Sunday, March 23, 2014

Managing complicated public projects

Nothing unfamiliar, but the way Clay Shirky describes it is excellent. In the context of the problems faced during the launch of the HealthCare.gov insurance portal in the US, he describes the challenges faced by technology projects,
On a major new tech project, you can’t really understand the challenges involved until you start trying to build it. Rigid adherence to detailed advance planning amounts to a commitment by everyone involved not to learn anything useful or surprising while doing the actual work. Worse, the illusion that an advance plan can proceed according to schedule can make it harder to catch and fixed errors as early as possible, so as to limit the damage they cause. The need to prevent errors from compounding before they are fixed puts a premium on breaking a project down into small, testable chunks, with progress and plans continuously reviewed and updated. Such a working method, often described as “agile development,” is now standard in large swaths of the commercial tech industry.
The larger a tech project is and the more users it will have, the likelier it is that unexpected bugs will surface. And the longer term a technological prediction is, the likelier that it is wrong. A technology plan that tells you what will be happening next week is plausible. One that tells you what will happen next year is far less so. One that tells you what will happen in five years is largely fiction. So thinking of a tech project as something that can be implemented according to a single, fixed plan, with a product that can be delivered in a package at some fixed date long down the road, can be a recipe for disaster.
Each step of a tech project’s implementation thus serves three functions. The obvious function is bringing the project further toward completion. But two other functions are also essential: any step in the implementation tests the assumptions that went into the design, and it produces new information that can and should be used to inform planning for the rest of the project. The people who want to be able to procure technology the way they would procure pencils often ignore both of those informative functions... One might think that detailed advance planning would be extremely helpful in this regard, but in fact, what overly meticulous planning actually does is trade away flexibility long before it is necessary, making it harder, rather than easier, to handle unforeseen problems as they inevitably arise...
Each step of a tech project’s implementation thus serves three functions. The obvious function is bringing the project further toward completion. But two other functions are also essential: any step in the implementation tests the assumptions that went into the design, and it produces new information that can and should be used to inform planning for the rest of the project. The people who want to be able to procure technology the way they would procure pencils often ignore both of those informative functions.
About excessively ambitious and optimistic project planning and implementation schedules, 
Assuming basic technical competence, the essential management challenge for all large technology projects is the same: how best to balance features, quality, and deadline. When a project cannot meet all three goals simultaneously... something has to give, and management’s job is to decide what. In such cases, if you want certain features at a certain level of quality, you have to move the deadline. If you want overall quality by a certain deadline, you have to simplify, delay, or drop features. And if both the feature list and the deadline are fixed, quality will suffer, and you have to launch and fix after the fact. 
I think much the same applies to all complicated projects, ones where there are too many "unknown unknowns". They span the full spectrum to running good schools and hospitals to rolling out large transportation projects like a new airport of a mass transit service. The challenge is compounded by the inherent nature of large bureaucracies - with its limited tolerance for failures, impersonal reporting systems, limited operational flexibility, aversion to taking judgment calls, incentive incompatibility of managers, and so on. Navigating this challenge is not easy and explains why many ambitious projects bite the dust. 

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