Martin P Wilson

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Ideas, Innovation, Inspiration, Insight, IT

Facilitation and Mentoring for Success.

Shadow of DoubtMuch is made of the need for responsibility and accountability on projects. However, there are limits on how widely they can be distributed. On many projects, large ones especially, there is a confusion between project responsibility and stakeholder management.

On one very large project I know of the senior responsible owner was concerned about making stakeholders accountable. As a result he insisted on them being on the Project Board and party to the project decision making. The result was the largest project board with which I have ever worked; there were around 24 people on that board. His thinking was that all members would then be equally accountable; unfortunately, he misunderstood the dynamics of groups.

The Abilene Paradox

The result was that no one, no one was actually accountable. Jerry Harvey, the American psychologist, noticed that groups often take decisions that are at odds with decisions they would take as individuals. Even to the extent that as a group they would take decisions they would personally regard as perverse. Harvey noted that the groups takes strange decisions because individuals know they can avoid personal responsibility for the groups actions. He called this behaviour the “Abilene Paradox”; he compared it to a family that chose to go to Abilene for a vacation even though individually no one had any desire to do so and knowing the journey would be unpleasant.

The other problem with such a large project board was that it became a talking shop and was slow to take decisions at all. With over twenty people travelling from all over the country it was also inordinately expensive so it was hardly surprising that the project was on its fifth project director and running over a year late. It was eventually delivered after a further replanning and with a reduced scope.

A very much smaller project board with proper authority would have avoided such problems. Other bodies, perhaps chaired by project board members, could have been formed to take advantage of the wider expertise of all the other stakeholders; how such groups should be structured will be the basis of the next Thought.

Reference

J Harvey, The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management, 1988, Lexington Books

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