Be Realistic - Yeah, Right

I was in Washington, D.C. yesterday attending a breakfast seminar sponsored by Government Executive magazine on the topic, "What Are the Essential Ingredients for a Successful Large IT Project?" The two gentlemen speaking were Randolph (Randy) Hite, Director, IT Architecture and Systems Issues, U.S. Government Accountability Office and Zal Azmi, Chief Information Officer, Federal Bureau of Investigation. It was an interesting session for a number of reasons. In this post, I'll concentrate on what Mr. Hite had to say.

Hite was asked off the bat whether he thought that IT project management in the Federal government had improved over the past few years. Hite said that be believed that it had. He cited that the number of IT projects on both the Office of Management and Budget watch and high risk lists have been steadily declining.

OMB evaluates IT project plans to see, in Hite's words, "Whether they are well-positioned to execute." The OMB watch list highlights projects that, in OMB's opinion, have "weaknesses" in their capital budget and planning submissions, while those projects on the high risk list are those requiring "special attention" from the highest level of management because they may be very costly or mission critical.

However, Hite also placed a very large caveat on his belief that things have improved: he said that GAO audits have found that many of the IT projects don't have any data to support that their contention that they are "just fine, thank you."

When Hite said this, it was hard not to laugh out loud. What he just said, in effect, was that government program managers have quickly learned to adapt in the face of increased oversight: they now know how to "game" their budget submissions to OMB and hiding potential weaknesses that might gain them more management attention from above. Give credit where credit is due: government IT project managers are good at figuring out how talk a good game.

Hite had more to say.

The conversation eventually turned to IT project success and failure. When asked, Hite said that IT project success needs to be determined on a "project by project basis." Too many times, "Projects commit to unrealistic promises."

This comment just re-inforced my conclusions above. The OMB evaluation of IT project capital budget and planning documents, if it was worth much, would be eliminating a lot of lack of realism.

Hite continued; "There is a reluctance on the part of projects to disclose uncertainty or their risks."

Gee, I wonder why. Is it that if you do, you get on the OMB watch or high risk list? Or maybe the GAO's own High Risk List?

Then, in a bit of a non sequitur, Hite said that "Programs need to be open and honest. They should get rewarded for being realistic." In fact, program managers should get incentives or "be rewarded for disclosing their risks." When he was asked how they should be incentivised or rewarded, Hite didn't really have an answer.

And no wonder. All the incentives are aligned in the other direction.

IT projects, once started, are notoriously hard to terminate, no matter how badly they are managed. In a bit of a jump ahead, Zal Azmi told the audience of mainly government IT project managers that they should "think hard" if you're going to terminate a project; generally recommended against it because it was difficult to do (all that documentation to justify termination is a lot of work and takes a long time), and because it would upset so many people!

Further, even though Hite admitted to the well known reality that projects that do tell the truth about their risks will have a hard if not impossible time getting funding, he says that project managers should just fess up anyway.

Fat chance.

For government IT project managers (as well as for any government project or program managers), it is a reverse prisoner's dilemma model. As a project manager, you want one of your peers to fess up to having risks on their project; that way, you can undermine them and get their funding. The number one goal of any government project manager worth their salt in today's operating environment is to get your project funded. Once that is done, the number one priority is to keep it funded.

The rewards go to the projects that are able to be the most "optimistic" without getting caught; and when they are, nothing material happens anyway. To be canceled, you either have to be a very unimportant project (i.e., no political clout) or so egregiously bad that you're now a political liability.

The only way to change the environment is for OMB to start killing off, say 10 to 15%, of IT projects per year, starting with those that are found out to have been "unrealistic" in capital budget and planning submissions. Then start knocking off projects that are overrunning and behind schedule. Give them 1 year to come clean. After that, in the words of the Daleks, "Exterminate. Exterminate. Exterminate."

A few years of realistic executive leadership on the part of OMB, and the problem will be significantly reduced.

But, unfortunately this will never happen. There is too much power, money, prestige and political power at stake which rewards not telling the truth, as anyone who has tried being truthful will tell you.

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