Accountability vs. responsibility in project management.

Man writing the differences between accountability vs responsibility
The author of this piece is Shim Marom, author of His blog looks at project management from unorthodox and unconventional perspectives, utilizing the latest in science, art, and philosophy to examine and explain assumptions and methods widely used within the project management profession. Workfront is always looking for ideas to make work more effective and we hope you benefit from Shim’s insights.

When things go wrong in business, there’s often a blame game. So how can blame be apportioned correctly to fix the problem and stop it happening again?

Understanding the difference between accountable and responsible can ensure things stay on track. But is there any difference?

In this article, we’ll talk through the key points in the accountability vs responsibility debate so your business isn’t wrong-footed when things go awry.

In this accountability vs. responsibility guide you will discover,

What is accountability?

Accountability is the ability to report, or give an account of events, tasks and experience. It should be given to just one person, to avoid confusion and crossover with others.

In addition, accountability:

What is responsibility?

Responsibility, in comparison, is the duty to respond to and complete tasks. It can be shared among members of a team. Many people can be responsible for achieving a specific outcome by working on the same task or have different tasks they are responsible for that lead to the same goal.


Differences between accountability and responsibility.

A quick flick through Webster’s Dictionary will come up with almost identical definitions for both terms. But accountability and responsibility are not the same.

You take responsibility but hold someone accountable. In short, responsibility refers to the duty a person or persons have to carry out a task, and accountability points to the owning of the consequences after the fact.

A literature search highlights a lack of clear and unanimous definitions for each of these terms. In fact, a cursory look at clearly demonstrates the confusion, where the definition for accountability is explained also in terms of responsibility, and vice versa.

In  The Oz Principle: Getting Results Through Individual and Organizational Accountability, the authors suggest that:

Responsibility may be bestowed, but accountability must be taken. In other words, responsibility can be given or received, even assumed, but that doesn’t automatically guarantee that personal accountability will be taken. Which means that it’s possible to bear responsibility for something or someone but still lack accountability.’

With that interpretation in mind it could be inferred that every person on the project team could be responsible (by assignment), but his or her accountability is dependent on their level of commitment and acceptance of such accountability.

I’m not happy with this definition as it makes things a bit loose. Can project managers pick a ‘get out of jail card’ based on the argument that their team did not exercise their right to accept accountability? This doesn’t seem right to me, so we need to dig a bit further.

Here’s a table that shows the differences:

What happens after a situation has occurred
Is typically ongoing
Assigned to a single person
Can be shared
Person should respond and take ownership of the results
Focuses on the defined roles of each team member
Task or project-focused
Explanation is owed
Explanation is not owed

RACI charts.

Project managers can be in charge of large teams at once — so it can be difficult to keep tabs on individual levels of responsibility or accountability.

This is where RACI charts come in. It allows project managers to understand and specify individual roles for each project.

RACI stands for:

By having a clear remit for people involved in a project, you can help make accountability and responsibility far clearer. Learn more about RACI charts.

Accountable vs. responsible — a project management scenario.

It took me some time into my project management career to realize, and logically accept the fact, that within the project management domain, one has to have clear appreciation of the distinction between a ccountability  and  responsibility.

The fundamental point this discussion is attempting to address is the question of ‘when and where does the buck stop?’

And more specifically, should any issues arise during the course of a project delivery, is it the project manager who is by default the one who needs to pay the ultimate price for the failure or is this issue a bit more complicated than that

Let’s examine the following simple scenario:

You manage a large integration project involving 10 different technology groups. Clearly you can’t be intimately familiar and hands-on with each and every aspect of the integration process.

Obviously, like many other project managers you heroically claim that everything that happens in your project is your responsibility, but is this really the case?

Is there a point at which things might happen under your watch for which you   could  not and   would  not take the responsibility?

Does accountability live at the top of an organization?

A good summary document by Michael L Smith and James Erwin, entitled Role & Responsibility Charting (RACI) provides the breakthrough I was looking for.

The authors make the following excellent observation:

Managers and supervisors are not accountable for everything in their organization. Responsibility charting ensures accountability is placed with the person who really can be accountable for specific work.

Often this results in accountabilities for actions being  moved down  to the most appropriate level.

This is an important point. Accountability does not necessarily live at the very top but rather it is positioned at the most appropriate level, with the person who  can  be accountable for the work.

The ultimate definitions.

The authors provide further elaboration on the definitions of responsible and accountable, as follows:

The   accountable person  is the individual who is ultimately answerable for the activity or decision.  This includes ‘yes’ or ‘no’ authority and veto power. Only one accountable person can be assigned to an action.

The   responsible person  is the individual(s) who actually completes the task.

The responsible person is responsible for action/implementation. Responsibility can be shared. The degree of responsibility is determined by the individual with the ‘accountability.’

The above definitions provide a much greater level of clarity and are easy to understand within a project environment. But casting our mind back to the scenario provided earlier in this post, would we now be in a better position to ascertain whose fault it is should the project fail to deliver?

Clear determination of the project's roles and responsibilities (such as by publishing a detailed RACI chart) can go a long way towards eliminating any ambiguities and misunderstandings.

A clear RACI-specified responsible vs accountable understanding is just the beginning, and this needs to be followed by a clear communication and acceptance of these roles and responsibilities by the assignees.

Blame games and apportioning of faults can only thrive in an environment where it has never been clear who is responsible and who is accountable.

If these are not properly communicated there’s a good chance it is you, the project manager, who will be asked to respond to the ‘please explain’ note from the project sponsor.

Frequently asked questions about accountability vs responsibility.

Which comes first, accountability or responsibility?

Accountability cannot be shared, responsibility can. The buck stops with the accountable person, but is divided among the responsible. Which comes first depends upon which position you hold in the company. Managers are accountable — their workers are responsible.

What are the benefits of being accountable or responsible?

Responsibility and accountability can both be plus points. Bestowing levels of accountability or responsibility to your staff will help them see meaning and achievement in what they do. Owning accountability individually will drive them to be better and this in turn will trickle down to better customer service.

How can I develop accountability and responsibility in my business?

Demonstrate these qualities yourself to encourage it in others. Clearly communicate to staff what accountability is and express your expectations of them. Be a responsible member of the team yourself, and a network of accountability will ensure the right people are assigned to the right task, and jobs are finished on time by highly motivated workers.

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