Monday, January 29, 2007

The Folly of Accountabalism

The Harvard Business Review has published their list of 20 breakthrough ideas for 2007. There are several ideas on this list with particular appeal to me. One that stands out is David Weinberger's "Folly of Accountabalism" which insists that "Accountability has gone horribly wrong. It has become 'accountabalism,' the practice of eating sacrificial victims in an attempt to magically ward off evil."

Dr. Weinberger is referring to the emphasis on corporate management and compliance that has come to dominate modern American business. Software development within corporate IT departments are just as bound by this kind of thinking as marketing or sales is. Weinberger argues that this manifests itself as several common practices.

"Deciding that the problem can be solved at the next level of detail - looking at complex systems that have gone wrong for complex reasons and writing another set of work procedures, and printing up more forms." A common approach with software development organizations is to try to become too abstract, creating a solution to every possible problem in advance.

"Assuming perfection - if anything goes wrong, it’s a sign that the system is broken." This does not allow for the "good enough" solutions that allows for the mismatches between what we can do, and what we can do now.

"Being blind to human nature - by overly formalizing processes, accountabalism refuses to acknowledge that people work and think differently. It eliminates the human variations that move institutions forward and provide a check on the monoculture that accounts for most disastrous decisions. It also makes work no fun." Need I say more!

"Bureaucratizing and atomizing responsibility - While claiming to increase individual responsibility, it drives out human judgment. When a sign-off is required for every step in the work flow, those closest to a process lack the leeway to optimize or rectify it." I was just following orders...we know where that road leads.

No wonder so many organizations try to force all of their software development processes into a waterfall! It just fits perfectly within the practices that have already fallen into due to this overemphasis on idealized management, however wrong minded it may be.

1 comment:

Bill said...

Thank you! Someone is finally saying what has needed to be said for some time. As a private individual and a consultant who works with non-profit organizations and leaders, I am overwhelmed by the plague of "accountabalism." The disease doesn't just afflict the corporate world. Farmers are being crushed by the burden of "traceability", often because of one minute amount of contamination. Teachers are spending huge amounts of time, once devoted to teaching, documenting and analyzing their students every academic and personal behavioural quirk to ensure that the system can peg a person into abstract category. On and on it goes. We have become so risk adverse that we assume that a set of procedures managed by off-site bureaucrats will protect our health and well-being. This development is increasing costs, undermining productivity, destroying entrepreneurial effort and personal job satisfaction.