Systems projects take place over many years, pass through many stages of development and progress, and draw together team members whose level of investment can vary significantly. Given all of this, issues with accountability are not unusual. To maintain momentum and follow-through, hold regular meetings to assess progress and set target dates for achieving objectives. Commitments made to colleagues in a face-to-face meeting can go a long way toward motivating people to complete tasks on time. Assure that expenditures are matched by progress; this is key to ensuring that collaborators meet their objectives in a timely manner.
Problems with follow-through most often occur when a collaborator does not receive any funding to support his or her involvement in the project. Despite the best intentions, it is almost impossible to guarantee completion of a task for which there is no funding. Besides considerations of basic fairness, collaborators who receive funding tend to feel more ownership toward the project and to have more at stake in a successful outcome. Nonacademic collaborators usually do not have alternate sources of salary support, so funding is directly related to accountability for these team members. If the grant was not structured such that funding matches expected outcomes, the only recourse for ensuring follow-though is persuasion and peer pressure, which can be a shaky proposition. Issues of accountability are less common when collaborators are funded, but they do occur and are often a result of changes in circumstances between the proposal writing and funding stages.
When issues arise due to lack of follow-through, have the project leader respond swiftly by meeting one-on-one with the individual who is not fulfilling his or her commitments. Use this meeting as an opportunity to find out why the work is not progressing, and focus the conversation on problem solving. If the problem cannot be resolved quickly, it may be best for the project and everyone involved if the individual withdraws from the project. In that case, engage another collaborator to carry out the work while sufficient time and resources remain. To create an environment that fosters accountability:
- Develop a well-defined decision-making process and maintain a collegial environment.
- Develop timelines with target dates for specific outcomes.
- Hold regular meetings that include brief progress reports; assign action steps and agree on when commitments should be completed.
- Conduct interim assessments to see that expenditures coincide with expected progress. This may be especially important for nonacademic collaborators who rely on the grant for salary to carry out the planned activities.
- Adjust the timeline when targets are missed.
- Check in with individuals who delay progress to make sure they will meet the revised deadline.
- Delegate responsibility for monitoring progress to several individuals to help the team stay on task.
From the funder’s perspective, the responsibility for carrying out a successful project usually lies with the team leader (project director or principle investigator) and his or her organization. This person is generally required to sign off on invoices, including those from subcontracts, so he or she can refuse to sign invoices if repeated efforts have failed to get a collaborator to follow through on commitments. Take this extreme measure only after all other approaches have failed, and consider bringing in a mediator or qualified person from the grants and contracts office to assist in resolving the situation.