Addressing project failure may sound like a painful process and a waste of time, but a project “post-mortem” review is extremely necessary to determine what went wrong, when the project started to veer off the tracks and what could have been done to salvage the project. In Part 1 of this two-part series, we addressed the danger of unclear objectives and ignoring the need for change management. In this final installment, we will examine the importance of accountability and poor communication and how both of these contribute to project failure. First, take a look at the chaos caused by a lack of accountability and the difference between responsibility and accountability.
The Link Between Accountability & Meeting Project Objectives
Accountability starts with clearly defining project objectives and ensuring team members know what they are responsible for on any given project. But as scope and roles change, it becomes even more crucial to address accountability early and throughout a project.
A number of articles discuss the difference between responsibility and accountability. These terms are often mistaken for being one in the same, but knowing the difference between them can mean the difference between a successful project and a failed one.
As authors Michael L. Smith and James Erwin point out in their "Role & Responsibility Charting (RACI),” document, a responsible person can be defined as an individual that has been assigned a task. An accountable person is “ultimately answerable for the activity or decision.”
It can get complicated when a project manager depends on a number of large, disparate teams to complete tasks by particular deadlines. In these situations, the line between responsibility and accountability can be a little fuzzy.
Team members with a lot of responsibility, but not much accountability, might step aside and let the hammer fall elsewhere. This is not to say that those team members are stepping aside out of laziness or maliciousness. Frequently, it comes down to team members with too much on their to-do lists competing for their time. The problem is that if enough people step aside, the gap becomes real, the project objective falls through and the blame game begins. So how can a project manager balance responsibility and accountability?
- Make sure to not only define responsibilities, but also understand the structure of accountability within the project.
- Appoint a designated project leader before the first project tasks are assigned.
- Set and manage expectations regarding responsibilities with all stakeholders, including executives.
- Ensure those accountable will provide regular project status updates.
Finally, it’s important to understand how critical accountability is to project success. Recognizing that you and your sponsor have put your reputations on the line for the sake of the project may seem obvious, but it’s not often that both parties are acknowledged for their accountability in any marked way. If a project begins going south for whatever reason, it is vital that the project manager and sponsor have established a mutual respect. It’s necessary that this respect extends far enough that the sponsor does not feel they can just exit and leave the failure to the project manager. On the other hand, the project manager does not underestimate the ramifications that a failed project can have on a sponsor's reputation. This doesn't mean trapping one another, but it does mean that every sponsor relationship must be taken seriously and not just in terms of how many resources a sponsor can provide.
Poor Communication Skills Affect Project Success
According to a Project Management Institute report, “Ineffective communications is the primary contributor to project failure one third of the time, and had a negative impact on project success more than half the time.” In fact, it’s widely known that poor communication skills are one of the biggest and most notorious project killers. Poor communication skills can also sneakily lead a project on the path to failure without anyone noticing until it is too late.
Avoid Communication Failures: Change the Channel
To avoid project communication pitfalls, it's important to understand the various types of communication that take place and the ways these channels can be effective or damaging. Effective communication does not just take place in face-to-face in meetings, nor is it restricted to emails, calls and messages. In fact, some of the best ways to communicate is to avoid the email thread and phone tag altogether. By allowing your team to access centralized, up-to-date information at any time, you avoid the ad hoc status update requests, and maybe you will even be able to complete status meetings in under an hour. Some best practices for improving cross-team communications include:
- Put project information in a single location that can be accessed from anywhere and at any time. Give your team a single source of truth, where understanding the status of a project is as easy as looking at a dashboard rather than having to sift through an inbox.
- Make sure the system ensures that people are reminded of upcoming activities and commitments.
- Provide your team with a live project page that they can pop open first thing in the morning and assess what they need to accomplish for the day.
- Simple actions, such as organized agendas, meeting minutes and action items are incredibly valuable. Keeping people reminded of the small details and having smaller building blocks to check off not only makes the project seem to move along more quickly, but also more smoothly.
- Keeping a project sponsor up to date is one of the tasks of project management that is simple to do, but is rarely done effectively. Frequent engagement via project updates will help your cause should you need to request additional resources or rally support from your sponsor's peers.
Don't let poor communication be the reason your project failed. Instead, pay careful attention to the channels you use to communicate, to the small details and notifications and to the communication that you have with your sponsor. Good communication is not just a cornerstone of good project management; it also brings about other benefits in terms of your continued relationships with your project team and your sponsor.
Final Thoughts on Accountability & Communications
There is a critical link between accountability and communications and the successful outcome of your project. Without support from executive management, project managers risk losing resources and risk losing the attention from other executives necessary for project success. In fact, according to PMI, "1 in 3 unsuccessful projects fails to meet goals due to poorly engaged sponsors."
At the same time, without effective communication from a project manager, executive sponsors can be left feeling like they are holding all of the accountability for a project but without adequate knowledge of how it is progressing. Communications and reporting are key to ensuring that those who should be held accountable for project milestones are held to a higher standard when it comes to making sure a project progresses as planned and makes it to completion on time and meets all agreed-upon goals.