Management Back-to-Basics : RACI, Pilatus, and the art of diluting responsibility

RACI is a totem for generations of weak managers and mediocre consultants. While it claims to be able to structure the allocation of responsibility, accountability, and the need for consultation and information within an organization or process — it fails miserably.

Out of the numerous flaws of the RACI concept, the worst ones are:

  • The cardinal rule I have learned in the military is that responsibility is undividable. Once you get a mission, you are personally in charge to get the task done or to suffer some consequences. Naturally, a task can be divided in sub-tasks and those can be delegated to other individuals in a hierarchical system. On every level of that hierarchy, every owner of a task is responsible to do something and to achieve the mandated results. The artificial separation of responsibility and accountability has a single aim: To dilute the identification of the individual (singular) that is in charge. Check out any of the scandals that are currently floating through the press to see the principle in action: Involved parties claim to be at most responsible (i.e. they have done the bad deed), but not accountable (i.e. they have no attributable guilt). In law, such a concept is applicable to children and the provably insane; in economy, RACI makes it a guiding principle. Not even the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary makes a distinction between responsible and accountable, while e.g. in German both are rightfully translated to the same word.
  • Being consulted gains the right to be asked for input on a topic. Nowhere in the RACI logic is it specified what happens with that opinion or recommendation and whether consultations must be followed-up, obeyed, considered, … Nor what happens when multiple consults produce different results. That is the top-down “get out of jail card” when a manager consults as many people as possible to “cover his/her a…”, while being able to ignore whatever is not desired.
  • Establishing a list of informed parties seems like a good idea at first — until its effects become visible: There are those who claim their need to be informed (only) and in that implicitly deny their responsibility; an information black hole. Not being on the informed list lays ground to a claim of utter innocence. For those deep in the corporate hierarchy this is the bottom-up “get out of jail card”.
  • Consider the numerical explosion for a real environment (compared to the usual academic examples): In a team of 100 members with 20 tasks, there are already more than 10.000 possible allocations that have to be defined, understood, and regularly verified and maintained.
  • Give such a realistic RACI matrix to your employees and ask them, whether they actually understand what is expected from them and whether that describes the full scope of their involvement in the organization. While you are at it: Ask them how they feel about being reduced to a few letters and whether that makes you as an employer more attractive…

The primary purpose of the RACI elements is — in the finest tradition of Pilatus — to wash everybody’s hands clean of responsibility (in the real sense) for their deeds or omissions.

Why do we have RACI all over the world (but certainly not in my projects):

  • It allows weak managers to hide behind little letters in a matrix and to isolate themselves from the consequences of their doing — the real responsibility.
  • Armies of consultants enjoy a comfortable life-style, while spending billable hours in updating matrices with allocations that become outdated as soon as they hit the Excel sheet.

Here my recommendations:

  1. Throw out the RACI matrices; you might be surprised that nobody misses them.
  2. Release all the consultants producing RACI matrices; you might be surprised … exactly!
  3. Establish human-understandable task descriptions in the form of “Do this with that expected result”.
  4. Take responsibility!