Individual Accountability Hurting Project Implementation?

An interesting article by Peter Cappelli today highlights the problems that arise when individuals, as opposed to teams, are tasked with implementing projects for an organization. The interesting takeaway from the article is that there is high likelihood of a project stalling in what we consider to be a “lean and efficient” system in which one person takes charge of a project. In the past, decision by committee was the way that projects were brought to life. Although slow and bulky, the process had some advantages to the current system – recommendations were rarely turned down because of the involvement of top leaders in the entire process – if they didn’t like something, they would have brought it up during an early stage. However, corporations have shifted to a different structure to help deal with some of the efficiency disadvantages the old system presented. Nowadays, it is rare to find committees who oversee entire decision-making processes. More often than not, the onus of success is placed upon an individual executive or project leader.

Not wanting to be held responsible for any hiccups or unforeseen push-back from those who may have to work on the project down the road, the individual will often seek approval and criticism from their employees before taking decisive action. Instead of taking the responsibility of the whole process and mediating unhappiness as it arises throughout the process, they will try to mitigate the unhappiness before the project has moved past its inception stage. This causes work to stall early in the process and struggle to pick up as time goes on, subsequently causing projects to remain unfinished or proceed in a sluggish manner. The desire from those being held accountable to receive adequate “buy-in” from other employees, some of whom may never have any involvement in the project, can lead to nothing getting done at all.Cappelli claims that one of his former students coined the phrase “syndicated risk” for this phenomenon. Her idea is that employees  charged with leading the project is attempting to shield themselves from criticism once the project launches. If they are able to get people to commit to the project early, then they can justify the project’s goals and mission down the line when they feel criticized, citing the number of people they had support from during the idea’s inception. Once the project leader has backing from those that are directly involved with it, they will often make sure their boss is pleased with the concept before taking initiative to begin implementation.

Is the new system of electing an individual to bear the brunt of accountability for success or failure of a project causing those projects to never leave the ground, or are there other reasons for slow implementation of project concepts? It’s hard to say for certain, but it is certainly something to look into and feel out in regards to your own organizational practices.

from Jason Hanold
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