I’m not a fan of cruise lines, largely because I hate long lines and the idea of being captured with sub-par service with no place to go except for a long swim in the ocean. However, after hearing Royal Caribbean cruise lines speak at the Cisco Live analyst event last week, I’m wondering if I should revisit this. One of the comments the CIO made on stage really resonated with me, and even though he was speaking of the Internet of Things (IoT), the fact is that his advice could be applied to a lot of things. I mentioned it at the end of my comments on the Cisco Live event last week and promised to revisit this topic this week, so I’m also keeping that promise.
The CIO’s comment was that if you want success in an IoT project, the group that is doing the related project should be held accountable for the entire project, not just the more common focus on the application, but both the application and the infrastructure. This is because it isn’t acceptable to have a failure and be able to blame infrastructure for it; the goal is to not have a failure in the first place.
However, the way we currently do things, it would seem that we are often more focused on making sure the blame for a failure doesn’t land on us than on preventing the failure in the first place. Doing this is far from easy and you could just create a different set of problems, speaking to the old concept of matching authority and responsibility.
I used to spend a lot of my time doing causal analysis. Sadly, this practice of looking for why a problem occurred often is forgotten due to an excessive focus on dodging blame, but if you ever want to actually fix anything, the best place to start is with an understanding of why it happened, not who sucks at dodging blame.
One of the most common causes for a failed project has been split ownership, in which some critical part of the effort is not fully owned by the folks who are responsible for creating the solution. It may be that they don’t actually own the budget, or the data, or that they can’t control the infrastructure, but if an execution team doesn’t control the elements of the solution, there is a pretty good chance it will fail. And while the team can point to what they don’t control as the cause, the goal should be to complete the project, not to have some other group to blame for not getting it done.
This is what the CIO from Royal Caribbean was arguing, and I agree, with one big exception. Authority has to transfer with the responsibility or you have just shifted blame, you haven’t increased the probability of success.
Authority and Responsibility
Authority and responsibility is a big part of what some of us think of as management 101. Responsibility has to be coupled with authority. The biggest example of when this wasn’t the case was with the risk managers who were created in the financial industry before the last big financial collapse. These poor folks were given the responsibility for managing risk, but they had no authority to make real policy decisions. This created the impression that decision makers didn’t have to worry about risk and the ones who did have to worry about risk weren’t making the decisions. Thus, we had people warning of a collapse, which did come, as opposed to the intended goal of not having a collapse in the first place. Firms found that firing the risk managers did nothing to remove the massive financial problem that resulted from bad risk management.
So, making a team responsible for the entire project doesn’t work unless they have the authority over the entire project, as well. If they are going to be responsible for the infrastructure that hosts their solution, they have to have the authority to replace it with something else if they need to. If they are forced to use a major component that they have no control over, yet are responsible for it, you’ll just put the team at risk. You won’t improve the likelihood of success. Instead, you’ll likely just increase the level of drama and finger pointing.
Wrapping Up: Solution Ownership, with Authority/Responsibility Matching
A series of books came out in the 1970s about how Japan nearly took the car market from the U.S. Given that they mostly copied GM and Ford, it was surprising that their quality was so much higher. This was largely due to the fact that they made named individuals responsible for every car and gave these folks the authority to control quality. This same old rule applies to every project. The more cohesive and complete the ownership, the stronger the accountability, and the less likely you will have a bunch of people pointing their fingers at each other for blame, mostly because the related projects are more likely to succeed. When you have success, the need for blame is significantly reduced.
Something to noodle on this holiday week.
Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+