The Chief Answer Officer

A couple of months ago, we talked about ways to improve the effectiveness of meetings and projects. Today, we’d like to address the same topic, but offer a different solution…

In her must-read book The New How, Nilofer Merchant shares one of her observations: She analyzes the lack of responsiveness of large organizations and identifies a bottleneck: the Chief Answer Officer, the individual, who’s supposed to know everything, and have all the answers. She explains in detail how “the CAO syndrome” cripples all organizations.

As soon as you have a CAO, everyone else becomes a “herd of doers.” Based on my personal experience, projects often get stuck exactly because of CAOs, because there is a unwritten (or written) rule stating that all information should go through them and all decisions must be made by them. Obviously, some people could have more experience and should have higher ranking than others, but in today’s world, it is simply impossible for an individual to know everything. If during a meeting or a project, you spot a CAO, consider it’s a red flag.

Of course, nobody would listen to me had I said, “Get rid of the CAO!” Therefore, I call Mrs. Merchant to help. She astutely states four reasons why the CAO model no longer works:

  1. Having a CAO, as genius as s/he could be, is not scalable organizational model. Today, the body of knowledge grows exponentially, yet we still have 24 hours a day. Trying to know it all, track all trends, and follow all markets is a recipe for burnout.
  2. Basically, social psychology says that if we are not part of a solution, which will eventually affect us, we are less likely to share the ownership of the solution. We might even go to the extremes to sabotage change. CAOs are usually thinkers, not doers. If they want their strategy to work, they will need the doers to buy into their strategy. If the doers take part during the strategy development process, they will resist less.
  3. In line with the previous point, human beings are more motivated when they are involved in decision-making. Who would not want a highly-motivated team? A CAO should also be responsible for keeping the team’s morale high. Better-motivated workforce means better performance. Better performance means better results.
  4. Gen Y, who have started to take bigger roles in corporations want to be involved. They demand to be heard or else they have no problem finding another employer, who values their opinions.

In her perennial book Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World, Margaret Wheatley says:

We are all bundles of potentials, waiting to be activated.

That is one of the deepest and wisest things I have ever heard about life. So, as Mrs. Merchant suggests, don’t look at your team as a herd of doers, look at them as potentials. In a fast-pace business environment, no company could and should afford to rely on a single person. Collective intelligence always beats individual intelligence. Once the doers are given responsibility and felt included, they will start thinking ways to improve solutions, work harder, care more about their work.

Today’s actionable tip: Involve them in strategy development. Label them as your scouts. Make sure that they are your eyes and ears. Remember the Chinese proverb: “Smart man knows everything. Smartest man knows everyone.”

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