Shared accountability is weak accountability.

If your goal is to establish a weighty sense of obligation to get a project from conception to delivery, shared accountability is your nemesis. Shared accountability diffuses responsibility, complicates planning, and enables blame. Two heads are not, in this case, better than one.

So, why do so many managers delegate assignments to two or more people without assigning a single owner? Why do we hear managers say, “ok, you two figure that out?” Why do we see spreadsheets with two names in the owner cell? Why do we overhear people unsure who to look to for key decisions on a project?

I’ll try to answer my own questions. Why? Because many projects don’t have an apparent single owner, managers don’t feel they have options other than spreading accountability.

If you’ve got tasks where you’re tempted to assign shared accountability, here are three alternative models you can try to restore a single owner and avoid the pitfalls of shared accountability.

Assigning Accountability

‘Which accountability model you choose depends on the scenario and the reasons why assigning a single owner is difficult in the first place. Here, I’ll give you three options. With each, I’ll spell out the implications on you as the manager and give you some coachable moments to watch for. Let’s dive in!

Divide and Conquer

In cases where completing the task requires completely different systems, skills, or sensibilities, the next best thing is to divide the project in two based on the nature of the work. That way, you avoid shared accountability by assigning a single accountable person for each component of the task.

Example: If you’re assigning someone to lead the sales pitch to woo a valuable potential customer, you might delegate ownership of the content and pricing to one person while assigning the look, feel, and delivery of the presentation to another.

Manager’s Role in Divide and Conquer

When you use a divide-and-conquer strategy, you’ll need to retain accountability for integrating the two parts. It will fall on you to ensure that the content and the look and feel are cohesive and complementary by spending time with both parties upfront to envision what’s possible and then ensuring they connect along the way.

Coachable Moments

The risk with dividing the accountability is that each party sees and cares about only their project component, sub-optimizing the whole. Watch for unwillingness on the part of either owner to incorporate the expertise, ideas, or critiques of the other owner into their own efforts.

Pass the Baton

Divide and conquer makes sense when you don’t feel comfortable assigning a single owner because there are two distinct components of a task. In other situations, your inability to assign a single owner is based on the shifting requirements of a good leader at different phases of the project. In this case, you can assign one owner for the first phase of a project and another for the next stage.

Example: If you’re initiating a new budgeting process, you might want someone with intimate knowledge of your financial systems and a whiz-bang understanding of how the data need to be used to lead the design phase. Once the process is built, you might lean toward someone with a robust change management sensibility and skill in managing a complex roll-out to take over. In that case, you can divide the project into design and delivery and transition the ownership in the middle.

Manager’s Role in Pass the Baton

Without a single owner throughout the entire process, the risk is that there will be something lost in the handoff. Your role is to ensure that the leaders manage with the whole process in mind and that everything is preserved in the transition.

Coachable Moments

The risk with dividing the accountability is that each party optimizes for their phase in a way that compromises the project overall. For example, watch for the design owner being dismissive of the implementation implications of their decisions. Similarly, watch for the implementation owner taking expedient shortcuts for roll-out but threatening the system’s integrity.

Escalate if Necessary

Another scenario is where you authorize a single person to make the decisions on a project but allow a select group of people to escalate the decision if they deem it necessary. Allowing escalation is a common and valuable framework for decisions that have legal or regulatory ramifications.

Example: Your marketing team is looking for new lead generation software. It’s logical for the person in marketing to have accountability for selecting and implementing the new tool. But one of the key stakeholders in the decision is someone from IT security. Now imagine a scenario where the front-running software application has significant security risks. If the marketing person listens to the risks and decides to proceed anyway, you might end up in a precarious situation that could pose material risks to your business. In that case, you might have a provision for the security person to escalate the decision to you.

Manager’s Role in Escalate if Necessary

With escalation privileges, your role is to be the arbiter of whether the risks are material enough to override the decision made by the accountable person. You’ll need to determine whether the risk is a deal-breaker, and therefore the lead will need to abandon their preferred path or whether there are accommodations that would allow the project to proceed.

Coachable Moments

The risk with allowing parties to escalate is that they abuse that privilege and escalate rather than pleading their case effectively to the decision owner. Watch for lazy or rigid behavior on the part of those with escalation privileges. Also, watch for poor judgment on the part of the decision owners and clarify your expectations about how they address material risks.

Fostering accountability is critical to high-performance teams. Unfortunately, managers focused on accountability can sometimes think that having more people accountable will increase the sense of accountability when it often erodes it. If there is no tenable way to assign a single owner for the whole project, try one of these approaches instead.

More on This: Accountability Miniseries

Most organizations emphasize accountability because it’s so important to driving results. Unfortunately, our notions of accountability and how to foster it are often misguided. This series delves deep into accountability from the perspective of an individual contributor who wants to demonstrate that they’re accountable and of a manager who wants to bolster accountability on their team.

Additional Resources

Video: We NEED to Change the Way We Talk About Accountability

How to Show That You’re Accountable

Being Accountable When You Don’t Have Control

From Harvard Business Review: How to Hold Your Team Accountable with Compassion Not Fear