Commentary

IT systems as a team sport

team of attentive businesspeople

Much is being written about IT these days. Dissection has run along the lines of IT's creation, operation and acquisition. Without a date on an article's byline, however, it is difficult to tell in what decade it was written.

Claims of technology being outdated, procured by the unknowing or uncaring and produced by an industry interested more in profits than performance are just as current in 2013 as they were four decades ago. When Texas Democrat Jack Brooks authored the Brooks Act, he made the same accusations and more.

So how are we to deal with behavior that fits the often-quoted definition of insanity -- i.e., doing the same things over and over while expecting different results?

Large-scale, IT-based systems require myriad people with different skills, motivations and political orientations. To assume we can delegate the likes of the HealthCare.gov website to just one of those groups is a recipe for failure. Engineers didn't make HealthCare.gov fail. Contracting officers didn't make it fail. Congress didn't make it fail. Industry didn't make it fail. But it failed nonetheless.

As we seek to determine why, we want quick, easy and clear answers. In today's politically charged environment, the autopsy phase of this "teachable moment" is not likely to get the analytical effort that it truly needs. The kind of review and analysis performed after a major air carrier accident will not happen for HealthCare.gov. Instead, we'll likely get legislative fixes by congressman with attention deficit disorder. The shock, dismay and hyperbole are already in full swing.

So what does it take to design, develop and deploy large-scale mission systems? A key ingredient is including the team that will be with the process through its full life cycle. No part is expendable, and leadership is needed to see it through. Compare the activity to a major military campaign. There are lots of parts to be coordinated, many of which must be led, fed and sustained. Rewards and punishments must be known and executed. There is no time to rely on legislation or dogma. It is a team effort and must be managed with that in mind.

Forming a team and keeping it together while dealing with stakeholder groups is tantamount to running a major military campaign.

Leaders have many critical functions. Communication is vital to keep the stakeholders and team members informed and committed, and it must be done often and in small doses. Waiting can become a festering sore, with team members and stakeholders asking: "Why haven't we been briefed or informed? The rumors say one thing, you say another."

Stakeholders generally fall into four major categories. First are the clients or constituencies. Failure with them is total failure. Second are the employees or soldiers. They will execute your plan. Third are key teammates, often industry or other agencies. If you choose poorly here, they can cost you a bundle and ensure failure. Fourth are the authorizers and oversight groups, which might include Congress, the Office of Management and Budget, the press and late-night comedians. They shoot the survivors.

Forming a team and keeping it together while dealing with stakeholder groups is tantamount to running a major military campaign. It requires all the same functional efforts to varying degrees.

HealthCare.gov's leaders have the sense of being drawn in many different directions, much as Gen. Colin Powell must have felt during the Gulf War. Unfortunately, no one tells the leaders of an effort like implementing the Affordable Care Act that it could be more complicated than a major military campaign -- or that winning in this team sport will be anything but easy.

About the Author

Bob Woods is president of Topside Consulting Group and former commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Federal Technology Service.

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