This famous quote was allegedly uttered by Casey Stengel, coach of the New York Mets baseball team during their inaugural season in 1962. It became the title of a book by Jimmy Breslin documenting a season of endless bumbling by the Mets. I wonder how many senior corporate or government executives feel like Stengel when they face another IT disaster?
I just heard yet another news report about a $1 billion dollar system development failure in the U.S. government. This one was cancelled by the Air Force because after 7 years and $1B it didn’t work and showed no signs of ever working. “Can’t anybody here build these things?”
When asked how this colossal waste of taxpayer money compared with the infamous $600 toilet seats exposed by Congress years ago, U.S. Senator John McCain quipped, “Well in that case at least we got a toilet seat.” In IT you get nothing, not even something for flushing it all down!
The U.S. government seems perpetually susceptible to these catastrophes. Failed IT projects in the IRS, FAA, FBI, and many other agencies have left the government hobbling along with outdated systems and Jurassic work processes. But it is not just the government that can’t seem to play this game. Corporations have their own tales of woe, with the lawsuits and firings to prove it.
What are the characteristics of IT projects that seem unable to play this game? Here are just a few:
- They lack project or acquisition managers with experience at the scale of the project to be undertaken. As Ross Perot once quipped in a Presidential debate, “Just because you ran a mom-and-pop-shop doesn’t mean you can run Wal-Mart.”
- They start with incomplete or ambiguous requirements matched to fixed budgets and delivery dates mandated on a crisis schedule. Then they add more requirements…lots more.
- They do not conduct regular risk analysis. If you’re not tracking progress and the status of risks, you’re functioning at the level of lemmings. If you can’t play the game, the least you could do is forfeit early.
- They are afraid to utter the two universally unspoken words in the management chain, “No!” and “Stop!” While these words can be career threatening, massive IT failures are guaranteed career crushers.
- Coordination among organizations building different parts of the system is an assumption rather than an activity. It reminds me of playing touch football as a kid when I would say, “Everybody go long and I’ll throw the ball as far as I can.” “Hail Mary” is a prayer, but as a football play it rarely succeeds.
- No one is evaluating whether the product has a chance of working. The senior architects almost always see the wreck coming, but no one wants to listen. Since there is no hard data recording the failing structural integrity and performance of the product, no insight leaks through the impermeable executive sediment.
Here are seven characteristics of IT folks who can play the game:
- They don’t take on more risk or ambiguity than they can manage based on past experience, staff capability, and organizational maturity.
- They don’t launch without capable project managers and technical leads.
- They measure and track progress and risks—and occasionally say, “No.”
- They build things in bite-size pieces to make requirements easier to manage, progress easier to see, and calamities easier to squelch early.
- They enforce sensible discipline.
- They continually measure not only the status of the project, but also the status and quality of the product.
- They listen to their technical experts more often than to motivational speakers.
The continuing epidemic of expensive project failures and cancellations make it tempting to paraphrase the old adage that, “Those who can do, and those who can’t work on IT projects.” Those who govern on boards of directors or in Congress need to demand more accountability for monitoring in-game performance. No coach can excuse failure by saying, “I just can’t recruit people who can play the game,” Either recruit or develop IT people who can play the game, or cut back to a simpler, slower game you can play. We’re fed up with paying for losers.