It took me some time into my project management career to realize, and logically accept the fact, that within the project management domain one has to have clear appreciation of the distinction between accountability and responsibility.

The fundamental point this discussion is attempting to address is the question of “when and where does the buck stop?”

And more specifically, should any issues arise during the course of a project delivery, is it the project manager who is by default the one who needs to pay the ultimate price for the failure or is this issue a bit more complicated than that?

Refer to our post, "What is a Project Manager?" for some insight into what this role should include.

Let’s examine the following simple scenario:

You manage a large integration project involving 10 different technology groups. Clearly you can’t be intimately familiar and hands-on with each and every aspect of the integration process.

Obviously, like many other project managers you heroically claim that everything that happens in your project is your responsibility, but is this really the case?

Is there a point at which things might happen under your watch for which you could not and would not take the responsibility?

The Difference Between Accountability and Responsibility

So, what is the difference between accountability and responsibility?

A literature search highlights the fact that there doesn’t seem to be clear and unanimous definitions for each of these terms. In fact, a cursory look at clearly demonstrates the confusion where the definition for accountability is explained also in terms of responsibility, and vice versa.

In The Oz Principle: Getting Results Through Individual and Organizational Accountability, the authors suggest that:

Responsibility may be bestowed, but accountability must be taken. In other words, responsibility can be given or received, even assumed, but that doesn’t automatically guarantee that personal accountability will be taken. Which means that it’s possible to bear responsibility for something or someone but still lack accountability."

With that interpretation in mind it could be inferred that every person on the project team could be responsible (by assignment) but his or her accountability is dependent on their level of commitment and acceptance of such accountability.

I’m not happy with this definition as it makes things a bit loose. Can project managers get a "get out of jail card" based on the argument that their team did not exercise their right to accept accountability? Doesn’t seem right to me so we need to dig a bit further.

Does Accountability Live at the Top of an Organization?

A good summary document by Michael L Smith and James Erwin, titled “Role & Responsibility Charting (RACI)” provides the breakthrough I was looking for.

The authors make the following excellent observation:

Managers and supervisors are not accountable for everything in their organization. Responsibility charting ensures accountability is placed with the person who really can be accountable for specific work.

Often this results in accountabilities for actions being moved down to the most appropriate level.

This is an important point. Accountability does not necessarily live at the very top but rather it is positioned at the most appropriate level, with the person who can be accountable for the work.

The Ultimate Definitions

The authors provide further elaboration on the definitions of responsible and accountable, as follows:

The accountable person is the individual who is ultimately answerable for the activity or decision. This includes “yes” or “no” authority and veto power. Only one accountable person can be assigned to an action.

The responsible person is the individual(s) who actually complete the task. The responsible person is responsible for action/implementation. Responsibility can be shared. The degree of responsibility is determined by the individual with the “accountability."

The above definitions provide a much greater level of clarity and are easy to understand within a project environment. But casting our mind back to the scenario provided earlier in this post, would we now be in a better position to ascertain whose fault it is should the project fail to deliver?

Clear determination of the project's roles and responsibilities (by publishing a detailed RACI chart) can go a long way towards eliminating any ambiguities and misunderstandings.

An up-front determination of accountabilities and responsibilities is just the beginning, and this needs to be followed by a clear communication and acceptance of these roles and responsibilities by the assignees.

Blame games and apportioning of faults can only thrive in an environment where it has never been clear who is responsible and who is accountable. If these are not properly communicated there’s a good chance it is you, the project manager, who will be asked to respond to the “please explain” note from the project sponsor.

Think about it!

Shim Marom

Shim Marom

Shim Marom is the author of His blog is an attempt to look at the domain of project management from unorthodox and unconventional perspectives, utilizing the latest in science, art, and philosophy to examine and explain assumptions and methods widely used within the project management profession.

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