EDITOR'S DESK: When to fold 'em

Nearly everyone has a home improvement contractor horror story.

Years ago my wife and I added a bathroom to our house. When we walked in after the tile had been laid, we stopped short. The contractor hadn't put the right spacers between the tiles. The floor was all wrong. We pulled it right up, before the adhesive set and expensive tiles were ruined. I still remember hosing off tiles in the woods behind the house in the dark.

Who thought you'd have to verify use of the correct spacers for large, irregular tiles? But you do. As a wise old boss once told me, 'You get what you inspect, not what you expect.' Actually, he told me that on numerous occasions.

But what if you inspect and don't like what you see?

You've got to credit the beleaguered Homeland Security Department for yanking the contract on its Emerge2 financial systems program [GCN, Jan. 23, Page 1]. Significantly, outgoing chief financial officer Andy Maner pulled it only $9 million into a $229 million program.

The last thing DHS needs is to fritter $200 million away on a project that was missing deadlines so early in its lifecycle. Instead, he decreed DHS components would use centers of excellence for their financial systems.

As Maner and others noted, if you're going to have contractors do more and more, then the government needs more, and better informed, people to oversee them.

Now the trend is to hire contractors to watch other contractors. So, presumably, you need people to watch the watchers.

But beyond this, government program managers increasingly need something else. Or two things, really. One is the instinct to know the moment a thing is going wrong, that certain touch and experience to sense when a wobbly project is or is not salvageable within reasonable time and cost constraints. Second is the courage to take decisive action, even if it means cutting your losses rather than gamely hoping things will get better. Frankly, the government doesn't kill enough programs.

If the gurus don't teach these skills in project management, they should.



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