Several years ago during a training session I was conducting in Dubai on PMOs I asked the participants a questions on dealing with project accountability. I asked them “who is ultimately accountable” for a project’s success or failure. The PMBOK Guide is very clear on this issue as it holds the project executive sponsor as the person who is ultimately accountable. It makes sense if you think about it as the project sponsor is the person who typically underwrites the project costs and is usually the person who’s “organizational wellbeing” is most affected by the project’s results.
I recall during this discussion that the participants were strongly divided on this issue. At least half of the class believed that the project manager is the person who is ultimately accountable. Many of these individuals had been through the PMP certification process and some even argued that the PMBOK Guide is wrong on this point.
I tend to agree with the PMBOK Guide’s stance on this issue however the part that I found interesting is the fact that so many of the participants in the class came out of organizations that reenforced that project managers hold a greater level of accountability on the project than the executive sponsor. After digging a bit deeper with these participants I began to understand why they hold this view. It all boiled down to the fact that in their organizations executive sponsors were not educated properly of their role and responsibilities on the project. Many sponsors did not even appreciate that their department/division would bear the negative consequences of a failed project.
Interestingly enough, a few weeks ago at the PMI Global Congress in DC, one of the keynote speakers, Mr. Vivek Kundra addressed this issue in his presentation. Mr. Kundra is the CIO of the United States of America. He was appointed to this role by President Obama where his focus for the past few years has been on developing an improved approach to dealing with the US government’s IT project portfolio. In his speech he discussed how he was charged with developing a better handle on the multi-billion dollar portfolio. He stated that many of the large project/programs were not doing well and the government needed to establish a greater level of accountability. To do so, they decided to create a simple reporting dashboard that actually had the name and photo of the specific US agency CIO for a given project. In other words, they put the name and picture of the project’s executive sponsor along with critical information with the status of the project. This status included a red/yellow/green color to indicate health. As a result, they noticed that the executive sponsors were now paying closer attention to the project, especially since the US President had access to the dashboard and was monitoring progress on these projects. It was amazing how a simple red/yellow/green color forced a major change now that their name was associated with the project.
Sometimes shining a light forces key stakeholders to own up to their level of responsibility and play a greater role by becoming accountable for their projects. Having the right level of accountability is not the project manager’s job alone but it is indeed a team effort to ensure success.
I have tried to think about both of the aforementioned cases as I reflected on how they might apply to SMBs. Having done some work and consulting with SMBs, I learned a very hard, and often ignored fact. This lesson is that in many SMBs relationships are more important to the organization and its leaders than actual results on the project. This is especially true in family owned businesses and SMBs who happen to operate in developing countries.
On the surface this stance may seem quite puzzling. After all, why would the senior leaders of any organization sacrifice positive outcomes and potentially jeopardize the organization’s very existence to appease relationships with team members? The answer to this question is multi dimensional. Consider the following:
- In developing countries there is generally a talent gap. Typically organizations can not simply let go of non-performing resources and replace them with others who are more capable and willing to step in to deliver on project. What I have found in my experience in the Middle East is that many senior managers are happy to work with mediocre resources because they know they can not find others with higher quality. The conventional wisdom is tolerate them for the purpose of training or until such time as another more competent resource might become available.
- In family owned business on the other hand one might be dealing with relationships that transcend the business side of the house. A brother or sister for instance will continue to be your sibling whether the organization did well or not. What I discovered is that even non-family members are treated as part of the clan simply because of the organization’s orientation toward familial ties. The is a saying that “blood is thicker than water” becomes ingrained in the psyche of these organizations and their leaders.
- In other SMBs who may not be family owned or operating in developing countries, there is the factor of tenure that enters the equation. Senior management relies on individuals to deliver on projects. They can not afford to lose them. This is particularly relevant in light of my previous article “Reframing Project Management for SMBs” that deals with the issue of lack of systems.
As one considers the issue of accountability versus relationships, I believe that there has to be a balance that is struck between fostering relationships and demanding results of project teams. This all starts with a proactive approach to expectation setting. The organization has to become good at developing a set of requirements for projects that are clear along with a clear definitions of roles and responsibilities on projects. These requirements and responsibilities have to be clearly communicated and agreed upon prior to intiating the project.
Another element is that the organization has to establish a set of norms as to what happens if project team members do not perform competently on the project. In one of the chapters of my upcoming book, “Sidestep Complexity”, I dedicate a whole section that discusses how organizational leaders can go about achieving this success through requirement definition and expectation setting.
I look forward to sharing more on this topic in the future. In the meantime, I invite others with experience in this area to provide their insight as well. Visit the LinkedIn group Project Management for SMBs to participate in the discussion.