Stave off root cause paralysis with a data collection pipeline

When a strategic disaster occurs and you don't have the information you need, John Weathington calls this root cause paralysis. The key to prevention is collecting the right information before disaster strikes.

Image: Andrew Ostrovsky

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared on March 8, 2014, and it still hasn't been found. How is this possible? It's hard to believe, in this day and age when you can find out almost anything with a few mouse clicks, that a huge 777 Boeing aircraft can seemingly just disappear. Let's consider what IT leaders can learn from this situation.

Investigators have transitioned from root cause analysis to what I call root cause paralysis; this happens when you're desperately trying to understand what happened, but you don't have the information you need. It's the flip-side of an ah-ha moment -- it's the uh-oh moment. As an IT leader, the lessons learned during this phase have direct implications on your corporate strategy. You must work with your data scientists and other information professionals to put data gathering methods and controls in place for all possible strategic failure modes.

Understanding root cause paralysis

When you're dealing with a strategic disaster, you want to have data scientists at your disposal. A strategic disaster is any realized risk that significantly threatens the success of your strategy.

For example, let's say your strategy depends on penetrating an untapped market with your analytic, disruptive innovation. Midstream through your implementation, your biggest competitor announces their analytic product introduction into the same market. That will cause some sleepless nights.

I have specific advice for what to do when a strategic disaster hits, though your success in navigating through this situation is greatly influenced by what you do before it strikes.

Risk management plays an extremely important role in strategic execution. After you decide on the markets and offerings that comprise your strategy, and the key capabilities that are required to support your strategy, you must analyze all the risks that pose a threat to the success of your strategy.

I extend the Six Sigma concept of an FMEA (Failure Modes and Effects Analysis) to corporate strategies: creating an inventory of strategic failure modes. It's vital to go through this exercise, as the locus of your strategic execution should be these risks.

Strategy execution is less about following tasks and more about fending off risks. You can easily bat away some of these risks, but sometimes a strategic disaster shows up -- that's where your upfront planning to mitigate the impacts of these risks (or strategic contingency planning) comes in very handy. If disaster strikes, you must have the right information in place to do an effective root cause analysis. Leaders that don't fall victim to root cause paralysis.

Preventing root cause paralysis

To prevent against root cause paralysis, install good information gathering methods and controls before you start to implement your strategy. If you've thought through the process up to this point, collecting the right information seems obvious, but underwhelming controls is where leaders tend to fall short. Don't make this mistake. Speculation aside, if you look at the facts around the Flight 370 tragedy and why they don't have the information that they need, there's more to do with information controls than anything else.

In general, the airline industry's information gathering process seems reasonable. Any modern aircraft is designed to communicate important information about its whereabouts on a consistent basis. However, in Flight 370's case, those communications systems were mysteriously shut off several hours before the plane is believed to have gone down. Most people are focused on why, but I'm more curious about how? How can anyone in the plane just shut off its communication systems?

As you instrument your strategy with sensors and information collection stores, make sure there's no way that data isn't available if you need it. You sensors should constantly be collecting data, and your data stores should be bulletproof. There's no technical reason why you can't put this in place, though IT needs your leadership to make this a priority.

Finally, make sure you plumb all your strategic failure modes that could spell disaster with a good information pipeline. Get comfortable with the fact that you won't use most of this data. Most strategic disasters won't surface -- that's a good thing! You shouldn't expect a strategic disaster to show up. If it does, you must be prepared. Don't ever leave a possible strategic disaster without a contingent control. This should be a gating factor for strategy execution.


I hope you never face a strategic disaster, but if you do, you want an ah-ha moment, not an uh-oh moment. Regardless of whether you're using big data analytics in your core strategy or supporting your core strategy, don't start your implementation before you have an information pipeline in place for every possible strategic disaster.

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