The Fantasy of Executive Fiat

July 24, 2008

Citizens of corporate America often speculate on how quickly an issue could be resolved if the top exec in the organization were involved. She’d tell them to get that system fixed NOW, no excuses! Get that product out NOW or heads are gonna roll! This ain’t no democracy. Our feudal roots are exposed. It’s clear who’s in charge and who the peons (and peed-ons) are. Want action? Use executive fiat*. Executive mandate.

That’s a nice fantasy. It’s an empowerment fantasy, like Dirty Harry. “Man, if the cops would just pull out a .357 and deal out some justice, I wouldn’t be afraid on my way to the bus stop.” Sorry, Dirty Harry’s not real. Neither is Superman. Batman’s not real either, but the new movie is more realistic in that the machinations of power are dirty, complicated and full of gray areas. The gangbangers will still be hanging around the bus stop on your way to work tomorrow. When you get there, the system won’t work and the project will be delayed.

Can an executive mandate something and get it done? Sure. Happens all the time. I’ve seen product launches accelerated by executive fiat in several companies and industries. They got action. They hit their timelines, too, and were bonused accordingly.

A funny thing happened down the road, though. The laptop launch that was mandated led to an absurdly high number of returns with cracked screens. The seven-day fix on the internal system missed a key pain point (that the boss didn’t really understand, not being a user of the system), so a whole new set of workarounds was developed. The software…well, who expected the Russian hackers to pwn it so quickly?

I don’t intend to mock hubris here (it’s tempting, but The Onion is better at it). Nor am I saying that it’s OK for projects to languish in the pipeline or to have scope and timelines decided by consensus. Death by consensus is worse than executive fiat, as I’ve made clear before.

All I’m trying to point out is that executives are not nearly as powerful as we think they are. They can drive action anytime they want, but results don’t happen without collaboration. The smart ones know this. They’re the ones who don’t just mandate things, they ask penetrating questions first. Why? Their skill is to first understand the problem and then abstract it up to the appropriate level to solve it without getting mired in the executional weeds. They’re decisive but only after enough facts are in to be reasonably sure of making a sustainable decision. That won’t happen with fiats or consensus. It only happens with true collaborative leadership.

*Okay, nobody uses the word ‘fiat’ anymore outside of political wonks. It means ‘mandate’. But it sounds more hierarchical and feudal and less beaureaucratic. And it goes nicely with ‘fantasy’ in the title. And it’s my blog and I’ll use the words I want to.

Photo by ®oberto’s

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