Speakers at FOSE session on project management

FOSE 2104

Project management must address leadership vacuum, fed execs say

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.

FOSE 2014

Find out about the keynotes, programs, sessions and exhibits featured at this year's FOSE conference and expo. Read more.

“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.”

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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Reader Comments

Thu, May 22, 2014

Exactly why I am done with the Feds. Leadership is non-existent and seem to take joy in making those under them squirm - Good Luck cause I am out of here!

Sat, May 17, 2014 Jaime Gracia Washington, D.C.

Can you imagine if accountability were actually real and enforceable? I guess that would leave the leadership ranks completely vacant. I have very little confidence in the ability or desire to change, as I leaders all over town receive award after award from IT organizations for continued failures, waste, and continued programs of patting each other on the back. Sometimes leaders are chosen as "last man standing" out of desperation to fill a seat, with little qualifications, technical acumen, or leadership abilities just because they have been around so long. Government hiring needs to be completely rethought, as it seems that mission focused leaders went the way of the dinosaur. It is now about getting a great senior role, attend conferences and meetings, and setting yourself up for the revolving door and the payday at the end.

Fri, May 16, 2014 Paul Tiffany USA

Wow! Having had the responsibility for improving and fixing inept program and project management for a number of agencies and large companies, I can state with near certainty that the leadership problem is not focused around enabling teams, the same lame argument by adherents of Agile. - It would take an extensive discussion to point out the myriad of problems, but it fundamentally is centered around failure to focus on the mission, the organizational and business issues. Most IT project management is entirely focused on tactical issues that have little to do with success.

Fri, May 16, 2014 Aaron Shields Southern US

HA! Its about time someone wrote about this. I have been saying this for years. I ended up being the bad guy with senior leadership because of my techniques, but was always golden with the "downstairs teams" and I always got successful results. I became a mind reader that kept the idiots at the top out of hot water. My favorite Dilbert has always been the one with the user/customer ending with the line - "Can you design the software to tell me what my requirements are?" My friends and I that got things done always described that tier above us as the Pakleds...geeks will get the joke. Joking aside, we have a real problem in government with the toxic leadership paradigm and musical chairs job rotation. We promote likeable people that did well in operations or staff work and assume that can be plugged in anywhere. Then just when they might start to understand the issues of that particular job they rotate to the next one and avoid any responsibility for messes they created or failed to fix with their lack of knowledge. LOL I composed over a decade worth of notes and experiences running large developmental efforts and enterprises within the simulations and communications communities with the plan of writing a book about this very problem and then thought...no...no one would read it anyway because no one really cares. No one wants to let me take over as a CIO because I would make all the other CIOs look bad and actually get tangible results instead of being constantly at meetings to discuss more meetings all the time. They say they want to fix it...but it will stay the same. I've heard that before. It would take a complete overhaul of the current training and promotion system to get this right. They will spin their wheel spending money on studies that explore the problem...and when the results are generated the people that asked for the study will be retired or in their next job and the regime that gets the report wont care. Wash, rinse, repeat....

Fri, May 16, 2014 David Ahearn McLean, Va

What doesn't seem to get discussed is the question of "what is the role of the government in IT modernization and deployment projects." Obviously, the role varies with each project, and that drives stakeholders hearing the same message to interpret it differently due to varying contexts associated with the answer to that question. At the highest level WRT IT, is the government a "buying" organization or a "making" organization. If they are a "buying" organization, the training for govt management executives (CIO focused) is very different from a "making" organization (true engineering focused). This gap in contextual consistency causes the 18-month failure cycles mentioned above. In many cases the govt managers picture themselves as Steve Jobs types when really they should be focused on being excellent line managers of their contractor technical skillset providers (due the the increasing unavailability of truly technical skillsets in the govt ranks). The very best govt leaders I have seen have either been the rare, very technical engineer with a vision, or more frequently, the master orchestrator, who deftly conducts his team of contractors (line) and govt. (overhead) team members toward a clear goal. The most interesting quote in this piece, to me, was "collaboration is a risk." I'd like to see more detail on this line of thinking as I cannot see any successful commercial industry executive ever saying this in a monthly earning call and emerging unscathed.

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