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Hubris abounds from DC to Silicon Valley

November 6, 2013

Managing ChangeAt the time of this writing (10/27/2013) the roll-out of the now infamous Affordable Care Act (ACA) continues to be mired in Information Technology (IT) bugs. I feel a bit embarrassed about my response to this quite predictable debacle. It’s the same embarrassment I feel when a friend takes a bad fall and I find myself laughing because it was such a funny sight to see. But at the same time, I’m worried about his or her well being – did they get hurt? Gosh that was a funny fall though.

I feel less inclined to take the folks in DC to task over this bungled roll-out than the wags in Silicon Valley who make audacious statements about how things would be so much better if they had done this work. I’ve come to set low expectations for the bureaucratic government organizations. The further away from local government one gets, the less competence one should expect. The reason I feel less inclined to “take them to task” is because they have rarely had to roll-out such hugely complex IT projects. They have little experience in implementing large integrated systems before. They mostly implemented piece-meal projects that automated paper based processes. So I can forgive them for thinking they could do this with a minimal amount of knowledgeable leadership. I can forgive them for not knowing the right vendors for the job. I am willing to “cut them some slack.”

A study of 5,400 large scale IT projects (projects with initial budgets greater than $15M) finds that the well known problems with IT Project Management are persisting. Among the key findings quoted from the report:

  1. 17 percent of large IT projects go so badly that they can threaten the very existence of the company
  2. On average, large IT projects run 45 percent over budget and 7 percent over time, while delivering 56 percent less value than predicted

Source material – Delivering large-scale IT projects on time, on budget, and on value

I have less patience with the folks in the Valley who are pontificating about how this ACA implementation would have gone without a hitch if they had been involved. That is not only laughable it is down right silly to make such remarks. Frankly, it’s disingenuous and they should know better. I have been involved in several large integrated systems implementations including some involving the folks whose CEO’s are making silly remarks. I was involved with projects in a technology company, with thousands of transactions, which was comfortable using IT to run their businesses, with knowledgeable project management teams, with abundant testing, pilot programs and advanced planning and the implementations still took twice as long and cost twice as much as these vendors and well regarded, experienced consultants claimed they’d take. And the project was still an unmitigated disaster when we “pulled the switch!”

From a technology point of view, my opinion is that the ACA system will eventually be figured out and will serve the intended purpose. It may take some time and we may live with a few bugs and workarounds for a period of time. But it will be figured out. The political ramifications are cloudy at best and I’m not willing to go there in this forum. Suffice it to say that if things aren’t pretty functional soon, it will be bad for the future of ACA (regardless of whether you want it to succeed or fail.)

Some leadership lessons for me in this latest large IT project are: 1. When you know you have a slow, bureaucratic organization (come on, they know it) then you must not let things wait until the last minute. 2. When you know you have a very complex, interconnected system to implement (come on, they knew it) you have to “bludgeon” recalcitrant turf protectors into submission. 3. When you have a reluctant customer (the public doesn’t like the federal government very much) you had better make sure you have a hugely enjoyable experience. 4. That means getting started very early and driving the system.

There is one problem (at least) with the leadership lessons I take from this fiasco. Those lessons have only a small chance of being learned and implemented in the private sector and even less of a chance being implemented in the dysfunctional organization we call the federal government. The statistics and report cited above show that to be true. We’ve been at this for decades and still large projects fall way short of expectations when it comes to implementation and Return On Investment.

What are you doing to be sure large changes (IT or other system changes) have a decent chance of success? Hope is not a strategy, so what will you do to manage change?

Related post: Ceteris paribus.

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