Sunday, March 15, 2009

Data Governance and the Coke Machine Syndrome

I was in a meeting last week and recognized the Coke Machine Syndrome, an important business parable that I learned from an old boss. All meetings can fall victim to it, not just data governance meetings. Since meeting management is so crucial to the success of a data governance initiative, you should learn to recognize it and nip it in the bud as quickly as possible.

Data Governance and the Coke Machine Syndrome
The scene is your company’s conference room. You have just presented your new plan outlining the data governance projects for the entire year. The plan outlines where you’re going to spend this year to improve data quality. Each department argues persuasively for support from the data governance team. With some significant growth goals for the coming year, marketing and sales claims they can’t make it without better data for promotions. Manufacturing obviously can’t reach new goals for efficiency without improving the data within the ERP system. And administration simply must have better data for better metrics in the data warehouse to understand the business.

After limited discussion, the budget is approved and 95% of your team’s expenses have been committed for the current budget. This part of the meeting allocating millions of dollars and takes place in about 60 minutes.

The Coke Machine
At this point, the meeting leader mentions that the company has been considering the installation of a Coke machine in this section of the building. With a few minutes left in the meeting, he asks what drinks people want in the machine.

For the next 45 minutes, the debate rages with a heightened level of intensity. Should it be placed near the stairway, or in the employee cafeteria, or in the stairwell? Should it contain Pepsi products instead of Coke? Should it contain Red Bull? Should the bottles be recyclable, and how will the recyclable materials be handled?

By the time the meeting adjourns, nearly as much time has been spent on the Coke machine as has been spent on the entire data governance budget for the year. The Coke machine discussion is an incredible waste of management time and effort.

Why does it Happen
Coke machine syndromes happen because everyone knows about Coke machines and everyone has a stake in the decision. Knowledge about the issue makes it easier to speak up about the Coke machine than it would be to speak up about a complicated issue like the budget.

Managing it
To manage the Coke machine syndrome, you must recognize it when it occurs. You can identify this syndrome whenever a small, easily understood issue begins to consume more time than it should. There is usually a full range of logical, well-supported, and totally divergent opinions of what must be done, too.

Make sure you call it what it is. In other words, label it with the term: Coke Machine Syndrome and define it for your team. When it happens, you have a short-hand term that you can use to describe what’s happening.

Before each meeting, think about what items on your meeting agenda might turn into a Coke machine syndrome. If you can recognize it, that can be a big help. Many find it helpful to conduct pre-meetings with certain team members to prepare them for simple decisions without having to vet ideas in a meeting.

Finally, if calling it the Coke machine syndrome doesn't work, just use the phrase let’s take it off-line and move on.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are my own and don't necessarily reflect the opinion of my employer. The material written here is copyright (c) 2010 by Steve Sarsfield. To request permission to reuse, please e-mail me.