green traffic light

Who Gave This Epic Failure the Green Light?

When I think about accountability, I am reminded of a comedy sketch from the 90s HBO program Mr. ShowCoupon: the Movie. The Coupon – The Movie with the following:

“This is the biggest failure in movie history! Coupon: The Movie has made zero money! You people are responsible . . . and what I want to know is who green-lighted this picture?”

While being yelled at about who’s accountable for this epic flop, they all look at each other nervously and start coming up with excuses:

“Well, as I remember it, I farmed it out. I was just shepherding it around. David?”

“Well, I seem to remember giving it the ‘go ahead.’ Not the movie—I gave the go-ahead to the green light! This thing had a thumbs up way before it got to me. Sue?”

Around the table they go, with each excuse crazier than the next and with no one accepting accountability.

This sketch has always stuck with me, not only because it’s so funny, but also because it’s true!

Hyperbole? Sure.

But if we’re being honest, that’s still how most organizations handle accountability—by looking for who is to blame, and in some organizations, it goes as far as “whose throat to choke.”

How many times have you been afraid to stick your neck out on the line because you were afraid of being blamed if something went wrong? Or worse, the henchmen would come looking for your throat?

What kind of culture does this approach to accountability create? Does it create a culture of success, where people feel secure that they can take reasonable risks and still succeed, even when it doesn’t work out as projected? Or does it create a culture of failure where people are afraid to act?

Blame Breeds Failure, Not Success

Which culture do you want to create for your project team?

I’m going to assume it’s a culture of success and not one of failure because, if you’re reading this article, you’re trying to improve how to do things. But if blame is at the core of how you approach accountability, then you’re getting a culture of failure by default.

Therefore, we need to take a look at this idea of accountability as assigning blame when things go wrong.

The rules of accountability we are using are based on a directive, command-and-control approach to leadership.

That worked well enough when the workforce was uneducated and organizations did few projects. So if it was 1962 and you were working in a tool-and-die manufacturing plant, you’d probably be good to go.

But it’s not 1962, and command-and control-doesn’t work anymore. It particularly doesn’t work with knowledge workers because all that commanding and controlling and blaming doesn’t motivate knowledge workers. It does quite the opposite.

They shut down and go into automaton mode or subtly sabotage the project and you, the leader.

No, in 2019, you need a different approach. One that generates a culture of success and that isn’t based on commanding anyone to do anything. (And most project leaders don’t have direct reports to command anyway, so you’ve got to do things differently—you’ve got to be a more enlightened leader.)

What do you really want for your team?

I hope that you want them to be engaged and to take ownership of the project’s success. I hope that you want them to bring their expertise and ideas to the table and to work together for the good of the team.

If so, then you’ll need to rethink your approach to leadership and accountability.

But let’s talk about leadership first.

Directive Leadership

Most leaders are still rooted in some form of directive leadership. In projects, for example, the project leader typically gathers inputs from the team (or not) and then creates a schedule or other parts of the plan, makes decisions, solves problems, etc. When the plan is done, the project leader shares it with the team, and each team member takes out their highlighters and highlights their tasks. And then, barring shifting priorities from their area leaders, they work on completing their tasks.

This approach has a myriad of problems, but here are a few:

  • The leader can’t understand all of the interdependencies associated with the elements of a plan. He or she is not all-knowing. Better information is available with a team of experts representing the various aspects of the project, but this directive approach doesn’t take advantage of their expertise.
  • The leader ends up owning the whole project. This individual is accountable for the outcomes that have to be produced. He or she owns the problems and the solutions. The monkey is on the leader’s back.
  • The team members know what they are supposed to do, but they don’t understand the context within which their work fits. They can’t manage their own interdependencies without this knowledge.
  • The project is not really meaningful to the team members because it’s the project leader who owns it and makes all the decisions.

The fundamental flaw in directive leadership lies in the fact that one person has ownership (the project leader), and that person tries to dictate what the rest of the team will or will not do. It assumes that the other people either don’t want to participate, will slow the process down if they do participate, or don’t have anything to offer. This simply isn’t true. Not most of the time anyway.

What you need instead is collaborative project leadership.

Collaborative Project Leadership

Collaborative project leadership is a new approach to leading projects, one better designed for today’s complex knowledge economy. Some key characteristics include the following:

  • The project leader facilitates the project management process and guides the team, who does the actual project planning. Through this engagement, team members own the plan and commit to making it happen.
  • The project leader facilitates the monitoring and control phase, ensuring the team solves the problems that arise and thus retains ownership of the project.
  • The project leader focuses on building a high-performing team.
  • The project leader manages up and out, removing roadblocks and obstacles for the team.

Collaborative project leadership requires a new set of skills—facilitation, negotiation, influencing, coaching, selling—and it also requires a new set of tools.

Collaborative Tools

To get people to participate effectively, you also need collaborative tools—ones that help you ensure you’ll get a better result than if you did everything yourself. And ones that help the team reach consensus quickly and effectively.

So, if you’re thinking about getting trained in collaborative leadership, you’ll also need training in collaborative project tools. It’s like deciding to be a carpenter but only having a handsaw and a hammer. You might be able to do a few crude projects, but you’ll need a full toolbox to master the craft. The same is true for project leadership, which requires both tools and the skills to use them. For example, you’ll need to be able to lead a team through a collaborative risk assessment exercise, an adoption force-field analysis exercise, the creation of a deliverables schedule, mapping out project stakeholders, etc. You also need a collaborative decision-making and problem-solving method—one that the whole team learns and uses to bring consistency and transparency to these two, highly individualized actions.

And, to create a culture of success, in addition to your collaborative leadership skills and collaborative project tools, you will need a proactive approach to accountability.

Proactive Accountability

The directive approach to accountability uses a stick to coerce people into doing what they don’t want to do or to beat them up if they make a mistake.

And that’s how we end up in Mr. ShowCoupon: the Movie.

You don’t want to be in that sketch. You don’t want to create a culture of failure. So even if all those around you are beating the drum of command-and-control, you can do something different. You can create a culture of success that will help you deliver project success.

To do that, you have to rethink your approach to accountability. The Coupon: The Movie version is blame-oriented; it’s reactive.

Instead, you want to use proactive accountability. You do that by getting the team involved in planning the project with you. Through that participation, you get ownership, and through ownership, you get commitment. And that’s what you need—commitment.

Committing to Success

In proactive accountability, you don’t commit to producing anything—much less by when or for how much—until you have gotten the team involved in planning. They plan, and you facilitate that process using collaborative tools to help them do it properly.

Then, you negotiate realistic deliverables, deadlines and budgets with project sponsors. Don’t just say, “Yes, ma’am!” Stand up for your team, and make agreements that they can succeed at fulfilling. As part of the participatory planning, the team will define who is accountable for what, and they will commit to fulfill that accountability.

When people are free to make commitments, they don’t want to let the team down. And, you get their “A game.”

That’s how we tap into the collective wisdom, experience and desire to be of service from the members of the group. And that’s when projects start to be really fun and challenging. That’s when people start lining up to be on your next project because you’ve become a true leader. You can lead anything. You’ve enabled people to be successful, and that’s something people want very badly. They want to succeed, and you can help them do that.

What a great job to have!

Jason Myers

About Jason Myers

As the Editor-in-Chief of OD Innovator Magazine, Jason Myers is on a mission to help people transform their organizations into more innovative and collaborative environments. He co-developed a Crash Course in Collaborative Project Leadership to arm leaders with needed skills to drive innovation in any organization.

View all posts by Jason Myers →

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