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The difference between authority, responsibility and accountability

When designing the various management and team roles within a project, careful thought needs to be given as to each individual’s knowledge, skills and experience. You could also add to that list, their availability.

But each individual also needs to understand how they are to interact with those within the project as well as other stakeholders.

This is where the balance and definition of each individual in terms of their level of authority, what their responsibilities are, and their accountability. It is easy to get confused when determining what the differences are between these three terms, so this short article will clarify it for you:

Authority

This is defined as the ability to make binding decisions about your projects schedule, resources, activities, and products. The range of authority must also be defined.

An example here could be a maximum budget for the procurement of materials, or the allowable deviation in terms of time.

This is often referred to as tolerance, and an example might be that the individual can make changes to the schedule (as a result for example of resource constraints or product rework), of say, plus or minus two weeks without the need to escalate the decision. This precisely defines the level of authority for the individual.

Responsibility

The commitment to achieve specific results. As an example here, it might be that you are responsible to circulate a draft stage plan by a given date. As another example, you’re a responsible for finding and allocating resources to work on a particular product or package of work.

Accountability

This is defined as bringing consequences to bear in response to people’s performance. An example might be your negotiating skills resulting in an agreement in the placing of a contract, or as a more general example, acknowledging that you solved and resolved a particular problem.

It is worth noting that your accountability does not just cover you paying the consequences for mistakes, but also are that you should be rewarded for good performance. The wise manager would see that positive reinforcement is far more effective in terms of encouraging higher performance and quality results.

Another point here, is that if individuals experience is that they only get pain for negative results, this will often lead to the individual avoiding situations where they would be accountable for their performance. Some managers take the view that in order for them to stay in control of the project they resist delegating authority downwards often because they are aware of their accountability!

This can be a mistake, since delegating authority downwards may be the best thing to do because of the limits of your knowledge skills or experience. And such decisions may be best taken for example at specialist team member level.

The other problem is that if you insist on making all of the decisions, it may cause delays unless you delegate some authority. Another impact is that if you do not let anyone else make decisions, not only is it dis-empowering, it also conveys mistrust and slows development of your team members.

Authority and responsibility

It is worth clarifying that although authority and responsibility agreed before the start of your projects about who can make certain decisions and who will ensure particular results. Remember, that authority focuses on processes and responsibility focuses on outcomes.

Authority defines the decisions you can make but does not mention the results that you have to achieve, whereas responsibility addresses the results you must accomplish, but does not mention the decisions that you need to make in order to reach those results.

From this it should be obvious that you can transfer the authority to make decisions to another individual, but that you cannot transfer the responsibility for the results of those decisions.

As a final point, you can always take back authority that you gave to another individual, but you cannot blame the person for exercising their authority while they have it.