The Theory of Else

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“When I am right, no one remembers. When I am wrong, no one forgets,” Doug Harvey, a professional baseball umpire, once lamented.

In IT we face a similar dilemma: Our responsibility is the delivery of working software that adheres to the specifications. When we do, and the specifications are appropriate, and the business makes use of the software to its fullest capabilities, and everything improves the way it was supposed to, the rest of the business takes it for granted. Or even worse, it grudgingly acknowledges that for once IT did something right, making it clear we shouldn’t feel too good about this victory.

There is no such thing as an IT project. It’s always about business change. When the business change isn’t successful, we both know what happens next: No matter what really went wrong, IT will get the blame. Why? Because it’s always safe to blame IT. We’re convenient scapegoats for everything that can (and usually does) go wrong in a project.

And there’s nothing we can do about it. Our job, after all, is done when the software works according to the specifications. Everything else that has to happen is someone else’s responsibility.


Right … if, that is, you practice the Theory of Else.

The Theory of Else, whose practitioners hold the word “they” in high esteem, asserts that it’s better to determine who else should have done something different than it is to determine what you can do to ensure success.

In many IT organizations, the Theory of Else is ingrained in the culture: “The software met the specifications. It isn’t my fault that the specifications were wrong.” “The software can do what the business needs it to do. It isn’t our fault that the business failed to use it the way we designed it.”

Heck, some IT organizations missed most of the new economy, figuring it was someone else’s job to figure out that e-commerce was important. IT’s job? To build software that met the specifications once they did.

If you can get away with the Theory of Else, more power to you. There’s no particular nobility in doing somebody else’s job for them, and there’s a lot of safety in building software that works just fine only nobody in the business ever puts it to the test.

More than likely, though, the Theory of Else will work for everyone else in the business, leaving you holding the bag. In their eyes, these are all IT projects, so if they don’t deliver the expected returns, it must be IT’s fault.

Which means IT has to practice a different theory — the Theory of Everything Else. The Theory of Everything Else leads to this IT mission statement: “We do whatever needs to get done that nobody else chooses to do.”

It might not be elegant. It falls a few parsecs short of being diplomatic. But it has two useful consequences.

The first is that it’s a turf intrusion. If, for example, nobody develops a communications plan, the most likely result is that employees will resist the planned change strenuously, causing it to fail or at least disrupting its success. So instead, imagine you practice the Theory of Everything Else and develop a communications plan for the affected employees.

“Who do you think you are! That’s a job for Internal Communications, not IT!” or so you’ll most likely hear from the head of Internal Communications, who thereby volunteers for the job.

Likewise business process redesign: “Who do you think you are! That’s our responsibility,” you can imagine the Chief Operating Officer exclaiming. Which, of course, it is, again letting you off the hook specifically because you carefully put yourself on the hook.

You’ll undoubtedly step on some toes by practicing the Theory of Everything Else. Which brings us to the second benefit: While you might step on their toes (yes, there is a pun there, but only if you insist), which might cause some resentment, that’s far better than the alternative.

Which is, of course, being on the wrong side of their Theory of Else.