When RACI Isn’t Enough

SPLICE CoverOne can’t inhabit the halls of any large organization too long before encountering that project.  You know the one.  Strategic.  Cross Functional.  Visible.  Really Really Important.  Really really horrible, complete with turf wars, In-fighting, and finger pointing.  Then somebody decides all the problems map back to roles and responsibilities.   The corporate tribal drums begin to beat, the more impressionable break into ritual dance, and various escalations are invoked until an industrial-sized RACI chart emerges as pages and pages of 8pt Excel spreadsheets.  Things do get better, at least a little bit, and the project proceeds with all the real transparency, deep engagement with realities on the ground, and pure joy of a 70’s era Soviet Politburo meeting.

What happened?

The bottom line is that RACI works and works for well for divisions of labor, but says nothing at all about collaboration.  In practice, with that focus on the divisions of labor, RACI can actually impede effective team decision-making.  It reduces the visible bad behavior mentioned above but can just drive it underground, pouring concrete over the state of affairs, kind of like a a flawed nuclear containment facility.  Think Chernobyl.

Having lived through this more times than I care to count and even having built a consulting practice on helping projects that are RACI refugees, I began to see a pattern emerge.  Adding a focus on the mechanics of collaboration and shared decision-making minimized or eliminated the negative side effects of RACI while maintaining its effective divisions of labor.

I may not be the quickest rabbit in the meadow, but eventually I got around to bundling up an approach to the mechanics of collaboration to supplement RACI.  Given the relationship to RACI it had to have a cute little acronym too:  SPLICe.   Get it? RACI splits the organization into efficient units of work and SPLICe does all the re-connections to effectively deliver.

SPLICe?  What’s that?

Sponsor – Unlike a project sponsor that is driving an outcome (the A in RACI), this sponsor is driving a means not an end and that means is collaborative decision-making.  The intent is to get the best possible decision while also ensuring buy in for the direction it sets.  The sponsor ensures that the roles (see I don’t hate roles and responsibilities) below are performing to SPLICe expectations.  The Sponsor is also the owner of good-enough, setting decision timelines.

Partners – These are the folks that have to play an active role in the work required prior to an effective decision being made.  They help propose and define alternatives.  They’re passionate and expert on the criteria to be used in selecting among alternatives.  They’re influential across groups of stakeholders in eliciting input and in selling outcomes.

Lead – A special case of Partner, the Lead in SPLICe pulls all that Partner energy together into cohesive action.  This person is often not the ultimate decision maker (that may well be the Sponsor), but is their go-to person.  Their particular value add is leveraging many experts to craft a decision that is timely, well supported, and actionable.

Implementers – As the name implies, these are the folks that will actually implement the chosen direction.  While they may not be significantly involved prior to a decision being made, their enthusiasms, capabilities, and capacities are critical to any outcome. in any effective decision, they will be have been considered in the pre-work

Challengers – These are the devil’s advocates of the decision-making process.   Like Leaders, they’re a special case of Partner, though their focus is on what might go wrong.  Good challengers will walk that fine line between identifying potential pitfalls but not just finding all the excuses why change isn’t possible. Having too many Challengers on a team can be self defeating but having none is a recipe for blissful stupidity.

everyone – The “e” in SPLICe is a reminder to all involved to look outside the box, to consider the unusual case and the exceptions without allowing those to assume more priority or focus than they deserve, hence the lower case.

Great!  I’ve got the decision team.  Now What?

The other critical component of SPLICe, in addition to these roles, is a list of significant decisions.  The work of collaboration is a series of shared decisions.  Implementing SPLICe is simply a process of identifying these decision points and SPLICe actors for each of them.   Interestingly enough RACI is a great source for those decision points.  Often each unit of work has a few key decisions that have to be made to complete the work.  Those decisions are also the launching points for integrating the unit of work back into an effective whole.  Without SPLICe, especially in highly visible, high pressure projects, it’s a natural human reaction for the R’s in RACI to short cut those decisions. They do most or all of the pre-work themselves trying to be efficient or trying to avoid conflict and get to a decision quickly. The decision works within their unit of work, but creates issues as the work is folded back into the broader outcomes.

The list of significant decisions is not a laundry list of every decision in a unit of work.  As you sift through the RACI, corporate policies, and various other governance tools, look for those decision points that have multiple downstream impacts both with-in the unit of work, but also beyond. Think back to your worst projects (yeah, I know, it’s painful, you have my permission to use pharmaceuticals and libations.). Think about your work war stories that were bad in the moment, but make a good story now.  Buried in all that experience is usually one or two decisions that represent a turning point, and not in a good way.  There’s probably something of a pattern to them over time.  Those are your significant decision points.  They’re also a good source of thinking about partners you didn’t have then and might want now).

So the next time that industrial sized RACI get’s rolled out, jump on board instead of hiding under your desk. And as you jump on board, begin building your SPLICe so your team can not only efficiently divide up the work, but also effectively integrate it together to provide that broader outcome.

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