The Value of the Single Neck to Choke

By: Alec Talan


“Who’s to blame for this $#%!up?”

The director stomps around the office, looking for someone to own the failure that has gotten the project off course. Everyone cowers at their desks, not wanting to maintain eye contact, lest the blame lands on them.

We’ve become a defensive finger-pointing society. We look for excuses to problems, and often, especially in project management, that wastes precious time.

What I have seen work infinitely better is leaning into responsibility and cultivating a culture of accountability within your project team. One key strategy that increases your chances of success is to have, for every separate work domain assigning an end-to-end domain owner, what I call the “single neck to choke.” This is the one person responsible and accountable for everything in that given domain, for better or worse. The buck stops there.

The Invisible Man

I was on an end-to-end supply chain transformation project, serving as a sort of “chief of staff” to the director of the project. Things were unraveling and it was my job to get the project back on track. In a status check meeting with 16 various data workstream leads, I asked my favorite question, “Who is the one person that can tell me the overall state of data on this project?”

Crickets.

Finally, one gentleman cleared his throat. “Well, Alec, there’s a fundamental flaw in your question. You assume such a person exists.”

While there were over a dozen leads for the various components involved in all things data, no one was responsible for the entirety of the data work effort. Instead, there were lots of chiefs for lots of little parts. And the very same story played out across the other technical and business work threads. There was no single unification lead for each domain to ultimately own the overall status. So despite hundreds of people giving it their all, the project was behind and bleeding money. 

I walked out of that meeting and straight to the director, and we got an end-to-end data owner up and running immediately, and within weeks additional end-to-end owners across the Solution, Business, and Technical teams to bring clarity of accountability and, just as importantly, clear visibility to what was happening in each of the domains. That project ultimately turned around to become a wild success and a jumpboard for many people in their careers. 

The magic sauce was having those ‘single necks to choke’ — the unambiguous owners for each domain to drive decision-making, and yes, to ensure clear accountability for the good and the bad.

Who’s Your Neck?

Project governance scales with the size of your footprint. If you have a couple hundred people on a project, your primary decision box is probably 3 people, with the extended PMO being another 3-6. Any more and you get death by committee, any fewer and you exhaust your leadership team. The PMO leaders for IT, Business, Vendors, and Compliance are frequently as busy, if not more, managing up and protecting the project from external factors as they are keeping track of the delivery teams. They simply lack the ability to deep dive into the tactical daily work. While the project leader will ultimately be accountable to the organization, they in turn need a mechanism for information to effectively flow up.

So who should the single neck to choke belong to for integrating all of the work by the various teams?

At the very top of integrating all work efforts, it should belong to the author of your integrated plan, who is by that nature, part of the PMO. This is the person who knows the plan inside and out. They look at it daily and have it internalized. 

It’s this person that should have their hand in every aspect of the project. This person should be the connection between the teams and the PMO. If there’s a question about status, they have the answer. It is important to note that I’m not talking about a project plan jockey or coordinator who simply punches the percent update daily. The Integrated Plan Owner is a multi-disciplinary expert who is able to talk shop with all teams on the project, be able to tell apart good from bad, and understand the interdependencies from the various workstreams. If you don’t have one,  you should think about getting this role staffed; it’s that impactful. 

After that, the name of the game is concentric circles of end-to-end owners of each pillar of accountability with clear demarcation and funnel boundaries. At each of the circles, every owner is responsible and accountable for everything below them; they are the single neck to choke for their direct reports, and so on. Without this direct line-of-sight concept, there’s the opportunity for a lot of responsibility to fall through the cracks and the whole matter devolves into a forest of finger-pointing.

But with one connecting point for each domain—that single neck—the entire project comes together under one umbrella. There are now points of accountability with no missing areas. That makes leadership happy. That makes decision making and driving outcomes possible.

Your project leader doesn’t have the luxury of being a detective to get to the bottom of what’s wrong on every single work thread. They need a circle of reliable reports around them so that they know what’s happening in each domain at all times. This is because, in this model, that project leader is, in turn, the single neck that is responsible and accountable for everything on the project. Whether things go good or bad, that person is the one who owns the result. A courageous leader like that deserves a reliable team with clear operating guidelines to enable your collective success.