Thursday, September 4, 2014

If you are the only one following the rules, are you the loser ?

At some point in grade school the phrase "cheaters never prosper" may have crossed your path. If it did, you've probably been given ample opportunity to wonder whether everything you needed to know you really did learn in kindergarten, or did they just fill your head with loser mush?

The following little article would be quite amusing if it were fiction, but it is not. The punch line comes at the end.

Dying for a Chance to Get a Cheat’s Job - (H/t: Project

Don't giggle at this as something that only happens in the Third Word.  At a national level, check your daily newspaper: anything goes as long as my friends are the ones doing it.  Especially if they are likely to do me a little favor in return. It speaks to the trend, endorsed even by our national leaders through their deeds, misdeeds and choices over what to do nothing about.

The moral of the story is: if nobody enforces the rules, there are, de facto, no rules.  This has pretty obvious implications for governance.

How many of you are filling out templates for the PMO, for the budget office, for the security review and so on and so on, all in the name of the serious consequences that might arise if we didn't go through this analysis? Set aside for the now the matter of the quality of the work. It still takes time to do it. And now how many of you have experienced the annoyance that another project somehow gets money and staff and goes sailing off (often over a cliff, true) without any of this oh-so-vital paperwork? All the hands still in the air, I see. At that moment you start thinking to yourself, "why did I waste time on all that? Next time I'll just scrape some crap off the internet and turn it in. Or buy the boss a beer and not bother with turning anything at all".

It may be worth evaluating "if everybody did that, would the organization come crashing down?" If not, then maybe it is time to back off on the policies and templates and give people some credit for having common sense and technical competence.  If such a catastrophe really might occur, then it is worth opening up a dialog as to who is allowed to cheat and why. Possibly a useful risk-based oversight framework might evolve.

So, please, weigh in on the basic question: If you are the only one following the rules, does that prove why you are a loser ?  Or should you be praised (by whom?) for soldiering on heroically?

Monday, September 1, 2014

Projects will continue to fail when nobody has the will to make them succeed

Hope, they say, is not a strategy. Without any idea of how to execute, or the will to simply do that which already know how to do, an elaborate "strategy" is not even hope: it is hopeless.  So many after-action reviews conclude that a project failed because it was under-resourced.  What most project retrospectives will not say (wisely, for career purposes, but indicative of the problem) -- the elephant in the living room, if you will -- is that the primary missing resource may be courageous leadership.

Can it be that the same elephant lurks behind the decade-on-decade consistency of the Standish Chaos reports?  Why do large organizations, including but not limited to the federal government, have so much difficulty getting projects completed satisfactorily, let alone on time and on budget?   Why do they have to re-implement basic project management practices every 4-5 years?  Can it be that nobody really cares what happens with all this money or whether these systems really work or not?  Or at least they do not care about that as much as they care about not offending any of their buddies or not changing any current behaviors.

Wanting something to succeed doesn't mean it will.   Projects do not succeed just because the leadership and/or the team maintain a cheery attitude, all smiles and no commitment.. You have to want it enough to motivate yourself to do the things that will make it succeed. If you are not willing to push yourself (and, more importantly, others) to do those things, then the project will fail no matter how much you had hoped it would succeed.  Courageous leaders do what needs to be done, make others do what they know they should do, and refuse to allow the organization to fritter away its time and money on things that do not need to be done.

Why would an organization's leaders undertake a project if they don't really care about it?  Again, if by "care" we mean "enough to do what needs to be done", (the Obamacare website) is Exhibit A.

Before going there, let's give credit where it is due to the many competent government managers and contract IT companies that are annually delivering over $30 billion in IT projects that are delivered without incident.  Well, according to the Federal IT scorecard anyway.  And we should note that the IRS' ACA companion piece -- also highly complex and highly expensive -- did work just fine.

Why do we keep re-hashing  In the less-than-uplifting words of Hillary Clinton, "after all this time, what does it really matter?" keeps getting re-hashed because (a) the truth keeps changing and (b) it provides so many object lessons in how to mismanage a project.

Nobody can suggest that the administration did not care about the success of this project.  At the start, anyway.  It was, after all, the means of implementing the administration's signature accomplishment.   It had tons of money.  It had plenty of time, indeed, from the outset it was derided for the overtly political delay of the program for an entire Presidential election cycle in order to avoid the possibility of failure before the next elections.  And, while ambitious, the scope was eminently feasible. Progressive Insurance (and no doubt others) has been providing real-time policy pricing comparisons since at least 2007.  The government's own employee health insurance system displays dozens of options.  In other words, unlike a great number of other initiatives that are obviously half-baked from Day One, this one had every likelihood of succeeding.

In many organizations, the governance process appears to stop with the project approval process.  Other than setting resource priorities, the choice of specific projects may actually be the least significant of a governance board's contributions.  Given clear priorities and budgets, program managers can usually figure out what projects need to be done to accomplish the program's aims.  What the governance board can uniquely do is to sweep away obstacles when, as they must inevitably do, projects run into problems AFTER they have started.and governance processes are the means of helping them through to a successful conclusion.

So it should have been no surprise when encountered challenges.  As usual "the contractors" took the blame.  The selection of a vendor without experience in this domain was a reliable predictor of the eventual outcome, but the fact is that the contractors reported the issues in plenty of time to have taken some corrective measures -- except that their reports were swept under the rug.  The contractors insist, and have never been contradicted, that they were reporting issues over a year in advance of the roll-out.  The Federal IT scorecard shows that particular project reporting "green" for quarter after quarter, until January of 2013 (nine months before the roll-out date), when it reported itself as "red" with some concerns noted about unsatisfactory test results. Evidently HHS conducted some sort of intervention that it felt to be satisfactory, as the project resumed reporting "green" until August 2013, 2 months before the roll-out, when the ENTIRE  Federal IT dashboard conveniently stopped reporting  for several months.

Well, the secret is out, and things are moving nicely now that the incompetents have been removed from office ...  oops, that was the script for another movie, I guess.  To this day, the identities of these incompetents remains a mystery.  And what a mystery it must be: the same press corps that has no difficulty finding illegal aliens or international terrorists when it wants to interview them is completely flummoxed when it comes to locating ostensibly public servants. Still, we should not have to rely on the press.  The point of governance is that you set up a framework to preclude, or at least to identify and deal with, problems yourself.  The administration's lack of interest in finding out what happened and firing those who were responsible is a crystal-clear example of the leadership failures that cause so many initiatives to fail: simply not caring enough about getting it right.

Didn't we say earlier that obviously the administration really wanted this project to succeed?  Sure.  But apparently an even higher priority was  to avoid any suggestion before the elections that the system might encounter problems, which was accomplished by suppressing that information, thereby ensuring that the problems would occur.  Apparently an even higher priority was to avoid any possibility of anyone being exposed as an incompetent and disciplined -- which ensures that future initiatives will turn out in exactly the same way.

Maybe you were thinking all this is confined to the public sector because it doesn't have the market discipline of the private sector.  It won't take you long to think of several examples of particularly stupid or venal decisions by private sector executives leading to substantial problems for their companies.

What is a simple project manager or portfolio manager to do about all this?  Surely these issues are quite a bit above their pay grade?  Yes and no.  At the outset of a project, you can insist on knowing where your project falls on the priority list so you can assess the viability of your resource assignments.  You can establish a clear reporting process and an escalation path.  You can make sure hat deciders have the correct information with which to decide.  But it is true that if executive leaders are weak, indecisive or corrupt, then most of the time things that are at all out of the ordinary are not going to go well, and you'd be well advised to find another organization in which to practice your profession.