By Giampaolo Marucci – PMBOK® Guide – Seventh Edition Development Team Member
In some languages there is no direct translation of the English word “accountable.” For example, in Italy we translate it as “responsible.” That is, in Italy, we translate “accountable” and “responsible” with the same word: “responsible.” But we know, also in Italy, that “accountable” and “responsible” have different meanings.
In Italian, we interpret responsibility as the act of taking charge of the execution of work that someone asks for. Accountability is the awareness of paying someone for damage caused by wrong decisions or getting the reward for good decisions. Accountability requires that the accountable people respond to any of the activities delegated to responsible people. Responsibility does not include accountability, while accountability can include responsibility. In both cases, someone is responsible or accountable to someone else.
Historically, accountability for a project has been assigned to a single person inside a context. For example, a project manager is usually accountable to the Sponsor for the success (or lack of success) of the project. While the project manager may delegate responsibility to members of the project team, the project manager maintains accountability. But, looking at how some organizations have been structured during the last couple of decades, in some cases, accountability in a project, product, or service to customers or the public, has been assigned to more than one person. In the Team Performance Domain in the PMBOK® Guide–Seventh Edition we refer to this as shared ownership. That is, there are contexts in which the outcomes from the work are assigned to the more than one person, or the team as a whole.
This can be the case with a high performing team that is stable, empowered, and self-organized. Ownership for the outcomes from the project are shared by the team as a whole. Stable teams move from formation and grow into a high-performing team by passing through four stages: Forming, Norming, Storming, Performing. The length of time for the team to grow into the performing stage can vary based many variables. (You can refer the Tuckman “Team development model” for detail on this. The PMBOK® Guide refers to it in the section “Models, Methods, and Artifacts” of the PMBOK® Guide - Seventh Edition.) Following, you can see some of the characteristics that are usually present in high performing teams where ownership can be shared:
- Stability: the team is stable with little turnover. Members of the team enjoy working inside that team.
- Trust: each member of the team trusts each other.
- Wholeness: the team can commit themselves to the work to achieve the project’s vision. They do not need external support to do the required work and they are able to communicate with all the other stakeholders with transparency, giving and receiving frequent feedback to learn and improve their way of working.
- Cross-functionality: if needed, each member of the team can do the work of other members of the team because, each member is a generalized specialist (someone says, each member of the team owns “T-Shaped” or “M-Shaped” competencies).
- High experience: members of the team have great experience in their generalized specializations, and they all are also experienced in project management principles and performance domains.
- Self-organization: they know several possible ways of working. They can choose their way of working based on the organization and external context. They can adapt their way of working to be effective inside the project and inside the organization. They are able, and they prefer, to self-assign the work to themselves. They know their rights and their responsibilities to the organization.
- Small size: the team is relatively small. One of the variables that affects the complexity of a project is the team size. A project can be assigned to a team or several teams (in that case we could talk about a “Program”) but each team should be relatively small in size. A lot of theory has been written on this, for instance, in psychology you can refer to Miller’s Law (the magical number 7) and we need to consider that the number (N) of bi-directional communication channel between persons in a team is N*(N-1)/2 — it grows exponentially.
- Personal accountability: each member of the team is accountable to each other. That is each member of the team has the courage, respect for others, and transparency to own their actions and the impact of their actions on the other members of the team.
Having such a performing team, an organization can assign them a project and let them self-organize to decide their way of working, choose and evolve their processes and practices to adopt inside the project, and configure processes and practices based on the organization’s policy. The organization can give to the team, as a whole, rewards or penalties for success (or lack of success) of the project.
In other words, the organization can let the team not only be responsible for the work but also own the outcomes to the organization. High performing teams with shared ownership is described inside the Team Performance Domain in the PMBOK® Guide–Seventh Edition.