Architects, wordsmiths, parrots, duckers and naysayers – Canadian Government Executive

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March 10, 2015

Architects, wordsmiths, parrots, duckers and naysayers

I wrote about accountability more than a year ago. Recently, a colleague whispered to me that it is time to write again. She heads a central procurement group; we work in quite different environments, and I was exploring how she does it, and the differences.

Talking about delegation of authority, she said that (quite contrary to my experience) in her organization the professional procurement people have no authority to sign contracts. It is the program managers who, having made the decision to spend money using procurement, have all of the authority – using, mind you, procurement processes and designs developed by the procurement pros.

Her striking words: “Why should I and my staff sign contracts? The last person who signs is the one who is accountable – why should I take that on?”

Why, indeed?

Most of us have worked with lengthy approval chains for many types of files. Each step in the chain has to “signed off” before the file can move forward, and at each step various people are almost certain to be encountered.

Meet the Architect, the reviewer who needs to interject personal perspective into the file. For construction contracts this is sometimes referred to (with varying degrees of bitterness) as the reviewer-wanting-to-become-the-architect. It does not matter whether this reviewer actually knows something about the file: simply by being higher in the chain the Architect feels qualified to opine about anything.

Do you know a Wordsmith? These people have supreme faith that their way of wording something is certainly better than the wording submitted to them. Interestingly, when a document moves through a number of approvals by multiple wordsmiths, with everyone making changes, the end result is often pretty much the same as the original text. More than that, the Wordsmith, having made his/her mark on the words, often glosses over the content altogether. Real value-added? I think not.

You may also encounter the Parrot, whose mantra is, “If good old Charlie signed off on this it must be OK”. Cries out for a bypass process.

How about the Ducker? This person actually starts off on the right foot, seeing issues to be resolved (risks, if you will) but for a number of reasons close both eyes and signs off. Yoda would say, “Helpful it is not.”

Then there is the Naysayer, who believes that his/her main role in the world is to say “no” to anything. Naysayers tend to be devious, because a constant stream of negativity would mark them as not being a team player, and could derail their steady progression toward Ultimate Placement (if that reference escapes you, read The Peter Principle, by Laurence J. Peter). What they do instead is find a whole bunch of nit-picky and non-substantive reasons why the file cannot progress. And when they see a file for the second time, they will often find more and bounce it back again. Double jeopardy – you lose.

There are others but these are sufficient to make my point. Any one of them in your approval chain will inevitably contribute little but delay and frustration to the process – more than one, and you will be pushing on a string.

Perhaps the greatest danger is that the people who are higher in the chain than these characters will assume that the signature they see, when finally affixed, means something relevant and useful, and will make their review and approval decisions accordingly. Unfortunately, the signature they take as due diligence may be not much more than confirmation that the bureaucratic process wrapped in red tape has been followed. Think, then, of the damage our cast of characters can do.

What does all of this have to do with accountability?

Let’s accept that the last person who signs is accountable, because if not, his/her signature is meaningless. This accountable person must be able to rely on the completeness and accuracy of the information he or she is given to approve. Every signature in the review process, then, should be a confirmation that a specific component of the file has been validated, with that signer being accountable for that component. If something later goes “boom,” you should know exactly where to direct your questions.

Any signature with no value added should be removed from the approval chain. If you are one of the signers, as Vince Lombardi said, “Autograph your work with excellence.”

Oh – don’t get me started on Teflon.

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