Payne: The fear of transition

Not to worry. Transitions are possible. Just follow the plan.

Here is a loaded word: Transition.

No word casts greater fear in voice and data customers or agencies. Everyone seems to have a story about a transition that has impacted their career — rarely positively — and caused a series of unfortunate events from which recovery seemed impossible.

Transitions promised in six months sometimes take a year. Transitions expected to last a year can take three. Finger-pointing can become theatrical. Some senior government officials have been assigned cubicle space outside the offices of assistant secretaries as punishment for disastrous projects.

What better time to talk about the "T word" than now as we prepare for the decennial transition from one Federal Technology Service contract to another.

In fact, the only thing we have to fear about transition is fear itself. It is important to address — and perhaps dispel — the myth that all transitions are negative experiences. Although Federal Computer Week recently stated that transitions are always difficult, many transitions happen seamlessly and finish on time and under budget.

There is nothing inherently difficult about a network transition. A skilled program manager armed with a detailed transition plan is the only secret ingredient to a successful transition plan.

The following list should help government and industry teams prepare for any transition.

Trust, but verify

Run if a vendor says, "Never confuse selling with installing." The real message here is that you are on your own after placing an order. The test of the vendor is not the price, but the service after the price. Look at past performance transitions carefully.

Manage the incumbent

The incumbent vendor always benefits from a slowdown in a transition. Assume the bottom line will prevail over customer statistics.

An amicable divorce does not exist. Some vendors take pride in making a transition difficult if they lose a contract. Many agencies have made awards to incumbent vendors out of fear of a bad transition.

Set transition performance requirements that apply to the final days of a contract during the first post-award negotiation with vendors. Use every legal, contractual and public relations resource available to you, or you will see lots of bad manners at the end of the courtship. Think of it as a prenuptial agreement. Without it, you will be blackmailed.

Don't forget the site data

Who owns the site data? This is worth fighting about. The Regional Bell Operating Companies, commonly called the Baby Bells, refer to that site data as customer proprietary network information (CPNI). Many are surprised — almost shocked — to learn that the incumbent controls this data. This often translates into "I will move when I am good and ready." CPNI ownership needs to be addressed upfront. Even better, keep the CPNI data yourself along with accurate customer premises equipment inventory. That was the lesson we should have learned from the Year 2000 date change and the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Consider organizational behavior and culture

Speed and accuracy will always win when planning a transition. But never overlook an agency's culture. Is the organization mentally prepared for the change at the pace of the negotiated transition plan? Keep in mind that transitions often include new technology and business processes. The capacity for change is highly personal.

Communicate with users

Have you prepared agency employees for this "change management" concept? You can never overcommunicate under these conditions. Also, remember that the incumbent is in the field with your users countering every point you are making. Users can sabotage the transitions if you don't give them reasons to cooperate. Often, employees are not part of the chain of command, so they turn to unions for representation. Find ways to make the field want to progress.

Communicate with the overseers

The media will report major programs, and Congress will receive briefings on them. Preferably, agency officials deliver those briefings. You should decide the metrics and keep all news flowing freely. Don't cut off briefings with Congress when problems surface. That is when they are most important. A stitch in time saves a hearing.

Consider contingencies

People don't always plan for what they know can or will happen. Anticipate some unpredictable events when you build the schedule. Also, be clear that changes in the solution, such as adding locations or upgrading bandwidth, impact the transition plan. Program management must be disciplined and structured. That goes both ways. Never seek an environment in which several people continually tinker with the plan.

Not all executives are program managers

Recent transitions continue to prove that the skills required to be a successful capture executive are not the same as a program manager.

Hire the best

Never accept anyone but the best staff. An effective and successful program management team is worth its weight in gold. A truism I have never seen fail is that "A" people hire "A" people. "B" people hire "C" people. Successful program managers never fail. While others complain about the weather, lack of complete data or need for more time, the world-class program manager is doing the job.

Think in terms of partnerships

Save the threats and recriminations. Give the vendor — yes, even the incumbent — reasons to be successful. If your contract does not have performance-based criteria that allows you to financially reward the vendors — and shame on you if it does not — then write letters to the company's chief executive officer. Arrange a site visit to personally thank the boss for the company's good work. Throw a party and celebrate. Take the vendor to lunch.

Those are some of the steps that are critical to successful transitions is planning and communicating. Happy transitions.

Payne is a veteran telecommunications executive focusing on government work. He has worked for several major telecom companies.

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