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Master the Matrix: 3 Accountability Tips for Project Leaders

Matrix Teamwork

Accountability can help or hinder your project. In the past, accountability was often synonymous with blame. It created fear, forced people to cover their backsides, and sabotaged learning. This kind of accountability did little to improve performance.


The good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way. Accountability is a powerful tool when used proactively. These tips will help you adopt a better approach – one that will prevent problems and support project success.

Accountability Tip #1: Be Proactive

Accountability is sometimes used to “beat up” on people when something goes wrong. The question, “Who’s accountable for this?” sends fear racing through the veins of team members. A more effective approach is to use accountability for prevention—not punishment.

At the project kick-off meeting, explain how accountability will work. Decide what deliverables team members will be accountable for producing. Then make sure you provide each person with the resources they need to get the job done. This is your job as project leader. Team members can’t produce results out of thin air.

If something goes wrong (and yes—sometimes it does), focus on how to move forward. Look back only to learn from what happened so that you can do it differently next time.

Accountability Tip #2: Focus on Deliverables, Not Activities

When you’re accountable for ensuring project outcomes, define the deliverables. Activities are not deliverables. For example, writing is an activity. You can write all day long and not produce any useful output. The deliverable is the useful article, educational white paper, or thought-provoking blog post.

You can and should define quality criteria and a due date for each deliverable. (What acceptance criteria does the article need to meet? What’s the deadline?) You may also need to assign a budget to the deliverable.
Instead of breaking projects down into activities, break them down into deliverables:

  • Make sure someone on the team is accountable for each deliverable. The accountable person doesn’t always have to do the work. He or she just has to make sure the deliverable is produced on time and within budget.
  • Identify the criteria the customer will use to determine if he or she is satisfied with the deliverable.
Facilitate Team Participation

Activity-focused, vertically-oriented accountability doesn’t work well in today’s matrix organizations.

Accountability Tip #3: Facilitate Team Participation

You can “assign” accountability, but when people on the team don’t report to you, it has little practical effect. In a matrix, accountability has to be voluntarily accepted, and that requires team participation.

When teams share ideas and create project plans facilitated by the project leader, several things happen.

  • The team understands the plan because they participated in creating it.
  • The plan reflects each member’s availability based on their current commitments.
  • The team determines if members have the right skill sets or if people need to be added.

Most importantly, team participation creates ownership and commitment to the project’s success.

A Word of Caution

Don’t make the mistake of taking back project ownership during the execution phase. It’s important to continue the team’s involvement in monitoring progress and solving problems. Let the team decide how to get the project back on track when things go wrong. If you do, they’ll accept accountability for the solutions.

Looking for More?

Do you want to learn more about accountability in a matrix? Our Matrix Management 2.0™ Quick Guide covers accountability and other key Matrix Management 2.0™ concepts in a quick and comprehensive fashion.

Paula Martin

Paula Martin is a Master Level Certified Matrix Management Consultant™ (CMMC™—MOL), and the CEO and Chief Creative Officer of the Matrix Management Institute. She is the developer of the MM 2.0™ Operating System, and the author of the Matrix Management 2.0™ Body of Knowledge, the Matrix Management Reinvented book series, and more than 10 other books on topics related to Matrix Management and Managing Projects in a Matrix.