Accountability in Project Management

What Abbott and Costello can teach us about IT management.

by / May 12, 2011

We’ve all been to “those” kinds of meetings. You know the ones I’m talking about: The cast of characters has swelled to standing-room only and you’re beginning to wonder if maybe there’s a breakfast buffet hidden somewhere in the back of the room.

It seems to me that not only are there more people than ever at today’s meetings, but meetings are also more frequent and taking up significantly more hours of the day.

I’m beginning to wonder whether all these meetings are helping us get more work done, or perhaps helping us to avoid confronting the fact that in many ways we’re stymied in our efforts.

I am leaning toward the latter conclusion, since it seems that the minute anyone brings an idea to the table, they’re told to take it to another review board, steering committee, advisory council, working group, task force or “integrated project team.”

The whole ruckus about meetings reminds me of the famous Bud Abbott and Lou Costello comedy routine, Who’s on First, an interchange between the two that was made famous in the 1940s. Eventually in 1956, it won an award in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Essentially in the routine, the stand-up comics go back and forth for what seems like an endless amount of time (six minutes, actually) trying to clarify who’s on first base. However, the nickname of the first baseman is actually “Who,” and so begins the insane interchange.  

With all the interminable confusion, Costello finally throws down his baseball bat in sheer frustration.

Who’s on First foreshadowed a world where, similarly, it’s often unclear who is responsible for what.

In the Information Age and its associated knowledge economy, roles and responsibilities have become more complex than ever. The issues an IT leader must manage daily are no longer simple, distinct blocks of subject matter like widgets on an assembly line.
For example, enterprise architecture is a discipline that spans the entire organization. So we decompose the organization into smaller pieces through segment and solutions to make it more manageable and controllable. We say, “You’re responsible for X, and you’re responsible for Y.”

The problem is, unless you do it right, once you break them down, X and Y may never come back together in an integrated way.

Integrated project teams were supposed to be the key to countering this tendency. They were supposed to enable subject-matter experts to work across boundaries, collaborate large and complex issues, and address common and enterprise solutions like cloud computing and mobility solutions.

A roomful of subject-matter experts, however, does not make an integrated project team. We need individual accountability at the lowest levels, but also functional answerability at the higher levels, where the individual parts must make up a larger whole.

The key to success rests with the CIO. Leaders and players must know who’s on first and on every other base. No longer can we rely on broad sweeping titles or functions to “have it covered.” Roles and responsibilities in our organizations must be clearly defined, assigned, communicated, understood and executed.

Clarity amid the complexity can be accomplished in many ways. It all comes down to developing a human capital strategy. A good one will clearly detail who’s on first, their responsibilities, and the expectations for how people should collaborate to ensure that things get done individually and collectively. The reality is that there’s no “I” in team, and there can be no mystery person behind the curtain when it comes to getting the IT job done.

Andy Blumenthal is the CTO of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. A regular speaker and published author, Blumenthal blogs at Blumenthal’s views are his own and do not represent those of any agency.


Andy Blumenthal Contributing Writer

Andy Blumenthal is a division chief at the U.S. State Department. He was previously chief technology officer at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. A regular speaker and published author, Blumenthal blogs at User-Centric Enterprise Architecture and The Total CIO. These are his personal views and do not represent those of his agency.