Vampires, Tooth Fairies, Santa Claus, IT Projects

I don’t believe in IT projects. Well, mostly not, but I’ll get to that later. First, here’s Ars Technica on a failure of the Romney Campaign: its app, Orca:

The goal was to put a mobile application in the hands of 37,000 volunteers in swing states, who would station themselves at the polls and track the arrival of known Romney supporters. The information would be monitored by more than 800 volunteers back at Romney’s Boston Garden campaign headquarters via a Web-based management console, and it would be used to push out more calls throughout the day to pro-Romney voters who hadn’t yet shown up at the polls.

Here’s the failure part:

When the Romney campaign finally brought up Orca, the “killer whale” was not ready to perform. Some field volunteers couldn’t even report to their posts, because the campaign hadn’t told them they first needed to pick up poll watcher credentials from one of Romney’s local “victory centers.” Others couldn’t connect to the Orca site because they entered the URL for the site without the https:// prefix; instead of being redirected to the secure site, they were confronted with a blank page, Ekdahl said.

And for many of those who managed to get to their polling places and who called up the website on their phones, there was another, insurmountable hurdle—their passwords didn’t work and attempts to reset passwords through the site also failed. As for the voice-powered backup system, it failed too as many poll watchers received the wrong personal identification numbers needed to access the system. Joel Pollak of Briebart reported that hundreds of volunteers in Colorado and North Carolina couldn’t use either the Web-based or the voice-based Orca systems;  it wasn’t until 6:00 PM on Election Day that the team running Orca admitted they had issued the wrong PIN codes and passwords to everyone in those states, and they reset them. Even then, some volunteers still couldn’t login.

Someone fire the IT department for effing this up. Right? Yet, consider this:

IT projects are easy scapegoats for organizational failures.


IT projects, academia aside, are chasing a business objective. All business projects involve technology, it’s just that normally the technology is very familiar (paper, pencils, telephones).

Unfamiliar technology, on the other hand, can create problems…

Hey, learning on the fly is hard. New technology doesn’t evolve gradually to fit your business. It ‘tips’ into the mainstream after furious validation and iteration in some other sector of the economy then gets chucked at new industries by startups.

Usually it doesn’t stick; that’s why startups are risky. But when startups don’t stick, the business still gets done (it just goes to someone else). It’s the tech that dies, useless.

Startup failures are failures to compete, not failures of technology, per se. The thing that irritates me about “IT projects” is the implicit dissociation of the technology from the business.

Most managers don’t understand the pitfalls of implementing new technology because most new technology doesn’t matter. In the real world we observe that incumbent firms are conservative, reacting “too late” to ideas already validated by the marketplace.

But we also know that business advantage is precious and risking your business on a new idea is insane.

Also remember something Peter Drucker taught: innovation is what matters and that is definitely not the same thing as what we think of as being technology. It’s about process. This can mean smartphone apps, sure, but can also mean weekly internal meetings. Linus Torvalds says: “Bad programmers worry about the code. Good programmers worry about data structures and their relationships.” The tool doesn’t matter, the process matters.

So let’s walk though what the Romney campaign’s process idea:

  1. You need a list of for-sure GOP voters. Easy, already do that.
  2. You need a bunch of people on-site to note which for-sures have voted. Easy, got volunteers everywhere.
  3. Now cross off those that voted and contact those that did not. Wow, interesting idea, we should have been doing that all along.

Ok, give cell phones and pencils to the volunteers and they can make the calls. Right?

Nope, we need to build something that has never been done before. And give it to… seniors? With no instructions? This is a project run by someone who does not know what they’re doing. Because, I’d suggest, it was not run by the person in charge.

To me, the leader of an organization has two qualities: first, he/she is the person that best understands the value that the organization creates. Said another way: the leader has the power to set the priorities of the organization because he/she understands what they should be.

There’s a tradeoff in undertaking a big new project: distraction exchanged for a new competitive edge. A sure cost for an uncertain benefit. The leader, who is best positioned to understand the upside of this trade, makes the call.

But here’s another quality of the leader: he/she is probably the most competent executive as well. And think about the root of the word ‘executive’: execute. An important project must be run by an outstanding operator who can never lose sight of the organization’s priorities in the million of little decisions that go into execution.

Big failures land on the CEO’s desk. If they’re big enough to matter, he was in charge. If he wasn’t, he’s an idiot.

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