Role charters ensure everyone knows where they stand on accountabilities, say Graham Rich and James Kent.

Reforms in a time of austerity leave most NHS organisations with no shortage of initiatives, and when the focus is on improving efficiency and quality, delays cost money. In our work with NHS organisations we see the major challenge is less about determining what needs to get done and more about how to organise to deliver.

A typical scenario is to find plans in place that cover many of the project management basics such as targets and timelines. But time and again these plans slip due to a set of well-worn reasons (or excuses); the team members have multiple other priorities, there is little time for work between meetings, and monthly “tracking” meetings designed to “force” the pace have limited effect. 

Meanwhile, the project team loses its nerve and delegates decisions upwards to the executive team, which feels overwhelmed or dismayed by the volume of tasks, and will duly engage either inadequately or by micromanaging. And so a vicious circle is created.

This scenario can often be traced back to one identifiable root cause: lack of clear accountability. This is a surprising finding, given the NHS’s abundance of organograms, job descriptions and cascading of objectives. But an even more surprising finding is that management is often all too aware of the accountability problem, and yet still expects that the project will deliver on time and successfully. The trouble is that many projects have to be conducted in an unfamiliar managerial space, with the team being drawn from many different areas or even organisations when tackling cross-organisational or cross-health-economy issues. In this space the traditional organogram does not determine lines of accountability or the landscape of decision rights; these have to be defined.

To deliver the requisite efficiencies and quality improvements required, executive teams urgently need to change their approach and stop teams drifting in a fog of imprecise accountability.

Clear articulation

One quick and effective technique which is often overlooked is the use of role charters. These consist of one-page documents specifying individual accountabilities, shared accountabilities, and decision rights (divided into decisions where an individual has “ownership” or “influence only” or “right of veto”).  

In addition, role charters can list expected leadership behaviours as well as legal and other project context. It is important to articulate the role charters for all those involved with leading the programme or set of projects including the team leaders, any programme leaders, steering committees, any sponsors as well as the executive teams.   

Role charters are often drawn up in conjunction with project charters, which describe goals, scope, deliverables, team structure, timelines, interdependencies, and so on. In combination, these two documents have proved to be a powerful means of aligning teams and individuals around both what needs to be done and how decisions will be taken.

Creating a robust role charter involves more than just filling in a template, however. There are three main requirements. First, articulate the accountabilities clearly – define exactly who is accountable for delivering what to whom. That is not always so straightforward and it goes against the grain of the more consensus-oriented NHS culture. In particular, it forces clarity on the accountabilities and decision rights of senior managers, who can often be the bosses of team members in their “day jobs” yet have a different project role.

Second, after devising the role charters invest the time to talk through them. It will give team leaders an early introduction to the chain of command of the project, and the chance to discuss any support they might need and how to collaborate on any shared accountabilities.

Third, once the charters are finalised, send copies to everyone across the programme.

Implemented well, role charters provide more than just clarity. They can also offer second order benefits: greater confidence for project managers; individuals focus their efforts more sharply on their areas of accountability and reduce their fragmentation; higher levels of trust develop between management tiers; upward delegation occurs much less frequently. Instead of the old vicious circle, a new energising virtuous circle of productivity gets under way. 

So next time you attend a project or programme meeting and are listening to the reasons for slippage, why not propose a role charter? The investment is just a few hours, and the payback could be huge. In delivering projects, one of the best ways of cutting costs is by cutting delays.