“Is it the shoes?”
That’s the question director Spike Lee
ponders in a classic series of Nike Air Jordan
commercials in the late 1980s and early
1990s, in which Lee, playing the fictional
Mars Blackmon, considers the mysteries
behind the gravity-defying greatness of
basketball player Michael Jordan.
And thus Lee points to one of the most
persistent, frustrating, and important
questions a manager faces: “Is it the
person, the tools, or the process?”
Sadly, we are usually asking the ques-
tion in the negative: Is this thing that went
wrong the person’s fault, the tool’s fault,
or the process’s fault? Or, more likely, how
much of it was the person versus the tool
versus the process?
Humans are difficult that way. It’s hard
enough to understand what makes one of
us tick when we are alone in an empty
room. Give us a hammer and a project
plan, and the possible causes for a failure
become infinite. Then cloud the analysis
in a haze of pressure and disappointment,
and the barriers to arriving at clear answers
become that much greater.
Of course, organizations need to be
up for the challenge; when things go awry,
we have a responsibility to diagnose the
causes. But we may find that answering
the question, “What went wrong?”
becomes just a little easier if we have
already addressed a different question:
“What goes right — and why?”
Think of a process in your organization
that works well, the first thing that comes
to mind. For me, it’s the production of
digital content for the MIT SMR website.
Our digital-production value chain in-
cludes up to seven different human beings,
five different tools, and up to 15 different
process steps. Time to market for an indi-
vidual piece of content can be as few as
three days or stretch over several months.
It works well. And, shame on me, I’d never
thought to ask why.
But analyze it I now have, and here is
what I have learned.
First, the process is mostly transparent.
We plan a pipeline of content that is stored
in a document accessible by the key participants. We track each content item’s
progress on a shared project management
platform. The few times we encounter
bumps, a lack of information sharing is
almost always at fault.
Second, our processes are well
documented. Each step in the digital
publishing chain is well understood by
all participants and is easy to follow.
Third, we are using tools that fit the
process. We employ a combination of
spreadsheets, project management soft-
ware, and editing and web publishing
tools that address our digital publishing
requirements. The tools are lightweight
Fourth, we understand and respect
the interdependencies. All participants
are clear on their roles in the process and
how the ways they carry out their roles
Fifth, it is essentially leaderless. Our
digital production chain operates as a
bucket brigade in which all participants
have equal footing.
Sixth, the talents, attitudes, and
communication styles of all of the
participants are suited to their tasks. To
borrow a concept from the management
author Jim Collins: We have the right
people on the bus, and they are sitting
in the right seats. A successful digital
publishing process requires a specific
combination of technical abilities, yes —
but also a commitment to cooperate, to
flex when needed, to solve problems on
the fly, and to communicate actively. We
are lucky to have a team in which such
attributes are in abundance.
My analysis is unscientific, incomplete,
and perhaps even obvious. But the six
drivers I have identified give me a starting
point to understand successful processes
in my organization. More so, I have made
it a priority to identify and understand the
components of process success to better
dissect a failure. And only more good can
come from that.
No, Mars, it’s not the shoes.
Editor in Chief
MIT Sloan Management Review
Do You Diagnose
What Goes Right?