Guiding Quote

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.” Einstein

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Captain Picard and Blunders.

In one of the Star Trek TV series the main protagonist is Captain Picard and he has a phrase that he uses to indicate that he has made a decision, the phrase is, make it so Commander Riker. So in episode after episode he listens to his subordinates as they come up with highly complex solutions to the apparently intractable current dilemma. Solutions involving tachyon beams, time shift distortions, black holes, phase modulation, the face angle on a sand wedge (I made that up) are put forward and in an instant Picard says, make it so Commander Riker.  And low and behold in a short amount of time its done, it works and we are on to the next episode.

Now this is all great entertainment, unfortunately we have a generation of decision makers who have a similar make it so approach to policy making. They dream up policy solutions to problems and then give them to someone else to implement or not, as is usually the case.

Evidence to support my hypothesis can be found in an excellent book - The Blunders of our Governments, by Anthony King & Ivor Crewe - on project failures in the political realm. Failures that cost the British taxpayer billions of pounds over a 30 year period. A period that covers governments of all parties so political bias is not present; incompetence, as most project managers know only too well, is not ideological. Ideology may blinker people's thinking, but even if the policy is correct the application may still yet be a disaster.

Nor is incompetence technologically based, many of the examples where poorly conceived from the beginning, the technology just added to the confusion, or in some cases the lack of practical knowledge of the technology augmented the poor decision making. Nothing is so dangerous as a politician or executive who is convinced that there is a "silver bullet" solution to a complex problem.

One of the key points of the book is the apparent dividing line separating the policy makers from those who have to implement the policy; between the thinkers and the doers. In many cases the policy makers failed, in some cases deliberately, to consult the people with practical experience of the processes to be changed or "improved". This failure to consult resulted in the setting of arbitrary deadlines, which often had more to do with meeting political timescales or personal agendas than with how long the work would take. This of course is not limited to the public sector the private sector follows the same pathology. The problem is with the policy maker mind set and the divide with operations rather than with public or private sector. As the book illustrates the private sector companies and consultants called in to work on these solutions failed to meet the level of basic competency. And we are taking about household names in the consultancy field. No names, no lawsuits, just read the book!

So how does a project manager address this divide? How do we try to make the policy makers aware of the problems? Notice I use the word try, for try is all we can do. In reality there is nothing so blind as a policy maker with a dream. They can be zealots, who can see no other way than their way. No other solution. No other timescale.

The answer is through risk analysis. Use your knowledge and the experience of subject matter experts to detail the implications of various decisions. Make sure the findings of the risk analysis are circulated widely. Not just to the immediate stakeholders but all parties with an interest in the policy. In some of the cases quoted in the book key politicians were not aware of the implications of the changes and had they been aware they may have prevented the fiascos. The concept of unintended consequences is very relevant in all major organizations. Decisions have knock on effects that adversely impact other parts of the system, so the wider the consultation the better the chances of minimizing them. In real life make so rarely makes anything other than a mess.

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