In the trenches of the CIO Wargame

Game plays off of the complexity of managing IT investments

PLACE YOUR BETS: Miller, at top, and his teammates warmed up to the game after the first couple of rounds.

Rick Steele

I recently found out what it really means when a CIO's IT projects' risks outweigh their rewards. I had cost overruns on a new project, and suffered congressional oversight on another project's operation and maintenance phase after cost overruns. Overall, I had something wrong with nearly every project.

My five projects were going so poorly, the Government Accountability Office and the inspector general might as well have opened a satellite office outside my cubicle.

Luckily, my shortcomings didn't waste tens of millions of dollars or delay important services to hurricane victims. Instead, it just brought down my three team members and me during the CIO Wargame Challenge, created and sponsored by Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. of McLean, Va., during the FOSE trade show in Washington earlier this month.

The CIO Wargame is a board game that combines the basics of craps and Monopoly to simulate how CIOs, chief architects and other program managers make decisions.

The game's goal is to bring projects into the operation and maintenance phase and earn as many mission value points as possible, while taking steps to reduce the risk of failures and setbacks. The team with the most points after five rounds won.

Like in Monopoly, players had to make strategic investment decisions on which projects and IT capabilities to bet on; like in craps, the roll of the dice often determined how well a project paid off.

I learned a hard but important lesson that most IT program managers learn at one time or another: Don't lose sight of short-term hazards while focusing on more long-term accomplishments.

I was one of 98 people'including federal and state government officials and experts from industry and academia'who participated in the demonstration at different times over FOSE's three days. The 20 teams included players from 43 organizations, including the departments of Agriculture, Defense, Education, Labor, Transportation and Treasury, the General Services Administration, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Army, Navy and Defense Information Systems Agency.

'The idea of a war game is intriguing because of the complexities of IT decision-making,' said John Low, a senior associate with BAH who developed the game with Greg Dupier and the company's modeling and simulation group. 'At a normal conference, someone usually is talking to the attendees, but with this, they are interacting with each other. The reaction was better than expected. Players were very enthusiastic.'

A complex game

It took my team, which included a University of Virginia professor of IT management, a New Jersey Office of IT official and an IT official from the Education Department, some time to work up our enthusiasm. We spent the first two rounds trying to understand the complexities of the game.

In each round, teams had from one to three minutes to select from about 40 projects to invest in, make personnel decisions, settle on how much risk should be mitigated and decide on moves that could mean extra mission value points. There were many catches. Some projects required initial projects to be completed first. Some could take several rounds, while others were finished more quickly. And you could spend money to increase the time the project needed to reach the operation and maintenance phase.

These decisions needed to be made quickly'not unlike in real-life situations'and there seemed to be a lot of information flowing from several directions at once. And we didn't really have a team leader until the professor took charge.

I left the real decision-making to the professor and the guy from Jersey. They picked the projects and assigned personnel'keeping an eye on high mission value and low-risk projects'and decided how many contractors we hired, how best to mitigate our risks and whether to increase our mission value points. I kept track of the points, which were represented by black and yellow poker chips. These chips added to your team's ability to invest more resources in projects the next round.

Roll of the dice

Each round ended with the croupier assigning risk to each project based on a number of pre-assigned values. Depending on the roll of the dice, your project either ran smoothly or ran into trouble. But by investing in portfolio management, enterprise architecture and extra staffing, you could mitigate the risk of a bad roll.

After getting clobbered by risk in round 2, we rebounded nicely in rounds 3, 4 and 5, mitigating our risks to end up in third place.

(GCN editorial director Wyatt Kash proved that luck and skill play a part in the game, as he jumped onto an experienced team of feds from the IRS, FBI, the Social Security Administration and the National Defense University that scored 169 points and won the overall championship.)

Booz Allen's goal is to customize the game for each agency and have the senior staff play it. Low said they would charge agencies a nominal fee and they would show how the company's services could help address some of the IT management issues highlighted in the game.

So what did I learn? Journalism is a lot less complicated that being a CIO, and to manage IT investments well, you must start by limiting risks, allocating resources with an eye toward the future and never, ever trusting the roll of the dice to determine whether your project succeeds.

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