The Avengers — Governance Gone Wrong

It has been almost a month since I wrote my “Does Your Team Look Like The Avengers” blog post and I am still stuck on this movie! You might ask, “Erin, why can’t you let it go already?” Well, it IS a doggone good movie. But it’s also because I realized that there are yet more lessons to be learned from The Avengers. It almost makes me believe that the screenplay writers were paid under the table by an organizational development professional association.

While my first blog post was about the team dynamics between The Avengers, this second Avengers blog post is about what happens when governance goes very wrong. In fact, bad governance is more than just a big pain in the tush or the topic of incessant staff complaints over the water cooler. It is a distraction that costs organizations’ time, human and financial resources, and compromises an organization or team’s ability to achieve its mission.

Governance is nothing more than the process by which decisions are made (or not) in an organization, as well as the processes for how they are implemented. So, you might ask, “Erin, are you so pressed to write about the Avengers that you’d make something up? I didn’t see anything about governance in The Avengers!” Truth be told — neither did I the first go round. However, the second time around, I paid a little more attention to the dynamic between Nick Fury and The World Security Council to which he reported.

I’m not an Avengers comic book geek (sorry…avid Marvel comic book fans), but I went into the movie thinking that the buck stopped with Nick Fury; only to find out that he had an entity that he reported to (queue menacing music…da da daaaaaaah) — the World Security Council! Here it is that Nick Fury pulled together this super duper team of heroes, sheroes and legends to save the planet (although they were a little dysfunctional in the beginning, but let’s cut em some slack — even the best teams need to form, storm and norm before they perform)! But the World Security Council — completely removed from the action I might add — decides to trump Nick Fury’s plan to let the Avengers take care of Loki and his Chitauri (i.e., alien) army, and instead decide to annihilate New York City. It’s a modest city…may have heard of it…just the finance and banking industry nucleus of the United States…maybe the world. Millions of people. No biggie. Thank goodness that the Avengers not only save the planet from Loki and the Chitauri, but also from the consequences of pretty poor decision-making by the World Security Council; who were supposedly the ultimate decision makers when it came to maintaining peace and prosperity across the world.

But what happened? How did The Council make such a big mess of what was already a complicated situation? I can tell you — piss poor governance. Here are a couple of problems I observed with S.H.I.E.L.D. and The Council’s governance structure:

1. It lacked transparency. Maybe I missed something, but it wasn’t clear to me what was in Nick Fury’s scope of decision authority, and what was in The Council’s. In real life, lack of clear decision authority can lead to death by consensus, or having peers or higher ups mistaking need for their input with their ability (or lack thereof) to make the decision. Making decision authority known up front can speed up the decision-making process and minimize the “too many cooks in the kitchen” syndrome.

2. There was no escalation process. Have you ever been in a conflict that went from 0 to 60 in five second flat? That’s what it felt like to watch the dialogue between Fury and The Council prior to them calling for the missile strike. Because they did not clearly identify and agree to the situational triggers that would precipitate a decision escalation to The Council, Fury and The Council ultimately ended up working at cross purposes. Given that Fury’s organization, S.H.I.E.L.D., is a special operations organization, one would think there would have been enough scenarios for Fury and The Council to figure out the situations or conditions that would require Fury to escalate decisions to them. How many times has your team sought to solve a problem only to find out that your authority was usurped or bumped up to the next authority level without your team’s knowledge, let alone understand why the decision went to the next level in the first place? Wait…maybe that has only happened to me, but I seriously doubt it. Can I get a witness?

3. There as no communication. Good governance models always include established communication channels between decision-making bodies. These channels should include mechanisms for documenting decisions that need to be made and any operational dependencies, as well as decisions that require escalation to another governing body (or person). I think that Fury and The Council met twice during a planet invasion. Strikes me as odd that they wouldn’t be in daily communication about something as serious as an alien invasion. But what do I know? I might be overreacting.

4. It wasn’t participatory. I think #s 1-3 support this point enough already. The Council’s decision was made without even talking to the commander (Fury) closest to the action. How smart is that? I know…not at all. On the flip side — good governance is participative, but does not require death by consensus. Sometimes, consensus is where good ideas and decisions go to die. Collaboration has its place, but not at the risk of drastically slowing down a decision or tabling the decision all together.

5. It wasn’t transparent. All of what is documented in #s1-4 is only evidence that the process was not transparent to any of the decision-making actors — including the boots on the ground, the Avengers. Although I have not mentioned their involvement as much in this blog post, the reality is that although they were the primary ones responsible for executing the mission, they had no clear line of sight into decisions being made that could negatively impact their mission and destroy their lives. If there is no clear line of sight into top-level decisions by those who do the day to day work, then it severely compromises organizational/team effectiveness and morale, and results in wastes of time, effort and resources.

You know you’ve got good governance if decision-making is timely, efficient and effective. If your team or organization doesn’t, then don’t fret — you’re not alone. My hope is that you can learn from Nick Fury and the World Security Council and make your governance model everything that there’s wasn’t.

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Dawn Lautwein

Really like the analogies. I wasn’t thinking that deeply when I watched the movie, but I can certainly see how some of the same dynamics apply in organizations closer to home than the World Security Council.

Thurlough M Smyth

Erin thank you for writing about this important topic — I learned something, and I laughed out loud!