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Leadership stories: Did coyness kill the BBC?

23rd Apr 2014
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Michael Maynard relays a recent story about his experiences of the BBC and its leadership problems.

At the recent Public Accounts Committee inquiry into the disastrous digital project that was abandoned by the BBC at a cost of nearly £100m to licence payers, senior BBC executives were full of apologies. It was a project that had spiralled out of control and nobody seemed able to make sense of exactly what had happened, how it had gone so wrong and why it cost so much money. The newly appointed Director General, Tony Hall, when confronted with the complexity of it all, simply decided to pull the plug.

There will no doubt be reams written on one of the biggest IT projects ever to fail but here’s a surprising take on the whole issue based on my own personal experience. In 2007 my business was asked to run a team workshop to explore how the collaboration between the BBC and Siemens, (who where then the technical suppliers), could work better. The two groups were quite divided in their approach and the way that they worked. If they were a team you would say that they were dysfunctional. However, they weren’t an actual team; they were two groups of people trying to collaborate on a very complex project.

I worked with the group and we did some intensive relationship-building exercises in the hope that by understanding each other better they would be able to work together more effectively. I encountered quite a lot of stubbornness on behalf of the leadership; people protecting their territories, not willing to compromise, unable to let go of control. So was this the root of the disaster? I don’t think so. By the end of my session, I thought we had made some progress. There was dialogue, curiosity, exploration and the basis for agreeing some collaborative working.

"I encountered quite a lot of stubbornness on behalf of the leadership; people protecting their territories, not willing to compromise, unable to let go of control."

So what was the cause of the downfall? Well, I then witnessed a planning session. They were using a technique that you may well be familiar with in order to allocate responsibility and accountability. It’s often referred to as the RACI model. 'R' stands for who is responsible, 'A' for accountable, 'C' for who needs to be consulted and 'I' for who needs to be informed. I have also used a similar model with other clients except I reverse two of the positions. It seems obvious to us that you need to start with Accountability. However, this would lead to an acronym spelling 'ARCI'. Seemingly, the business world all over prefers to be racy rather than arsey. But such coyness blurs reality. So, I found it rather interesting when Margaret Hodge MP, the head of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, said that she encountered many people who accepted responsibility for what had gone wrong but nobody held their hand up to being accountable.

So, what did I witness in the room as they worked their way through the RACI process? Yes, of course, they had to put somebody into the box marked accountable and it might be ridiculous to suggest that a simple ordering of spelling might lead to a lack of ultimate accountability. However that’s what I witnessed. Lots of people in the room were absolutely willing to put their hand up for responsibility for doing the job, for making it happen. Very few wanted to be the one holding the buck when it stopped. So, whilst it might sound a little crude, it confirms my belief that the process has to start with an 'A'.

Margaret Hodge also commented on the overwhelming levels of bureaucracy that characterised the project. Any planning structure, whether it’s ARCI, RACI or anything else, is only as good as the people operating it and the relationships that they have with each other.

Some years after I worked with the two groups, Siemens were jettisoned by the BBC who felt that they could then run the project perfectly well themselves internally. Sadly, that was not the case. I’m not advocating authoritarian leadership with huge, ego-bound 'As' at the head of it all. Leadership is certainly about accountability, yet good leadership is absolutely about engaging and building healthy relationships with all those concerned. The BBC seemed to fail on both counts. Perhaps if they were brave enough to tell it as it is and willing to be a little arsey, all us licence payers might be just a little less poor.

Michael Maynard is co-founder of Maynard Leigh Associates


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