Living without free will

Biology, behaviourism, control

v | b | t

This is a completely different argument of how behaviour can be addressed. It sits in conflict to the ordering of cause and effect I have reflected upon elsewhere. Visibility of this difference an important part of future assessment needs. As an address of behaviour however, it has the same central premise of control at its core.

Whether we trust in free will, society, the individual or the collective, we will have more trust in each other if we share visibility and control regimes of our behaviour that are intended to protect us all.

I have visited two purveyors of alternative perspective on this over the last few days. One I will now be visiting regularly. The other, not so much. Here are my working notes on both. I conclude with some additional observations, which set up additional research intentions and connect these ideas to wider sentiments I have introduced in other blogs.


Professor Robert M Sapolsky

Professor of Biology, Neurology & Neurosurgery at Stanford University. In reporting upon Robert Sapolsky’s award for Distinguished Scientific contribution, American Psychologist wrote:

For connecting behavior with the neurobiology of stress through pioneering studies on baboons in Kenya and rats in the laboratory, which has opened the way for understanding how the cumulative burden of stress over the life course can accelerate brain aging and predispose an organism to systemic disease. Robert M. Sapolsky’s work has also revealed the synergy among glucocorticoid hormones, excitatory amino acids in the brain, and glucose availability in causing neuronal damage after stroke and seizures. A remarkably lucid and entertaining writer and speaker, in his essays and lectures Sapolsky reminds us of human foibles and illuminates how the social environment and individual personality influence physiology and brain function

America Psychologist November 2013, pp613

This same piece concludes with an outline of his commitment to communicating about neuroscience and its social implications to the lay public (ibid pp615). A quick check on YouTube will confirm his following is significant and his viewership consistently over 500,000 views.

A compelling argument towards the complexity of behaviour is presented in “The biology of humans at our best and worst“. The example scenario used in several lectures, TEDtalks, and podcast interviews is that of a male firing a weapon at a perpetrator who was possibly wielding a firearm but which turns out to be a ‘phone. He asks why did that behaviour occur? And presents the following multi-modal reasoning of contributing factors. The point being all of these modal perspective offer biologically relatable cause in time frames that become evolutionarily long.

1. one second before : what went on in his brain. Amydala activity indicates negative response or action potential is emergent.

2. minutes before : what environmental stimuli influenced his brain. Factors such as smell are considered influencing upon action.

3. hours before : what hormone sensitised him to those stimuli? Testosterone levels can increase the challenge defence response.

4. weeks before : what experiences (e.g. sustained stress) had reshaped his brain to determine how the more immediate forces would be received? Trauma will encourage the physical expansion of the amygdala months prior.

5. from adolescence : how did life experiences (pre-25 year old) impact the immature frontal cortex and shape the adult he became? Numerous external factors contribute to relative maturity and development of the frontal cortex (which is what determines our socialisation abilities)

6. from fetal life and childhood : how did early life experiences cause lifelong change in brain function and influence dormant gene expression? Prenatal stress hormone level have a determining factor from mother to fetal development.

7. from moment of conception : what genes were coded to determine hormone and neurotransmitter response? What variant MAO-alpha gene was inherited.

8. decades to millennia before : how did cultural and social environment come to define life norms, and by what ecological factors did this become the case? Is the cultural norm one of honour and revenge?

9. Millenia : Through gene selections and wider specie development, how did these behaviours evolve? Highly sexually dimorphic behaviours.

Robert Sapolsky “the biology of humans at our best and worst

At best therefore, Sapolsky argues the causation of behaviour is complex. Across these multi-facetted and time relative perspectives it is this collective of contributions that become the causal factors.

No free will

In a 2020 interview he again refers to these layers of influence toward a behavioural response. They all become one factor. We can be changed by circumstance. We cannot change ourselves. There is no free will. There is no first neurone firing that begins an action, there is always preceding event.

But that does not deny the potential for change

In a very recent interview on the Huberman Lab podcast, 30th August 2021, Sapolsky talks at length about stress, dispels some myths about hormone interactions, and then addresses free will. We can know to know, he says deep into the interview (01:21:08). Change is possible of our mechanical systems, and finding means to build on this framework change, so responses are different. We remain our biology but striving to be better by knowing more means to mechanical change and it’s possibility. Learning that learning changes the brain, that in itself is the knowledge of knowledge becomes the tool of change. Just as protocols or pills are.

No free will, but still reason to seek exposures to externalities that effective change. What I conclude from this is that even if it is only the manner of natural environment that regulates such response – this is still reason enough to be focused upon the betterment of controls.

Before I evaluate this further, I digested one other book this week in search of how behaviour can be measured or controlled. The idea of contingency as cause, sits in this same agentless view of our interactions with the world.

Professor Stephen L Ledoux

“What causes human behavior – stars, self, or contingency” 2018

This recent book is an uncompromising argument as to why behaviourism, or more correctly behaviorology, should be preferred to psychology. The premise being that star sign and psychological addressing of behaviour by any form of agency of self are both little more than mysticism.

By example:-

mysticism – as in untestable or unmeasurable – behaviour – directing agents

Stephen L Ledoux “what causes human behaviour – stars, selves, or contingency?” 2018 pp xvii

In seeking the most contemporary examples of behaviouristic method, this book offers some assistance in this regard and helps contextualise behaviourism more broadly.

Historical context of behaviourism :-

John Watson 1913 denying any private experience is real. BF Skinner from 1930s to 1980s and bringing along “radical” behaviourism and his 1963 paper – celebrating 50 years of behaviourism. To which Professor Ledoux sought fit to compliment with a 100 year version in 2013. It is Skinner inspired Operant Behaviorism (i.e. stimulus evoked response) which is the basis of method presented at some leisure in this book.

There is also some comment on preceding “inadequate” behaviourism dealt with from pp15. Noting early behaviourist denying private (meaning inner) experience completely. To which it is argued Skinner solved in 1963 by arguing we need not preside over the skin as an interface to the evaluative process. Page 16 has physiology claimed as an ally of behaviourism. Emotions nothing more than chemical changes in the body to which in turn result in a feeling in response. Psychology by comparison is not afforded any such ally, I was a little disappointed therefore that the significant interface it now shares with neuroscience was not offered, even passing observation. My own MSc course is closely aligned with both.

The key notes I have taken from this book, I summarise below. There is reason to return to it, and these notes will prompt any such return.

  • pp30 and pp50 Parsimony – the simplest explanation is generally the most likely true
  • Pp37 in essence the argument is simply A to B to C. Antecedent to behaviour to consequence.
  • Pp38 antecedents as IV and most often one of multiple stimuli of which one or several may have contingent cause as the antecedent(s)
  • Pp39 behaviour is termed response in specific circumstances
  • Pp40 consequence being the varied operant effect becoming chapter addresses of the later book.
  • Pp41 C can also be reinforcing stimuli (SR)
  • Pp43 1987 TAEB The experimental analysis of behaviour
  • Pp63 what is NOT behaviour. Growth or decay; traits;
  • Pp76 bodily functions as stimuli; Pp77 emotional arousal as physiological stimuli
  • Pp85 controls as part of the environment. Behaviour control environment
  • Pp85 law of cumulative complexity
  • Pp86 responses are put in to classes (response class) where the regulatory of a response class may be measured her time e.g. dishwashing x times in 7 days.
  • Pp87. Behaviour classes are : motor behaviour (movements)
  • Pp88 emotional behaviour as glands stimuli for example
  • Pp89 functional classification – respondent behaviour (Pavlov); operant behaviour (Skinner)
  • Pp92 natural law controls ALL behaviour
  • Pp120 diagram of multiple contingent for reflexive; Pp121 non-reflexive; Pp123 generalisation – in conditioning; pp124 stimulus generalising; Pp126 evocation – evocation training – SR feeds energy back to nervous system and evokes us to respond differently
  • Pp129 function altering stimuli; Pp133 covert neural behaviour cf Fraley 2008; Pp141 positive or negative same as reinforcing or punishing postcedents; Pp151 types of reinforcer; Pp153 extinction of respondent when no longer able to elicits response; Pp169 shaping; Pp179 chaining; Pp191 fading procedure; Pp199 schedules of reinforcement; Pp217 assertive controls and 8 coercion traps; Pp273 overt and covert; Pp279 passivity

I now want to briefly reflect upon a confrontational tone of argument in this book. One hard to reconcile as coming from the academic class.

These next notes are prepared to support discussion within my MSc tutorials. We are mid-debate regarding the place of disciplinary dialogue and range of arguments that must be understood if the various arms of psychology, social psychology, cognitive psychology, biology, neuroscience, and wider behavioural sciences are to be understood. The sustained attack by this author is thereby captured below for representation with my fellow students. Here are some quotes reflecting the uncompromising dismissive attitude directed at psychology.

we consider Skinner’s radical behaviorism, the philosophy that extends naturalism to inform the natural science of behavior that today we call behaviorology, after its separation from the non-natural, fundamentally mystical discipline that defines itself as studying “behavior and the mind”, (pp7)

the relation between behaviorology and psychology approximates the relation between biology and creationism (pp9)

but if natural scientists instead compromise by allowing claims that behavior in general … results from the spontaneous, willful act of some putative inner agent, then they lose the whole subject matter of human behavior – a subject matter whose application is likely vital for human survival – to purveyors of non-science (pp10)

with these processes, or sub parts, like id, ego, motive, choice, or trait, we cannot trace the behaviorological, physiological, chemical, or physical links of a natural functional history chain; we can only trace the causal chain back to the supposed spontaneous wilful act of the self agent. This breaks the chain of events in the natural functional history and so further excludes psychological analysis from natural science (pp11)

no capricious inner agent makes responses occur (pp17)

with much scientific activity involving methods, anyone using scientific procedures, even mystical people, can objectively collect data on any real phenomenon (pp19)

the general result of this development [1987 split of behaviorolgy as a separate discipline] is a foundation natural science related to all other natural sciences, not at the discredited level of body-directing self-agents, but at the level of a body’s physics based interactions with the external and internal environments (pp19)

some disciplines studying behaviour fall for overly complex accounts (e.g. minds, psyche, selves, souls, or many other types of putative behavior-initiating self-agents), (pp32)

[of agentialism] as a result psychology began as a non-natural discipline, and remains so today, (pp43)

it [psychology] even defined itself as “the study of behavior and the mind”, as it stuck to its secular (i.e., non-theological) version of mysticism. (pp43)

…”the demon-haunted world” Carl Sagan (1995) referred to science as “a candle in the dark”. We must turn that candle into a floodlight exposing the whole variety of unhelpful accounts for behavior while illuminating the helpful accounts for natural behavior science, and thereby support the tole of this science in helping solve local and global problems.. (pp50)

as science expanded, the fictional accounts for most phenomena have retreated. Today, fictional accounts generally still thrive only with respect to human nature and human behavior (pp51)

many scientific and other authors would welcome linguistic changes that allow them to write without automatically implying inner agents (pp52)

Stephen L Ledoux “what causes human behaviour – stars, selves, or contingency?” 2018

The most telling lesson in behaviour I take from this book is to retain a level of respect and dignity in academic writing, and at least have the good grace to keep current with arguments opposed to ones own. My reading of the likes of Robert Sapolsky suggest this more constructive dialogue approach to advancing subject matter still sits alive and well.


Additional observations to build upon in due course

Two quite separate sets of thought are racing since Robert Sapolsky reframed the more biological-neuroscientist perspective on human decision-making.

Firstly that we have little if anything to do with the immediate decision-making process beyond having ownership of the biology we contain;

Second, that what do have is ability, and perhaps therein a responsibility, to be putting ourselves into the path of passing circumstance that offers better versions of those parts in us that effect wider event.

By Robert Sapolsky’s own admissions it is hard to reconcile with the second part. The second part being how we live without free will. How are we to remain morally governed or even inclined if we have no directive part in the play? How can we remain accountable for our actions and inactions. Why bother to give thought to anything at all? That is, however, to assume there is also pre-destiny. And of that I remain unconvinced. Nor is it, in my opinion, where Sapolsky’s account is directed.

How is this related to projects | within projects?

Modelling of complexity

Robert Sapolsky is presenting the challenges of addressing numerous levels of systems. Biological systems with huge complexity. Therein the realities of influence that relate to distance. The more layers one must pass through, the less influence we can expect to have. In the Limbic System he argues (lecture 14 of his 2010-2011 Human Behavioural Biology series), that this is measured in the number of synapse a message must cross through. In the world of construction projects I equate this to the commercial contracts across a supply chain. The more layers there are, the less influence the employer has over the lowest sitting links. The solution in both cases is creating extra pathways to override, intercept, or simply have visibility of interventions from elsewhere.

Sapolsky also reflects upon prior history as effecting current action potential. This is much the same as the history of our supply routes, cultural ties, beliefs, laws, customs, and propensity to revisit old wars. Much the same as within one organisation it is only in understanding the history of takeovers, mergers, successful relationships with clients and suppliers, shared relationships or long-standing feuds, that one can begin to better understand why the infrastructure of that business works in suboptimal or counter-intuitive ways. Furthermore, just as evolution is quick to punish outdated modes of being, so too does economics and cash-flow quickly reward those frameworks of processes finding work arounds to past solutions that are now in the way.

v | Behaviour | t

Firstly, returning to the challenge to free will. For purposes of my projects research free will or not seems less of a concern than to acknowledge behaviour is still a subject of potential control. It matters only that we know there is potential for change. This is Robert Sapolsky’s key point in arguing there is still reason to seek better ways.

Second, the point at which Robert Sapolsky seems less sure of how we then set ourselves up to live. My work around is taking the position that the resulting actions are not predetermined even if we are not directly acting with agency or otherwise. We can get to know the appropriateness of the controls. Influence the manner of the control. As Sapolsky says repeatedly, “we can know to know”. I would add that we can know why to know. We can seek to know what better control is and why, and let the process of converting action potentials within neurones worry about themselves. Our project controls at all levels need to account for such unpredictability regardless how the actions come to pass.

Modal confusion

There is also modal confusion addressed here. Robert Sapolsky makes a fabulous case for the multi-layered influences of our behaviour. That all of these factors can have impact, and that to look upon one mode alone is to miss the complexity that unfolds.

By example of this modal flexing, Robert Sapolsky talks of the amplification of actions where elevated testosterone plays a part. That it is society that rewards action and therein the challenge defence that testosterone helps reinforce. But this is not aggression. It is society that rewards the selfish, assertive, dominating types. Testosterone is defending challenge to status. But it is society determining what factors status is derived. Sapolsky’s observations are that it is therefore at a societal level we can hope to have some control. If we reward more kindness with more status, challenges to status will have testosterone fuelled kindness as the follow on. These become nudges toward a direction of travel. My question here is simply do we collectively think our direction of travel could be better, and if so what control of our meta-systems better reflects that goal?

My point here is that this is precisely the observation of our interactions themselves. That our own conflicting intentions become nuanced by our interactions with others, and [the illusion of] ourselves. But that in all cases there is potential for change. Not needing to be born of free will, but nor relevant if not. Change, born out of influence of the control environments we create. The modal level of risk we are addressing becomes critical to this assessment.

Accountability and responsibility

Victims one and all?

Next is the issue of whether free will is the only means by which we can give justification to holding an individual accountable, or least responsible for their actions. Robert Sapolsky argues that our justice systems are a leading edge of reform need. Not arguing that we let danger to society loose upon the streets, more that we have a little more empathy to the reason they the criminal actors are so broken at all. Controversial, emotive, and itself a position to polarise the lay persons he is reaching toward. A worthwhile debate but for my part, I sit opposed.

Responsibility without blame

Whether we become radical behaviourists like Skinner, hold out for the idealism of mind over matter, or allow a dualism of mind and body in any order of influence or prioritised proof of anything at all, there is a level of amalgamations of systems of interaction that we identify with as a whole.

Here again I see projects and organisational thinking troubled by the same modal confusion. I have previously written about how accountability can be retained whilst responsibility shifts between layers of engagement. I think this same principle can be applied in downward layers of attention without necessitating a reductionism towards subatomic physics. Not that Robert Sapolsky would disagree with that, at least as a pro or con towards free will. He argues that the necessary “bubbling up” from quantum mechanics to synaptic levels of biology are not feasible; they offer nothing positive toward a less random decision ability if free will is argued for; or offer a uniform influence across the trillions of synaptic messages that would therein have to all conform.

My point is that regardless of whether we think an individual wills an action or not, society functions at this higher level of control. We are all individuals by that metric. Regardless of whether that is an amalgamation of systems. Or whether consciousness or self determined agency are illusory. Both still reflect a contained system and with it one scale of control. Accordingly, we legally and in personal judgements hold these levels of a whole as stand alone. We are each that collection of systems, that illusion of self. And the human version of collaboration which our frontal cortex helps us navigate better than other animal systems, becomes the beginnings of wider human derived societal controls.

We can address accountability and responsibility in these same terms. The key point is to be clear in the modal level of engagement we are working from. It is these social laws that we deem consent to be age related. Or what constitutes acceptable exchange of chattel. Or what organisational complexity and what hierarchical order we attach and seek reward. This is the what. The containment of a social system we should know to know.

Concluding remarks

Free will or otherwise, we are all responsible for the societal, organisational, or moral controls past down to us. We are personally responsible to ensure we agree they are right, or make peace with how we reconcile that they are wrong. We also each retain responsibility for what we have been handed down, and accountability for what we pass on further therein. This is the burden of management of others. And the stewardship and duty in leadership that most attempt to evade.

I am therefore encouraged by the congruent conclusions all theory and science across these disciplines seems to land upon – at least from what I have found so far. To my mind (or the illusion therein), this still becomes a question of behaviour, and the manner of control.

This remains immensely complex, but perhaps able yet to be bettered by the nature of control.

About Me

In psychology we are required to look beneath the mask. This blog series is attempting to unmask some hidden parts of projects to engender a more collaborative way.

Find my professional mask here:

RACI to the top

We are all responsible to uphold accountability better

Accountability – not a pass down but maybe its a pass-back.

This is a long read. It has been a long write. If you invest a little time with this paper you may come away with new and challenging questions for your client or your boss. If you are the client or the boss, you may find reason to take these same questions and ask them to whomever that is to you.

The project management and organisational tool principally addressed in this article is collectively referenced as a Responsibility Assignment Matrix (RAM), of which the RACI is perhaps most generally referred. RACI is further detailed herein.


If you initiate a project – but have need of expert others to deliver it for you – what happens to the accountability?  Who owns the success or failure in realising the change intended by this project aim?  Is your accountability able to be delegated?  Has your accountability been passed down from your boss? What about the responsibility for specific stages or tasks within the project?  Is this the same thing?

As leaders or managers, if we do not clearly define roles and hierarchy in what we oversee, we fail.  If delegations are assigned without defined parameters of autonomy, we fail.  All attempts at management of projects, risk and people become incomplete.  Implementation of internal controls; assessment of capability; adequacy of resource; assurance of governance; decision efficacy; all becomes inherently fragile, confused, and incomplete.

This article gives background to how our project literature, industry, and our academic class represent the means of defining roles between project actors.  It highlights where some of this thinking funnels us into a colloquial interest mindset, and with some of the contemporary academic research to hand, I present what appears a rather dramatic example of modal confusion.  Dramatic because it seems almost universally framed.  The good news is, a simple solution is available, and one practicable without much change to existing tools or practices required.  Tools such as RACI can be better framed, better contextualised, and keep us all actively part our project(s); not sitting at distance with our divided interests to defend.

One academic perspective

A clarity of what academic literature presents in addressing these questions has been prepared by a series of peer reviewed published work of Steve McGrath and Stephen Whitty from the University of South Queensland. Writing a number of related papers from 2015 to 2020 in the International Journal of Managing Projects in Business. In 2018, McGrath and Whitty outlined the sparsity of literature attempting to examine accountability vs responsibility. This paper specifically sought to clarify meaning for these two terms.  Beginning with an extensive database interrogation of 48,006 search results; reduced to 426 peer reviewed original articles; each with relevant responsibility or accountability context.  Of these 426 articles only two were determined to offer suitably generic definitions.  These two articles were Ieraci (2007) and Cornock (2011), (McGrath et al 2018, pp689).  Their 2018 paper was a follow up to McGrath and Whitty (2015), where the wider subject of definition confusion had been applied to governance more generally.

The following extract presents a useful context for this articles UK focus, taking us right back to historic origins.

The system of government in Britain, following sealing of the Magna Carta in 1215 at Runnymead, evolved over centuries by way of constant tension between King, Nobles, the middle class and the Church (Macfarlane 2000). There was a constant struggle for power within an institutional system where no one group could ever completely dominate the others, as happened with monarchies in Europe until the French revolution. So, accountability was embedded within the British system via a means of everyone protecting their interests, rather than via any moral obligation on a king to ‘be good’.  The concept of accountability is highly relevant to organisations whose shareholders (or taxpayers or members) need to be able to hold their agents to account and with whom there is some form of obligation or contractual or legal relationship or responsibility. Introducing the concept of accountability at this point is a suitable means to accommodate the change in boundary conditions that adding the prefix ‘organisational’ to the word ‘governance’

McGrath and Whitty, (2015 pp780)

This 2015 paper concludes that we need to account for hierarchy or levels of governance that exists.  Therein, better definitions can “separate the how (governance and process) from the what (content and strategy); remove the incompatible influence of competing frameworks; [and] do not confuse or mix (subversive) democratic and authoritarian artefacts (competitive and cooperative structures)”  (ibid pp785).  Of the areas of potential definitional confusion, “responsibility and accountability” are stated expressly (ibid, pp786).  This then connects to their follow up paper of 2018 from which I draw upon in application to commercial projects, particularly those of large scale construction..

Here are the definitions of accountability and responsibility McGrath and Whitty (2018) present. I short-cut over a significant and thorough examination of lexicographic and academically derived appropriation of best fit. Definitions as follows:

Responsibility: an obligation to satisfactorily perform a task

Responsible: accepting responsibility i.e., accepting an obligation to satisfactorily perform a task.

Accountability: liability for ensuring a task is satisfactorily done

Accountable: having accountability i.e., having liability for ensuring a task is satisfactorily done

McGrath et al (2018 pp701 – 702)

McGrath et al (2018) then further indicate that sources of liability referred could reflect origins of organisational, legislative, contractual, or informal (in social setting) as a wide array of possible source.  However, in attempting to reflect this transient nature of accountability through these levels of organisational or contractual management, this makes any universal tool open to misunderstanding or confusion (ibid pp702).  It is therefore recommended by McGrath at al to exclude accountability from RAMs completely, separately noting formal localised accountability in a separate matrix if such a need still exists (ibid pp703).

Professional bodies perspective

In conclusion to the McGrath et al 2018 examination of accountability and responsibility, the 2018 paper’s constraints of enquiry are again presented, “…this paper dealt solely with the question of definition and made no comment on any other normative aspects of responsibility or accountability as applied to any field.” (McGrath et al 2018 pp705).  For context therefore, I present some additional examination of industry text as applicable to UK Project Management.

What follows is critique I have prepared for contemporary context, plus summary of findings from McGrath et al of earlier versions. I have critiqued the most recent Book of Knowledge from the APM, 2019.  McGrath and Witty (2018) have critiqued PRINCE2, and PMI, 2004 (as the earliest origins of PMIs use of RACI language defined below).  A summary of each critique is offered here.  I finish this section with some specific observations related to the UKs HM Treasury 2020 Construction Playbook.

Association of Project Management

The 2019 version of APMs Book of Knowledge (AMPBoK) principally addresses accountability as part of Governance.  A responsibility assignment matrix is referenced as the tool which clarifies role accountability and responsible for activities and decisions (page 32).  Governance informing delegated authorities and escalations.  The term accountable is used 14 times, accountability 15.

The Sponsor is accountable for realisation of benefits and validity of business case.  Potential for delegation or independent check is acknowledge (page 40, 44).  In deciding to continue across decision gates, sponsor and the wider governance board are accountable (page 77), the sponsor is then accountable to ensure authorities are in place as compliance requirements of teams (page 77), governance (page 32, 40, 233), decision communication (page 200), tracking benefits (page 10, 92) and close-out reports, perhaps as delegated responsibility via a PMO (page 96).  The transient nature of accountability that is permitted by this APMBoK therefore at odds with the shifting between organisational levels that McGrath et al are seeking to avoid (McGrath et al 2015 pp703).

In my view, the APMBoK is not intending to address the interface into construction.  It instead parks up on the edge of the construction phase, but does not drop into this space.  It separates the contractors ‘project’ (page 24) and Section 4.3.2 Contract Management presents a series of controls and contract management supports but with client in mind (page192, and figure 4.3.2).  A principal contractor’s engagement of second or third tiers of suppliers is further acknowledged (page 38) but only considered in terms of balancing internal organisational talent development. This seems an important omission to raise, as I believe much of the modal confusion I write of elsewhere see construction folk talking to buyers of their services in the same language but with different levels of hierarchy on their mind.

To this end the APMBoK reference to a responsibility assignment matrix (page 32) is perhaps also intended to be through this narrower lens.  The APMBoK use of the term Accountability presents further reason to suppose this is the case.  Different people may have accountability for permanent and temporary organisational structures (page 46, 24), embedding change, or extending life-cycle, may require retained accountability of a project team (page 92, 211), accountability for achieving the project success criteria at time of project handover resting with the project manager and thereafter benefits realisation with the sponsor (page 154).

In APMBoK language this enables accountability to therefore be separately identified at two or more levels.  First, the organisational level that much of our project management literature truly focuses upon.  Second, the construction contract becomes an interface by which we can separate the “temporary organisation structure”, in place to deliver this phase. Accountability free to move across these interfaces. This is problematic, as McGrath et al would agree.


Defined roles and responsibilities are one of 7 principles of PRINCE2, it is also the focus of their organisation theme.  In my opinion PRINCE2 is not a useful reference point for construction project management. It lacks a clear means to manage the interfaces of key project phases like Construction, where significant and influential factors of control would be passing over commercial boundaries.  Notwithstanding, McGrath et al (2018) references to PRINCE2 conclude it is failing to make adequate distinction between responsibility and accountability (ibid pp689).

PMI 2004 and RACI

McGrath and Whitty (2018) present the PMI PMBoK (3rd edition 2004 pp206), in reference to the responsibility assignment matrix (RAM) commonly known as RACI.  This edition being the first introduction of the RACI model. As McGrath (ibid) explain, RACI is coded:

R = Responsibility

A = Accountability

C = Consult

I = Inform

McGrath et al then offer a case study where the A for Accountability becomes problematic. The modal confusion I reference elsewhere evidenced by an example of a multi-functional Government Department.  McGrath et al explain the department’s attempts to apply such a RACI matrix across management levels within the organisation was frustrated by the difficulty in applying accountability at more than one level.  Only resolved when attempting to address RACI differently as it is expanded into a multimodal form.

HM Government Construction Playbook

UK HM Treasury, Infrastructure and Projects Association, “Construction Playbook” version 1.0 was issued December 2020.  Herein “the Playbook”.  This is the most contemporary document reflecting how government are now setting themselves up to procure construction. In the UK this playbook is how construction projects are intended to be brought to market.  This is what it has to say about roles and responsibilities.

According to the Civil Service Chief Operating Office, Alex Chisolm, the Construction Playbook reflects upon the delegation of responsibilities and working together, aligning efforts, and ensuring actions are consistent and reinforced and is “the result of extensive collaboration from across the public and private sectors to bring together expertise and best practices” (ibid pp1).

I read the motivation in the Playbook to be not one of granular operational clarity, but rather of general representation of role allocation within Government areas. Policy 4 of 14, is “People and Governance” (pp28).  This section addresses compliance, approval processes, Senior Responsible Owners (SROs), cross-functional teams, Major Projects portfolio, and opportunity framing workshops.  This is supported by cross-reference to an appended introductory section (pp72 ff) which includes Figure 4 outlining roles and responsibilities (ibid pp73).

Accountable Senior Role Owners (SROs) are said to own the business case but the language used within the Playbook here indicates the same interchangeable use of both accountability and responsibility that McGrath et al had observed as a hitherto normalised conflation of different terms.  Page 26 of the Playbook, the introduction of the Senior Responsible Owners and Cross-Functional teams, states “Project or programme senior responsible owners (SROs) own the business case and are accountable for delivery of the project or programme and its benefits and outcomes. They should fully understand the governance and approvals process and commit sufficient time to lead the project or programme through approvals and delivery.” (ibid, page 26).

What should also perhaps be noted here is the intended cross-functional interactions between central and local government outlined in the Playbook.  Page 72 presents additional explanation as to whom the Playbook is aimed at, and the list reflects the areas of Commercial, Financial, Project Delivery, Policy, and wider professional parties.  The Playbook addresses all professionals across the contracting authorities “who are responsible for the planning and delivery of public works projects and programmes”.  These aims go on to state “the key is ensuring that we have joined-up teams with input from the right functions early in the process”. Nor is this Playbook to be read in isolation.  Approvals follow HM Treasury Green Book and Orange Book requirements.  Accordingly, the Playbook is also presented as a useful reference for others with decision-making, approval, or assurance need.  This list includes Ministers, Permanent Secretaries, Accounting Offices, Commercial Directors, project sponsors and SROs (ibid pp73).

For this Playbook, the key delineations of ownership are within figure 4, pp71.  The acronym OKUA is used:  Owner (or Joint-Owner); Knowledge experts; Understanding; Awareness.  Ownership can therein be split between several functions with J-O used to indicate cross-party sharing of Ownership.  Reading from this figure 4, it is of some note that the Commercial function has at least part ownership to all but three of the 14 categories; sharing four of these with Programme and Operations, and two of these with Finance. McGrath et al (2018), advise us to avoid shared allocations as it relates to Accountability (to which I would infer Ownership within the OKUA best reflects). 

The final observation to reflect here is that the OKUA matrix in the Playbook is therefore only representing the functions of Public Sector.  The external delegations between contracting authorities and the supply chain are dealt with in Policy 6.  This is entitled, “Effective Contracting” (pp38 ff).  Allocation here is in the context of procurement strategy and specifically which party (e.g., contractor or architect or the Contracting Authority) is to be made responsible for design, coordination, and integration (ibid pp41).  Contracting strategy thereafter requires documenting decisions on contractual roles and responsibilities (ibid pp42).

Combining these accounts into one

The Playbook is offering a distinction between what is being delegated by contract, and what is being allocated by the OKUA metric.  If working from highest levels of interests to lower, the Accountability appears to be OKUAs “Ownership” as allocated, most frequently, to the Commercial department.  Policy 6, “Effective Contracting”, the transferred Responsibility.  Liability for a project phase may legally transfer across this boundary, but the distinction I make here is the accountability beyond what may or may not have legal application.  It is from this position I believe we can seek to use RAM and/or RACI in a multi-layered way to these construction projects being procured via this Playbook. The interpretation of RACI however, needs to then be understood against these wider ownerships. Key to using RACI across these projects is how the Ownership aka Accountability is considered from layer to layer of project organisation, hierarchy, and onward transmission through an elongated construction supply chain.

Accountability only travels up | Responsibility is what is passed down

In cross-reference to both Ieraci (2007) and Cornock (2011), McGrath et al (2018) recommendation pp704 is to keep Accountability separated when using a RAM.  Instead, we can adapt the A in RACI, to mean having the delegated Authority and/or power of Approval.  The example by McGrath et al is a Project Manager in public sector who has authority to approve specific levels of work but not all.  This is as distinct from being Accountable. Accountability does not feature in the RAM. I would argue nor does Accountability move from the Owner roles stated in the Playbook OKUA. What is delegated is authority, or approvals. As McGrath et al argue, attempts here are therefore to create universality of labelling not meaning (McGrath 2018 pp 704).

The context of project then becomes important. For purposes of clarity between contracting parties, the Accountability of the project success sits with the Project Sponsor.  The Project Sponsor however is operating within the parameters of the authority or approvals the power above them has delegated. This continues back up to the OKUA level where the Ownership or Accountability still ultimately resides.

Stepping across this commercial boundary from Project Sponsor to the Construction Contractor, authority and approvals have also been passed via the terms of the contract of construction. This is when the recognition of project as having a nuanced meaning is important. It may be that the Construction supply chain deem this collective of construction activity to be their project.  In which case any discussion by parties within this construction project will be looking to their most senior person as the accountable role.  However, if responsibility matrices are being prepared that are to be shared with the Project Sponsor, and their engagement with this Construction supply chain as tier one, tier two, tier three, etc., it can only be the Project Sponsor who is being deemed to be accountable.  The most senior person within the Construction supply chain is now the first recipient of the delegated authority to act on behalf of the Project Sponsor.  They may have approvals to conduct their business as they see fit, and within legally defined terms they have accepted financial consequence in failing to do so, but that is not to excuse the Project Sponsor of accountability in the context of the project success.  If this subtlety can be accommodated across the layers of project hierarchy, a RAM becomes a tool able to transverse these layers and become a shared tool accordingly.  From within a project boundary the top most position may have accountability.  But when looked upon from outside in, this is Approval or Authority, and the accountability sits there above.

Why is this so important?

This creates a clarity.  Precisely what RACI as a tool is supporting across the project framework of critical controls .  It is the antidote to what obfuscates defensive decision-making (Gigerenza 2014) or any attempts to filter blame.  It places more demands upon the Project Sponsor which compels behaviour reflective of their role.  They re-enter the discussion of what is to be reported but also what it is they can add to the process in what is to be monitored.  What is to be checked by independent means, and why.  Crucially, they are required to have interest and ownership of the control environment of which this RACI is a part.  To be invested in the welfare and effectiveness of the project partners they engage.  No longer is it acceptable to say, “I did not know”.  If you chose not to look, not to ask, not to make sure, that is for you as the Project Sponsor to explain, not be the means to apply the blame. Accountability does not transfer with the contract, the interest in the contract succeeding becomes more important than how the contract can pass the blame.

Contracts remain, but alongside controls

We currently use contracts to replace trust.  That is a poor substitute when the benefits of the project are necessarily put first.  No legal changes to frameworks or duty of care are envisaged.  However, the wider control environment becomes more important than the financial security of the contract.

v | b | t

This amendment to RACI is intended only to change behaviour and attitudes towards the wider project controls.  Particularly in positions of leadership and authority.  If we insist on knowing what the accountable person is doing to safeguard both project aims and all parties within, we can evaluate them based upon v | b | t .

We have means to ask more pertinent questions.  As project sponsor what gives you adequate visibility?  How has the project framework of controls been necessarily attended to, to identify the range of behaviours possible across the project actors?  Are both appropriate to the level of trust you share?  Has procurement strategy and control framework of project been considered to best protect both project aims and all actors involved.  Demonstrate the concern for everyone’s well-being, not just your own.

McGrath and Whitty remarks to conclude

The extension of these same ideas are motivated from precisely the conclusions McGrath et al (2018) make themselves.  The conclusions of McGrath et al read much better than I could offer.  Accordingly, I will lean again upon them for the last word.

Adoption and use of the refined definitions developed in this paper, together with alteration of the “A” in the RAM RACI code from accountability to approve, can provide clarity of meaning, avoiding uncertainty, confusion, and misunderstanding. This can benefit the community in general and project management practitioners and researchers in particular, saving time, resources, and money.

Through providing greater clarity, these findings also have the potential to improve project delivery through benefiting organisational recruitment, selection, and induction process, providing a basis for motivating and rewarding employees and assisting with staff termination processes. They can also potentially result in greater clarity in contracts, potentially minimising disputes during and after project delivery.

Successful application of the definitional refining method also indicates its potential suitability for application to other contested terms.

McGrath and Whitty, 2018, pp706

Credit and acknowledgements

Much of this article is influenced by the McGrath and Whitty papers of 2015 and 2018 referenced below.  I would encourage a wider read of McGrath and Whitty’s work.  Much of their recent work is freely accessible via Google Scholar, I also provide the link to the published version via Emerald of the 2018 paper.  Access to APM PRINCE2, and PMI BoKs are subject to the terms of each organisation.  The UK Construction Playbook is a matter of public record at


Stephen Keith McGrath, Stephen Jonathan Whitty, (2015),”Redefining governance: from confusion to certainty and clarity”, International Journal of Managing Projects in Business, 8-4 pp. 755 – 787

McGrath, SK., Whitty, S,J. (2018), “Accountability and responsibility defined”, International Journal of Managing Projects in Business, Vol. 11 No. 3, pp. 687-707.


Further research:

These notes are part of a wider ongoing enquiry into seeking better collaborative ways to facilitate more successful project outcomes.  Using critical controls and tools beyond project contracts, of which a RAM or similar is assumed to be a central part.  Additional research will revisit more specific construction industry literature and guidance.  Wider modelling from psychology are also intended to be introduced.  In the interim these notes are my current findings which have further highlighted where visibility | behaviour | trust also play a part.


It should be noted that these notes have been written with an intended academic rigour.  No original work is claimed here, other than practical application of existing academic literature.  This article has not undergone any form of peer review, nor subjected to supervision by anyone with Doctorial or equivalent qualification or experience, or therefore vetted by the ethical standards of a university body.  Stephen McGrath has been made aware of these notes for information, but no representation is made to his approval, or my authority to write in his name.  I have made all attempt to therefore present a visibility of sources and behaviours I consider appropriate to academic writing.  However, judgements upon the academic merit or trust to all content herein, are yours alone to make.


About the Author:

Warren Beardall MSc, BSc (Hons) MIRM

Managing Consultant, MYR Consulting (Europe) PTY Ltd.

In my consulting work with tier one construction contractors in the UK, the clarity of role allocation is an integral part of the critical control environment being assessed. This paper integrates my own learning in facilitating this consulting, with the detailed examinations of the academic and industry practice I research.  It presents an argument as to why I think modal confusion confronts our industry when these tools are applied.

For twenty years, MYR Consulting (Europe) PTY Ltd and our parent company in Australia, have been helping clients mitigate their risk of professional error.  Often our engagements begin with an introduction via Professional Indemnity insurers.  Sometimes we are invited in before such needs arise.  I would summarise our involvement as helping highly capable people and their internal control environments to be a cohesive whole.  The controls helping the people, the people challenging and determining best practice the control environment reflects.  Both aimed toward the consistent success of the design management processes they support, and the projects they form part.

Within this consulting work, role clarity is an integral part of de-risking process for the benefit of both the company and the wider project outcomes they serve.

About Me

In psychology we are required to look beneath the mask. This blog series is attempting to unmask some hidden parts of projects to engender a more collaborative way.

Find my professional mask here: