by Geof Lory

Many of the organizations I work with are developing cross-functional teams that require a level of group and personal accountability that may not have been a part of their culture under a more traditional control based team structure. Developing accountability is difficult if we have been culturally trained and conditioned conversely. It is a long row to hoe with a slow and lengthy payback period, but critical to the development of truly effective teams. Taking on this effort is no less arduous than raising children, and may take as long and cost as much, but be every bit as rewarding.

My oldest daughter Jenna, is entering her junior year in high school, and sometime between the sports, drama and schoolwork, we will be looking into colleges. It is a sobering thought for her and us that the reality of life will shortly begin to settle in, and with it will come the awesome responsibility of being accountable for her future. I remember those last high school years as my last vestige of innocence, no car, no mortgage, no bills, accountable only to myself. Not really, but that's what it felt like. It was euphoric. It also was just a phase, with a milestone called graduation.

For me, a big part of growing up is recognizing that we have to accept accountability to a larger group. As we slowly learn that we are not the center of the universe (darn!) and the uniqueness of our clothes, haircut, tattoos or body piercings are not really all that unique, just different (surprise?), we gradually conform to the norm, at least a little. I'll spare you the speeches from my right wing soap box about how "when I was a kid..." because the reality is that we all have to go through the same painful awakening of realizing the world doesn't exist for us. Fortunately, I was helped to this conclusion by my parents and a few teachers and coaches. I doubt I would have made the leap on my own.

So, what does this have to do with project management and parenthood? Accountability is at the heart of high performance teams and is essential for success in today's multi-disciplinary projects. But accountable to whom or what? To your boss, your job, the rules, your paycheck? Inquiring minds want to know.

Early in a project the first pieces of project documentation I attempt to get clarity and consensus on are the shared vision and the project structure. I try to do this because these two artifacts will help the team define their sense of accountability.

The first item, the shared vision, is larger than anyone on the team and becomes the source of motivation. It helps define the team's performance goals to which they will hold each other accountable. Without it, accountability will become fragmented and disjointed as the team members move in their individual direction. So much has been written about the necessity of a clear and elevating goal, that it seems odd to even have to mention it. Yet, it is surprising how few teams can readily articulate it.

The second item, the project structure, deals with two distinctly different but interrelated elements: the project administration and the team code of conduct, also called the Team Operating Agreement. The project administration portion is the procedural and organizational norms everyone is expected to adhere to: time and status reporting, artifact repositories, forms, processes etc. The code of conduct is a deeper and less transient set of cultural norms. They are really based on a set of shared values, which I call an internal vision.

The internal vision is that beacon of light that guides individual behavior regardless of the project or environment. It is the collection of those things we will hold ourselves accountable to. Internal vision, when shared as values on a team, becomes the set of underlying principles each team member can count on when dealing with others on the team. It removes the cloud of mis-intent and affords the unguarded and unimpeded communication that can drive the team to the shared vision.

Unfortunately, accountability generated from the internal vision cannot be mandated. It must be cultivated slowly, reinforced regularly and nurtured over time through example and sometimes making difficult and unpopular choices. Nothing has the power of developing accountability like living with the consequences of your decisions and actions. As painful as it is at the time, the learning is deep and long lasting.

Jenna's younger sister, Erika, does the laundry for both of the girls. This is an agreement they came to several years ago. Part of this arrangement was that Jenna would be sure to empty her pockets before throwing clothes in the laundry. However, if she left something in her pockets and Erika found it, Erika had the right to keep it. A fair enough agreement until severely tested.

Last month, Erika found a ring Jenna had received from her grandmother, along with a $20 bill her grandmother had given Jenna to have the ring sized, in the dryer. Finders-keepers. Actually, Erika did not like the ring and gave it to Jenna, but the $20 was hers to keep if she decided to, leaving Jenna with a ring that didn't fit. Erika was somewhat sheepish as she held her ground against Jenna's complaints, until she turned to me for some sort of judgment.

As a Dad, I wanted them to work it out themselves, preferably without violence, but didn't want to pass up this learning moment. If I made the decision for them, the result would have been mine, not theirs, and they would not have felt any accountability. I wanted to guide them to a conscious conclusion of their own design.

After I set a few ground rules to remove some of the emotion and focus the conversation, I bit my tongue. Jenna appealed to a sense of "fairness" and that it was a gift from her grandmother and therefore rightfully hers. Erika listened impatiently, then quickly rebutted. If she gave the money back, she would be telling Jenna that not only is their laundry agreement void, but that she, Erika, could not be counted on to keep her word. She would lack integrity. She had a personal obligation to hold Jenna accountable.

That is a hard one to refute. I'll have to remember that one for my next challenging team moment.

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