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Project Management Lessons From The Snowden AffairLawmakers on both sides of the aisle say that the ease with which Snowden was able to gain access to and divulge classified information highlights the need for greater oversight of contractors’ activities. “I’m just stunned that an individual who did not even have a high school diploma who did not successfully complete his military service and who is only age 29 had access to some of the most highly classified information in our government,” Senator Susan Collins … told reporters …. “That’s astonishing to me, and it suggests real problems with the vetting process.  The rules are not being applied well or they need to be more strict.”  Booz Allen Knows All, Sees All, Charges All, Bloomberg Businessweek, June 24, 2013.

To be fair, I would say the Senator’s comments represent an interesting hypothesis to be tested but to base national laws on this kind of off-the-cuff thinking, is the same kind of typical blind alley I see managers going down every day.

The comment that first jumped out at me was the phrase “who is only age 29” and struck me as not paying attention.  Our entire military is generally young.  We put weapons of great destructive potential in their hands as well as national  intelligence of great significance.  I know, as I was once one of those young teenage Airmen working at the National Security Agency.

To this day I have greater faith in the idealism and attention to duty of those young people than I ever did of the older folks who had remained in the service (both uniformed and civil).  Those remaining and continuing on all too often got caught up in the dubious goals of promotion, recognition, and internal competition to keep the other guy from looking too good.

Instead, when we find things that don’t work, I agree with the Senator that first we need to see how well we are following the guidance we already have.  And if we are not following it well, then why is the guidance so challenging to follow?

After 20 years in the military I know that too much of our guidance was not well thought out and often difficult to impossible to implement in any effective way. But we often went through the motions and didn’t mention any of this — unless we were a young Airman who keeps mentioning how the Emperor has no clothes and wonders why everyone shushes him when he says it?

Compare with Why Project Management Dilbert Style Works

Worse yet, those same young Airmen go and fix things on their own initiative. They make it work correctly. All those “servants” look on in wonder, and some in irritation, that anyone so young and with so little education could actually know something they did not and finally fix things that they could never get fully working.

The point to this is to be careful when we feel inclined to list off all the obvious reasons “age, schooling, etc.” that are clearly self evident for why something didn’t go right.  Too often the self evidence is just plain wrong — though it seems to sound so right.  Instead, we should have enough data and history on who we hire and then what goes awry after we hire them to have a good idea of who is truly a risk and then how to protect against it.

For more see Five Reasons Managing Objectively Is Hard And How To Succeed Anyway

Slapping on another layer of rules that are nearly impossible to implement in any smart way is too often our reaction to something that has gone wrong.  Beware of actions that do no more than increase the impossibility of actually doing a good job by those same folks we are trying to help.

See NJWhy People Game The System

Are all your corrective actions based upon understanding the real problems or are they primarily just to show that you’ve done something?

Thank you for sharing!

2 thoughts on “Project Management Lessons From The Snowden Affair

  1. Bruce Benson says:


    Good example. I had a good friend, a fellow Director, get promoted to the General Manager. He was brilliant as a Director, but once he became the GM he thought he had to be the source of all ideas and direction. The organization did not thrive under him.

    The other side is that many managers don’t see an issue with this kind of off-the-cuff thinking. They did get promoted didn’t they? So part of the solution is to help them see that there are reliable ways to figure out the root cause. I’ve often said things like “hey, that’s a good hypothesis, we’ll look into it too during our analysis!” to help alleviate this kind of thinking without suppressing good ideas.

    Thanks for the feedback.


  2. Chris Dunne says:

    Great article. I see this type of behaviour often. It seems to me that when people get promoted they often feel they must appear to know everything. You rarely hear a manager say “I don’t know”. When asked a question they use what scant information they have, mush it up with some poorly thought out opinions, and rush to some conclusion. This becomes the solution and is passed down to the chain to be implemented. All is fine until the solution is shown to be wrong. Inevitably the attention turns to how the solution was implemented.

    I think the first reaction should be to go back to first principles – was the solution right in the first place?

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