set the parameters of the task very clearly. If you’re preparing to deliver a big presentation with multiple people, who will lead the presentation? What sort of approach are you going for? Casual, formal, in between? How will all the speakers be introduced?

If you’re preparing some sort of documentation, what format will it be in? Powerpoint? Word? How long do you need the document to be? Is it just bullet points or do you want longer prose? What is the structure of the document?

Without setting these sorts of parameters, things can simply “evolve”, which can result in a big cleanup job needing to occur right near the end, when everybody is the most under pressure!

Choose the right people for the job

There is no point assigning a role to somebody who has no capacity to take it on. Sometimes people will say yes to everything, because they have issues with saying no.

When someone takes on a role in one of these projects, ensure that they have the time available (or can create it) to do it. When determining who should coordinate a given project, make sure they are in close proximity to the work as well. Having somebody coordinate an internal project who is not actually contributing anything (else) to it can mean they don’t have much knowledge of what’s required.

Projects with an accountability grey-area are more common than you think and it’s important to ensure everybody is on the same page.

These initiatives can be a great way to assign leadership responsibilities to people who normally don’t get the opportunity, allowing them to step up and develop leadership or project management skills outside of their regular day job.

Avoid the “it’s not my job” and the “we’re all accountable” traps by ensuring that everybody knows where they stand.

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