Project management must address leadership vacuum, fed execs say
- By William Jackson
- May 15, 2014
The task of integrating people and organizations in a complex IT project is more difficult than integrating the technology itself, said NASA Chief Knowledge Officer Ed Hoffman.
“The biggest challenge is that performance happens at the team level,” Hoffman said. Enabling a team requires bringing individuals together, training them and sharing information. But too often, “we haven’t figured out how to pull together as a team,” Hoffman told a crowd at the FOSE 2014 conference.
The missing ingredient is too often a lack of top management focus, he said.
Team creation requires a commitment from leadership that is too rare in government IT programs. When officials make a project a high priority, it succeeds. “At the end of the day, it all comes down to what leadership is willing to support,” he said.
“We’ve got a leadership vacuum,” agreed Richard Beutel, senior counsel for acquisition and procurement policy for the House Government Oversight and Reform Committee. He said a study of 16 major federal agencies turned up an average of 14 CIOs in each agency, which he described as too many chiefs and not enough leadership. “It’s a problem we’ve been looking at.”
The House committee’s response to the leadership problem is the IT reform bill, which would create an IT Collaboration Center in the Office of Management and Budget. “We feel there is great opportunity for OMB to take a greater role in the process,” Beutel said.
Hoffman and Beutel discussed change and agility in federal project management during a keynote presentation at the FOSE conference.
Beutel said that 47 percent of the government’s annual $81 billion IT budget is spent on maintaining obsolete legacy systems, and program overruns and failure rates for new IT systems is as high as 80 percent, which he said is traceable to a lack of leadership.
“We can’t afford this any more,” he said. “We have to put some grownups in the room.”
The IT reform bill has passed the House, and negotiations are underway to incorporate key parts of it into the Senate’s data center consolidation bill. Beutel said he hoped the final bill could be passed this year.
Another key to effective collaboration on IT projects is risk management, Hoffman said. “Collaboration is hard because it is a risk,” he said, and the government system does not reward risk taking, even if it is successful.
But if risk is evaluated and accepted as part of the change process inherent in an IT project, it can be managed to enable fast, flexible projects. “It’s not rocket science,” he said. “But it is important that you plan for it.”
William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.