The old saying that the fish rots from the head provides a good analogy for why a culture of accountability is so important in project delivery.

If ever there was a year for applying a laser-like lens to culture, 2020 has certainly given a lot of us pause for thought about the people we lead. It’s a year that has brought with it a lot of necessary change as we adapt, however it has also brought greater scrutiny on the outcomes that need to be delivered.

Few things bring teams together – or tear them apart – such as the significant pressures of the times we have all found ourselves in. You’d be forgiven for thinking that accountability has taken a backseat in some circles (and we don’t need to point too hard at recent outcomes both in Australia and elsewhere), but it is an integral part of success and an opportunity to learn from failures.

From a project delivery perspective, we’ve long contended that the fish rots from the head and that governance is a critical part of ensuring that lessons from success and failures inform how well our teams can deliver.

So how do we ensure as project practitioners that accountability and governance assume their rightful place?

The Quality of Governance Dictates the Outcomes

As organisations revisit the investment slate for their businesses and determine which projects to continue or pause, one trend we continue to see is the tension between BAU and the necessity of adopting a project mindset to deliver change into business.

In many respects, we see so-called transformation projects delivering the sort of change that is more akin to BAU upgrades as organisations move to adopt agile as a method of delivering that change and for some, it’s been incredibly successful. For others, it’s been deeply challenging as teams grapple with a shift in the oversight of projects from a centralised model to a more dispersed set of teams.

The challenge then is ensuring that there are layers of accountability and appropriate governance in the mix.

As Quay co-founder, Rod Adams, says: “Governance for a project will ultimately dictate the quality of the outcomes. It doesn’t matter what type of change you are trying to drive if you don’t have the right governance … or you have the right governance but you don’t have the right people involved that respect governance, you’re rolling the dice around a lot of your outcomes.”

“Accountability isn’t just for Christmas. It needs to be real and if you’re identified as accountable for an outcome, you need to take it seriously.”

Accountability is a Multi-Player Role

It’s a well-worn project mantra, however, the purpose of governance is to ensure that focus remains on the outcomes and that those outcomes are played back against the business case to keep projects on track for successful delivery.

Accountability is a multi-layered responsibility within a project from the executive through to the delivery teams. The culture that surrounds each layer provides a critical and significant influence on how effective governance can be.

Culture doesn’t dictate how governance is established and or what type of governance is required, but it does have a vital role to play in whether people accept accountability for their role or decisions and whether they’ll step up when things do go wrong.

It’s not just toxic cultures that scupper project success.

Toxic environments are a well-known phenomenon in repeated project failures because they foster blame culture and a ‘heads will roll’ attitude, however, the so-called ‘good news’ culture can be as equally devastating to the outcomes of a project by fostering a hands-off approach to accountability.

A good news culture takes governance out from behind the knees by not providing the exec or other decision makers with relevant information that will aid their ability to make the right decisions at the right time. It can also foster an ‘I didn’t know’ escape chute from accountability.   We have seen examples of this from the Royal Commission: “I wasn’t told” is no longer an out for accountability.

When an organisation has a culture of only good news, it can permeate through all of the layers of accountability. If teams experience punitive responses to flagging or sharing bad news or concerns, they are far less likely to continue to raise issues that could prove, at best, to be detrimental to the project and the business. At worst, it could prove a very expensive problem to fix or result in the project failing.

As Rod explains: “The ‘I-didn’t-know’ defence has been all too pervasive in many project failures and it’s a hollow defence – there are many forums to seek information about how a project is really going and if you’re tasked with that accountability, the onus is on you to find out what is really going on and demonstrate what accountability looks like from a leadership perspective.”

The benefit of getting the bad news along with the good is that it empowers those accountable and enables organisations to fix problems as they arise and head risks or significant issues off at the pass.

“Bad news doesn’t get better with age, “he says. “It’s just kicking the issue down the road for someone else to clean up. Unfortunately, the not so good operators will often fight tooth and nail to stop bad news from being delivered.”

“It’s a sweeping generalisation as there will often be pockets in good news cultures that are trying to push back against it. However good operators will only try to fight the good fight for so long. If they see accountability continually go by the wayside in favour of only sending good news forward, they are likely to leave, especially if they are being regularly criticised even though the issues they are raising need to be solved to deliver the project successfully.”

Ultimately, the executive within the governance structure need to be able to trust that the project teams are delivering information they can act on. The delivery teams need to be able to trust that they can deliver information – good or bad – and not get hung out to dry.

As Rod says, “Cultivating trust works in both directions, but that’s hard to do in a good news culture. It’s worthy of the good fight if leadership can show that relevant news is valued and actioned.”

To hear more about governance and issues with a good news culture, have a listen to our latest Quay Conversation.

As project specialists, we develop fit-for-purpose strategy and project assurance.  Contact us here to find out more about how we work with your teams or call 02 9098 6300.

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Quay Consulting is a professional services business specialising in the project landscape, transforming strategy into fit-for-purpose delivery. Meet our team ...