The ongoing Hackgate scandal, we can call it that as people in the US are now interested rather than just the dull old 'phone hacking scandal', teaches us some very interesting lessons about corporate politics and the meaning of the term responsibility.
I see quite a few projects where the issue is that someone somewhere hasn't taken control or responsibility and therefore things have gone off the rails. A lot of the time this is about the personality types involved and those personalities massively impact how any recovery can be achieved.
In this scandal we've seen so far five completely different views of responsibility and each of these teaches us a lesson we can learn from
Responsibility without Action but with blame - David Cameron
First up is the Prime Minister David Cameron who has taken 'full responsibility' for hiring Andy Coulson. What full responsibility means here is that he has stated that he takes that responsibility, but in reality actually nothing has changed or is in danger of actually being done. I often see this on projects where a senior business sponsor has a pet project that they actually don't care that much about but just want to see it continue for power reasons. As with this occasion this responsibility normally actually means shooting the project manager or some other individual so in reality what is being said is that the senior individual actually bears no real responsibility and that the failure is further down the chain of command.
This is very common in IT projects, often you will see a programme director being promoted during a project and then taking 'full responsibility' by firing the person who had to clean up their mess after they were promoted. Its a very good career strategy as it implies that you are the sort of person who takes decisive action and has person integrity but in reality is classic blame farming. This is one of the hardest situations to deal with when recovering a project as you often need the sponsor to change some of their behaviours and what you get instead is a continual statement that they have 'taken responsibility' but actually in reality done nothing to change the behaviours that led to them having to take responsibility for the failure. These people can be very useful when you recover a program as they are keen to be seen to be doing things and if you can leverage that into action it can be a positive thing.
Responsibility without responsibility - Rebecca Brooks
Rebecca Brooks (nee Wade) typifies another form of rogue sponsor when issues occur. In this case the sponsor is often actively involved with the project and seen as more than simply a sponsor but actually a leader of the initiative. Trouble occurs and the sponsor throws up their hands and claims that they had no idea at all what was going on and are appalled at how they were kept in the dark. This is a very tricky act to play but if played well normally means that the entire project is about to get a huge kicking as literally nobody is going to protect the individuals and indeed the previous sponsor will often be the most vicious in terms of lashing out in order to protect their own reputation.
In IT programmes I regularly see this where a project within an IT Director's remit is failing and they see that their best chance of coming out well is to be seen as a 'strong' leader who has so many things to do that they can't be faulted for 'trusting' lieutenants who then turned out to be rubbish. When trying to clean up a project these people are toxic as normally their only interest is ensuring that no blame ever attaches itself to themselves, Brooks' initial leading of the 'investigation' is a classic case of this where someone closely associated with the issues tries to ensure the 'correct' outcome by either directly or indirectly leading the investigation. Sometimes in IT the phrase 'lets draw a line under it and move on' is used which can help if its meant as it means everyone can get on with fixing the problem rather than with worrying about the political issues.
Responsibility with personal accountability and exit - Sir Paul Stephenson
Then we have the Met Police chief who has resigned for the faults within his organisation which pretty much no-one feels touch him personally. His extremely barbed comment pointing out that his mistake was to employ someone who hadn't resigned in the original scandal, as opposed to David Cameron, clearly highlights what he feels is a double standard in how people talk about responsibility. Now from one perspective having the overall sponsor take responsibility and leaving because of it demonstrates strong personal integrity and leadership, but in another it also means that the folks below are left without a clear leader and therefore there is uncertainty on who will clean things up.
In IT this often unfortunately occurs when the sponsor feels they can leap into another job somewhere else if they go before they are pushed. The challenge to the project team remains who will clean up the mess and drive it forwards.
No responsibility but lots of finger pointing
What has been most common in this scandal is lots of people from the outside pointing fingers and suggesting how things should be cleaned up, with in the most part very little actual personal commitment in helping to clean things up. MPs have condemned and moaned, but not promised to stop religiously courting the media. Other scandal sheets have condemned and moaned about its impact on the reputation of 'good journalism', but certainly not offered up themselves to be investigated to clean their names.
This is really common in IT recovery programmes, lots of people standing on the sidelines with 'helpful' advice on how to improve or how to 'learn' from the mistakes but zero actual time commitment in cleaning things up. Managing these people is central to recovering an IT programme.
No concept of responsibility
Paul McMullen has been the comedy turn of this scandal, a man so divorced from reality that he continues not just to excuse but positively to champion the sorts of behaviour that everyone is condemning around him. Here is a man who both Hugh Grant and Steve Coogan have show up to be a total and utter muppet of the highest order. At some stages I've really wondered if he isn't really a journalist but in fact a very hammy actor who is over playing the part.
In IT these are the folks who just don't get that there is an issue. I once interviewed an architect shortly after Boo.com had failed. He had been responsibly for lots of their key architectural decisions, several of which were behind the inability of people generally to use the site. During a curtailed interview he continued to champion the approaches they had taken, which had failed, and even managed to support and promote the business model for Boo.com which had managed to burn through lottery winning cash in an amazingly short period of time (one founder entertainingly stated that they were 'too visionary', nope it was a bad idea, badly implemented). People like this must be quickly exited from the programme as if they can't see any issues then they will be unable to fix them.
Responsibility with Action
What we haven't really seen so far is someone take responsibility with action in this crisis. Sure the News of the World has been closed down but allegations by Jude Law against the Sun have been met with abuse rather than a culture of 'we are pretty sure we didn't, we take these allegations seriously, will will investigate and we are confident we will prove our innocence'. The closure itself was simply an acceleration of a previously announced policy so there really hasn't been that active leadership yet in cleaning things up.
Responsibility with action in an IT failure is the person who stands up and says 'mistakes have been made, right lets fix them' and sets about driving change and leading the cultural shift that is normally required to recover a failed or failing project. Responsibility with action is normally a quiet thing rather than a shouty thing, its something that is done rather than talked about. It isn't a committee to investigate its an active approach to finding what went wrong and fixing it as quickly as possible.
Critically its not about blame in the sense of finding people to blame, its about finding problems and when these problems turn out to be people then those people are given the simple choice: change or leave. It is about finding people who should have taken personal responsibility and ensuring that next time they do.
Recovering projects is normally one of the most thankless tasks that I do. You enter into a scenario where someone else has screwed up and your end result is getting the project to a place where it should have been ages ago. There is however something personally rewarding in changing the culture of individuals so that they are able to recognised the mistakes that were made and in exiting the toxic people from the process. Crucially however there is one lesson that I've learnt doing this and that is that the first stage has to be recognise that there are systemic problems that need to be fixed. If it turns out that actually its a localised issue then this is great, but the assumption must be that the rot is much broader and more general than the currently surfaced failure. Normally there is a culture of poor sponsorship, leadership, management and clarity that leads to a general case of fail in which only the scale of the project fail stands out.
If you do see a project failing the first thing your should identify is not what went wrong in the weeds but how the sponsors and leaders will react. Will they behave like a Brooks and deny everything? Like a Cameron and take 'full responsibility' but actually blame farm? Will they deny that there actually is an issue like McMullen? Will they fall on their sword and leave a vacuum or do you have someone with whom you can actually work to drive through the recovery? Clarifying this 'top-cover' challenge is the first step in recovery,
Remember: Don't just people on whether they say they take or have responsibility but on what they do
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