A recent CIO survey showed that business intelligence (BI) applications were the highest technology priority. Of course, BI is a technology-driven process for analyzing data and presenting actionable information to help corporate executives, business managers and other end users make more informed business decisions. BI encompasses a variety of tools, applications and methodologies that enable organizations to collect data from internal systems and external sources, prepare it for analysis, develop and run queries against the data, and create analytical reports for corporate decision makers as well as operational workers.

Potential benefits include accelerating and improving decision making; optimizing internal business processes; increasing operational efficiency; driving new revenues; and gaining competitive advantages over business rivals. BI systems can also help companies identify market trends and spot business problems that need to be addressed.

Now, the Problem

Unfortunately, BI project failure rates are high and a major cause of resentment between business and BI departments. One of the more subtle intellectual challenges to all BI project team members is that "other" people set your objectives, provide your resources, and furnish the information you need to be successful.  You may or may not control the circumstances of your work, or even its goal. In management terms, your authority is not sufficient for your responsibility. Actual (as opposed to formal) authority is acquired based on your personal achievements.

The dependence one has upon others can be a painful experience. You depend on other team member work products. These are sometimes inadequately designed, incomplete, and poorly documented.  So you must spend hours studying and fixing things that in an ideal world would be complete, well thought-out, and usable. 

The reasons for BI project failures are numerous BI projects tend to fail when there are:

  • No metrics established or captured.
  • No sizing, estimating or planning tools.
  • No progress reporting or design reviews.
  • Bait and switch fixed bid contracts.
  • No estimating heuristics captured from previous similar development efforts.
  • No code inspection or defect tracking mechanisms in place.
  • No formal change control (scope creep) mechanisms in place.
  • Requirements which are unstable or unwritten.
  • Excessive schedule pressures.
  • Divisive politics between BI departments and the user community.
  • Naive senior business executives who fail to oversee projects effectively.
  • Geographically separate teams.
  • Noisy open-plan offices which degrades productivity.
  • Matrix management of projects – less efficient than hierarchical management where lines of control are clearer.
  • Excessive amounts of staff attrition.
  • Abrupt introductions of new technologies.
  • Poorly trained project managers.
  • Uncommitted senior BI and business managers – so the project ends up not being seen as important.
  • Lack of ownership (personal accountability) issues – so it's no individual's fault if the project fails.
  • Failures to integrate project goals within larger business aims.

Personal Accountability Issues

While the above reasons for BI project failure have been well documented, one of the more subtle of contributors to BI project failures is a growing lack of personal accountability in our lives. Some people don't seem compelled to be honest and responsible. It is critical to BI project success that the team members who don’t exhibit a high degree of personal accountability are identified, marginalized, and/or removed from the project. They have the potential to severely impact the morale of other team members.

Sometimes follow-through seems more like a quaint behavior that our parents and grandparents were concerned with rather than a basic responsibility. This behavioral shift has accelerated during the past few decades. It seems as though lack of discipline, failure to follow-through and reluctance to be held accountable for our actions now define the admired if not desired state.

How did we manage to arrive at such dire straits? The American ideals of self-reliance, can-do attitude, initiative, innovation, and perseverance in the face of adversity have had their pristine images pitted and eroded over the past century.

Learned helplessness is a self-fulfilling prophecy where an individual has certain expectations – positive or negative, true or false – about a person or a situation. She then acts – or fails to act – in ways that lead to the outcome she predicted. An all-encompassing sense of helplessness is nothing new. Citizens in various societies throughout history have struggled against this debilitating feeling. The more helpless the people feel, the easier it is for others to control them. America is not immune to this progressive disease. 

Some people are convinced that they are helpless to deal with life's challenges and believe assistance from others is their due. This entitlement mentality – of being watched over and cared for from womb to tomb – reveals what is fundamentally a childish mental state. 

Many adults do not think they can extricate themselves from their predicaments; are unaware of and resistant to learning what would work; and sit blankly before their television sets at night dully wondering, "Is this all there is?" 

Many adults become reactive rather than proactive in their lives, afraid to trust in their own judgments.  Passivity and laziness is so much easier than exerting effort.  Go with the flow, don't resist, don't rock the boat become their mantras.  Dependence and need are celebrated, independence and self-reliance are denounced.

The helpless among us no longer speak for themselves but instead tell everyone else how they ought to live (conveniently ignoring the contradiction inherent in such actions). They view self-responsibility, self-assertion, and personal accountability as antisocial while simultaneously adopting a problem rather than solution orientation. They blame anyone – the rich, the men, the foreigners, the minorities – anyone but themselves for what happens to them. For them, excuses are omnipresent; intentions are all that matter, apologies sufficient to erase their mistakes.

Returning to the Values of Yesteryear

The sign "The Buck Stops Here" that was on President Truman's desk in his White House office was made in the Federal Reformatory at El Reno, Oklahoma.  Fred M. Canfil, then United States Marshal for the Western District of Missouri and a friend of Mr. Truman, saw a similar sign while visiting the Reformatory and asked the Warden if a sign like it could be made for President Truman.  The sign was made and mailed to President on October 2, 1945.  It appeared at different times on his desk until late in his administration.

The saying "The Buck Stops Here" derives from the slang expression "pass the buck" which means passing the responsibility on to someone else.  The latter expression is said to have originated with the game of poker, in which a marker or counter, frequently in frontier days a knife with a buckhorn handle, was used to indicate the person whose turn it was to deal.  If the player did not wish to deal he could pass the responsibility by passing the buck, as the marker came to be called, to the next player.

On more than one occasion President Truman referred to the desk sign in public statements. For example, in an address at the National War College on December 19, 1952 Mr. Truman said, "You know, it's easy for the Monday morning quarterback to say what the coach should have done, after the game is over.  But when the decision is up before you – and on my desk I have a motto which says “The Buck Stops Here” – the decision has to be made." 

In his farewell address to the American people given in January 1953, President Truman referred to this concept very specifically in asserting that; "The President – whoever he is – has to decide.  He can't pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him.  That's his job.”

All progress in our lives came from people who stood up, took risks, had values and were personally accountable. For those who aspire to lead or who are placed in a position where leadership goes with the job, don't be afraid to demand accountability. 

Show responsibility yourself. There is a naturally occurring osmotic process by which others absorb it from you like blotting paper. Ultimately the obligation is yours to revisit the practices and beliefs that still define civilized business practice and not let today's encroaching shallowness become the norm.

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