Healthcare.gov demonstrated how badly the U.S. government needs to join the modern era of digital design and development — and that its time-honered procurement and contracting processes may be the worst possible way to manage software projects. It also showed that, outside of the traditional government pipelines, talented individuals are waiting and willing to help. Saving Obamacare, Bloomberg Businessweek, March 24, 2014.
Almost thirty five years ago I was a brand new second lieutenant in the US Air Force with a newly minted degree in Computer Science from the University of Southern California and at my first tour of duty. I was working on a large real-time space-based early warning system. Boy, was it a mess.
By the time I left three years later, we were delivering our annual system updates on-time and with good quality. That had never happened in the past, at least not in the memory of anyone at the unit and some of these civilian and contractor folks had been there forever.
We didn’t need to ask a super-star like Sha Whang, the super designer who revamped Healthcare.gov’s web pages, to come save us. We didn’t have any superstars, just the same general mix of military, civil servant and contractors that we’ve always had.
We did have to eliminate much of the inefficient behaviors that had been going on at the unit. You know, all the jockeying for position, power and recognition to get noticed and promoted. This allowed us to then put to work all the talented folks we already had and to free them from, again, the typical silliness of entrenched, bureaucratic institutions and allow them to actually do a good job.
For more details, see The Leap To The Exceptional Is Shorter Than We Think
No, it wasn’t easy. No, the resulting success didn’t get people promoted beyond the ordinary. That would have been an admission that what we had been doing before was, well, silly. We couldn’t do that. In fact, we punished some of the main instigators of our success. We punished them with mediocre performance reviews because, as one manager put it, “they liked what you did, but not how you did it.” Too many rice bowls were upset. How dare someone point out that we were doing silly things and then prove it by succeeding where they had always failed!
See why Management Dilbert Style Works
The lesson here that I learned and guided me for the rest of my career was that just about any organization, even in the government, had the talent and ability to do a great job. Maybe not with the amazing ability of a Sha Whang, but more than good enough to protect our country or just keep our business competitive. We just have to look for them and then free them.
Our lack of success in the government may be due to our “time-honored procurement and contracting processes” but my twenty years of experience was that these processes were not the issue. The issue was the culture and managerial habits that grew up in these organizations. Once we overcame these “bad habits” then the organization “suddenly” began to perform at levels not seen in the organization’s recent history — using the same processes and the same people (minus the bad habits).
For more see, Why We Don’t Really Need All Those Experts
People like Sha Whang can make a huge difference. However, the odds are that if Sha had to work in a typical government (or civilian) organization without the benefit of a national emergency clearing away all the barriers, then he would probably have failed just like everyone else had. I suspect that if we had “cleared the decks” for the people we had and let them do the best job they were able, then we would have been successful and not needed folks like Sha to come to the rescue.
Have you made a concerted effort to clear the management silliness out of the way of your project team?