Accountability - Who gets fired?
When a strategic initiative is kicked off there is usually lots of talk about its “transformational nature” or “strategic importance” or “game changing impact”. A lot of time is then spent on selecting the steering committee and the leadership team and often a RACI is created. The RACI answers the key questions of Who is responsible? Who is accountable? Who is consulted? And Who is informed? This can be by workstream, deliverable or task. But here is a question that does not get asked, “Who gets fired?”
Much to my clients' chagrin, I have asked this question many times. The intent of the question is to elicit a dialogue and ultimately alignment, around real accountability. The RACI matrix while useful at the workstream, deliverable or task level fails to address accountability at the initiative level. “Who gets fired?” is a clarifying if somewhat dramatic way of asking, “Who is accountable for the entire initiative?” You would be surprised at the answers I have got to this question. They range from “not me” to “the systems integrator” to “the steering committee” In some cases, the name of a mid-level project manager is given – this latter response of course indicates a whole host of other issues.
A dialogue around real accountability will address roles and responsibilities for the project leader and his/her organization, the role of the steering committee, overlapping responsible and accountable roles, systems integrators or other partners, and decision rights among others. A dialogue around real accountability can be uncomfortable, but it is essential for alignment. If a leadership team is not aligned around who is accountable for decisions it is neigh impossible even the best intentions to know how to help. Do you lead? Do you follow? Do you support? Do you override? Do you veto?
Large transformational initiatives take aligned leadership to be successful. Per Bain & Company 2017, only 12 percent of conventional transformations achieve or exceed expectations and only 5 percent of digital transformations do so. Leadership requires a real leader who views themselves as singularly and wholly accountable for its success. With this mindset, the steering committee is transformed from a report-out function to a group of people who can work with the leader to remove roadblocks, validate decisions and provide support to the leader as a peer – exactly what they should be doing. With this mindset there are no overlapping roles, no overlapping accountability or responsibility. Whether it is explicit in the RACI or not, there is one leader who ultimately accountable for everything – is empowered and likely acts like that. With this mindset there is a forced clarity on decision rights - real accountability is clarifying.
Now, the “Who gets fired?” question can be applied by itself to major decisions throughout the initiative. As I have said, the intent is to elicit a dialogue and alignment around real accountability as there are few projects where the leader does get fired - perhaps the Ford Edsel, New Coke and the Denver International Airport Baggage Handling System – but I bet there was enough blame to go around in each of those. However, we should not preclude people learning from their mistakes. In fact, those project lessons learned the hard way, often lead to a respect for the “Who gets fired?” question.
As one of my great mentors said, “any fool can make decisions, it takes a leader to be able to live with the consequences”. So, the next time you are on an executive leadership team kicking off a strategic initiative or making a major decision, ask "Who gets fired?” and watch as the chairs are pushed back from the table and heads look down. Whether you pose the question this way or not, remember you have to have a a dialogue and ultimately alignment around real accountability.
What is alignment? How do we align around an initiative? How do we know we are aligned? These are really hard questions. Questions we are answering at AlignedAround. I would welcome your thoughts.
Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed. Introduced in the 1950s, RACI was originally called the “Decision Rights Matrix” and is also known as “Responsibility Charting.”
As we have stated elsewhere, our personal preference is to drop Responsible and just use Accountable in the RACI matrix. There is often confusion between the two leading to a lack of real accountability.
“Orchestrating a Successful Digital Transformation.” Bain, 22 Nov. 2017.