A series of communications to help improve engineering and project management teams

Getting team members to meet team obligations and commitments when they are from different
organizational entities – such as diverse government departments, contractors, and suppliers – is not
always easy. Team leaders often hand out assignments and action items in meetings to people that don’t
report to him or her. So what happens when members offer
excuses, incomplete results, or simply don’t
meet their commitments? I’ll bet that if team members received a request for a briefing to an Admiral next
week they’d be complete, on-time, and prepared. So how do you get them to take seriously their
commitments in your team meetings? We want to get them past “Why it can’t be done” and instead say,
“What else I can do?” Without getting heavy-handed, you can deal with this problem at your team meetings
by adopting some of these suggestions:

  • Create Visibility. During all meetings, watch for what you see as accountability-avoidance behavior.
    This might mean excuses, lack of attendance, ignoring the task, finger pointing, tell-me-what-to-do
    attitudes. Call it out in a respectful manner – make it visible so that others know you take
    accountability seriously. Speak to the person directly during the meeting, or face-to-face afterward,
    or on the phone if no alternative exists. Help them see the problem, and ask, “[Name], I’m
    concerned about something and need to talk to you about it. What may be happening in your world
    that’s causing a delay in resolving [action item, issue, question, task, etc]?” This is an open-ended
    question, can’t be answered with a yes or no. Get to the root of the problem, and then give them
  • Provide Feedback. Provide the member with some coaching through feedback. This means you
    must listen as well as transmit. Listen to the response, paraphrase back the reply to be sure you’
    ve captured the reply, write it down if necessary to show you’re taking their response seriously. You
    might respond with, “I appreciate you acknowledging the shortfall, and most important, will
    appreciate it even more if you can pick up and own the problem and drive it to completion. Now
    here’s what we need” and push them into ownership. If they have a valid problem, push ownership,
    and then work them into problem solving.
  • Foster Ownership #1. In the meeting setting, make sure your requests or assignments are clear,
    well-documented, and traceable. For due dates further out than a week, include milestone or
    interim status reporting, and develop a standard for status reporting, such as a template (e.g., a
    Powerpoint quad chart format).  Be sure the assignee acknowledges the task and its expectations.
    Don’t assume they understand – ask them out loud!
  • Foster Ownership #2. Ownership of a commitment is so important it warrants two entries. Help
    them solve the barriers they face in completing their commitments, by asking them to share their
    barriers, share their ideas to get past the barriers, and work together on developing solutions
    (problem solving below). If necessary, bring an outsider to facilitate or coach them. Ideally, you
    want to get everyone on the team asking themselves “What else can I do?” to reflect genuine
    ownership of their commitments. Once they reach that level of ownership, your accountability
    problems will be greatly reduced.
  • Drive Attendance. It’s harder to ensure task ownership when people aren’t at the meeting. If you’ve
    got an attendance problem, which I’ll say means less than 80% of full team members are in
    attendance at any given meeting, then tackle it first by tracking attendance and reporting on it at the
    start of each meeting, reflecting it in meeting minutes, and showing that it’s a priority to you as the
    leader. You’ll need to be clear and firm regarding your expectations for attendance, and of course,
    set a good example.
  • Leverage Peers. If you think you might be overwhelming or intimidating a member, ask someone
    else on your team that you trust and that you believe is respected by other to ask questions during
    your team meeting. Have them ask the tough questions like “What’s getting in the way of closing
    this action?”, or “What can any of the rest of us do to help you?” The influence of another party, a
    respected peer, can work wonders on someone who takes pride in themselves and their work. If
    you can create a team culture where the members hold themselves individually and collectively
    accountable, and you’re not the only one trying to do so, then you’ve got a legitimate team that you
    can be proud of!
  • Problem Solving. Ask them, “Okay, I’m here to help you in whatever way I am able to. What else can
    be done to help you?” Here you should listen, take notes, encourage more response from them,
    and decide to either give them some immediate response, or take notes and summarize back to
    them, and utilize some creative problem solving techniques. Help them, but be careful that you don’
    t unilaterally take on the full load of the problem unless you’re genuinely ready to own it yourself.

Ensuring accountability feels easy when you have positional power and personnel authority, but not so
easy to create in a multi-organizational team culture.  Don’t go overboard with these tactics; be firm but
prepared to listen and see the other person’s viewpoints and issues. The open forum of a meeting should
be a place to be proud of your work and be accountable to your team – leverage that power to promote
accountability that works!

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Tool #3 - Beyond excuses: meetings to help promote Accountability