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A Fresh Look at Accountability

fingers pointing at person

Or why you don’t need to assign it, and why sharing it with others is key to making a matrix work.


Manager Joe is given a large project to complete by the New Year, and then immediately turns to his cross-functional team and tells them they have to get it done. Janet and Tom, both on the team, know full well that the deadline is unreasonable, especially with higher priority projects currently in the works.

However, they feel that they have no say in the matter, so they focus on the priorities their boss assigned to them. Joe struggles to get the project done, and sure enough, when the deadline comes, the only thing he delivers is excuses. Sound familiar?

Let’s look at some reasons behind this scenario.

Reason One: One-Dimensional Or “Org Chart” Accountability

Traditionally, accountability in an organization is assigned to an employee by a supervisor. This is based on a one-dimensional view of the organization, where accountability is tied to a vertical chain of command, the kind you would see on an “org chart.” When an organization and its managers assign accountability from one — vertical — dimension, priorities are aligned with the vertical function where they were initiated.

Org Chart Accountability Target

However, projects are almost always cross-functional, and when accountability for delivering projects within scope, schedule and/or budget is assigned vertically, team members focus not on the project needs, but on the needs of the person with authority. Joe was assigned the project by his boss, but Janet and Tom have been assigned other priorities by their boss.

This creates an environment where the project leader is competing for his team members’ time to produce deliverables, which often results in excuses for why things weren’t done.

Today’s mid-size and large organizations function in a two-dimensional matrix environment. In a matrix, business processes and projects operate across vertical (functional) lines where authority doesn’t exist. As a result, accountability needs to be two-dimensional as well.

Reason Two: Assigned Accountability

When a boss assigns accountability, it is typically done without input from the team, resulting in goals or deliverables that tend to be unrealistic. When this occurs, a culture of non-commitment and reactive behavior prevails, and when the assigned accountability is not met, excuses and finger-pointing are perpetuated.

The process of assigned accountability doesn’t allow for planning and negotiating, and thus there is a lack of real upfront commitment to get the job done. Team members operate in a reactive wait-and-see mode, addressing issues as they arise, but never fully committing to producing the desired outcome.

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Reason Three: There Is Only One Type of Accountability

The major unit of structure in a matrix is the cross-functional team. Teams create project deliverables and produce outputs from cross-functional processes. Teams also need an accountability system that holds them together. When organizations use only one type of accountability — individual accountability — a team leader is positioned as the sole owner of the team’s outcome. Since authority does not exist between team leaders and team members, we need another way to connect them to the project.

Effective matrix organizations use three types of accountability to create alignment and enable leaders to lead without authority: Organizational, Team, and Individual.

  • Organizational accountability commits every leader in the organization to operating in its best interest
  • Team accountability is the accountability that team members have for a team’s outcomes; it takes precedence over individual accountability
  • Individual accountability is the accountability that individuals have for their goals or deliverables.

A team’s goal is covered by two types of accountability: individual and team. In the case of Joe’s project, he is individually accountable for the outcome, while Tom and Janet have team accountability. Additionally, Joe’s, Janet’s and Tom’s bosses all have organizational accountability for the outcome and need to negotiate achievable goals and allocate resources based on the project’s priority.

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In examining our original challenge, let’s apply the new view of accountability and see how it would change the result:

  1. If two-dimensional accountability was being used, the project Joe was assigned would have been prioritized along with the priorities assigned to Tom and Janet. All three would know this and would know how best to make decisions about what priorities they should focus on.
  2. If the organization used an upfront process to plan and negotiate accountability, Joe would have worked collaboratively with Tom, Janet and his whole team to determine what was achievable given the project scope, schedule, budget and overall priority. They would not have had to agree to an unreasonable deadline, and instead, would have proposed a timeline they could work with, individually and as a team. Then Joe would discuss this timeline with the Sponsor and internal customer before making a commitment on behalf of the team. Once committed, the entire team would be held accountable for the outcome — not just Joe. And if something were to go wrong, none of the three would be worried about being blamed; instead, they would work together to resolve the issue and document the lessons learned.
  3. If the organization identified all three types of accountability for the outcome, everyone connected to the outcome would have a stake in getting it done instead of Joe being the only individual accountable for delivering the project.

In sum, addressing accountability can help mitigate challenges in a matrix environment:

  • The accountability system needs to be two-dimensional, not one-dimensional. It needs to be designed to create alignment with the most important horizontal segments and goals of the organization instead of through vertical silos.
  • Accountability needs to be negotiated between leaders and team members, not assigned using formal authority.  This requires upfront planning and commitment by everyone on the team before work begins.
  • Organizations need to establish three types of accountability: organizational, team, and individual accountability, and ensure that organizational accountability takes precedence over team, while team accountability takes precedence over individual.

Looking for More?

Looking to learn more about accountability in a matrix? Check out our Matrix Management 2.0™ Quick Guide. This book covers accountability and other key Matrix Management 2.0™ concepts in a quick and comprehensive fashion.

Cathy Cassidy

As the Managing Director of the International Matrix Management Institute, Cathy helps organizations and practitioners adopt the skills and methods they need to succeed in today’s complex, dynamic environment. She is a Matrix Management 2.0™ Master Consultant and the author of several books on matrix management, including her most recent publication, Managing Projects in a Matrix. She is a key contributor to the Matrix Management 2.0™ Body of Knowledge, co-developer of the Matrix Management 2.0™ organizational operating system, and a lead developer for the company.