Getting into their heads

To develop a cutting-edge plan to standardize the vast computer systems and networks at the federal government's largest civilian agency, managers at the Department of Veterans Affairs looked for help outside the usual consultants. They relied on psychologists and team-building exercises.

Meeting weekends and nights for more than three months, a handpicked team of VA officials, academics and organizational psychologists created a new way of thinking about technology at the problem-plagued department. The plan is designed to turn a troubled information technology maze into a streamlined organization with interchangeable parts.

"This is the equivalent of standardizing parts and assembly lines for the information age," said Leon Kappelman, the director of information systems research at the University of North Texas who led the project.

Kappelman said the VA spent several million dollars, including $1 million for the team-building sessions, to develop the plan, which the VA has begun to deploy.

Team members were given a goal — "Climb a mountain." To get there, they were issued hiking vests, and each member of the team got a baseball cap with the word "Think" written backwards so the wearer could read it when looking in a mirror. The project worked. At the end, every member of the team supported the enterprise architecture plan they had developed, and VA Secretary Anthony Principi signed off on it last month.

"At first you thought it was corny," said Mark Durocher, the chief information officer for the National Cemetery Administration. "But it really worked because we achieved a consensus. I'm not sure we've ever done that."

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