Guest essay by Eric Worrall
President Obama thinks he doesn’t need to understand anything about climate science, to know what needs to be done. However, in my opinion, this is a demonstrably poor management strategy.
How many times have you heard President Obama say something like the following:
“They’ll say, ‘You know, I’m not a scientist,’ Well, I’m not either. But the best scientists in the world know that climate change is happening.”
(Read more at The Guardian)
Obviously its difficult to directly measure whether this disengaged approach is a bad strategy for managing climate research. It takes decades to discover whether a given climate research effort has yielded an improved ability to model and predict changes in the climate. We do know that climate models to date have a dismal track record of prediction.
However, we can look at other areas where non-expert managers have to manage specialists with arcane knowledge, which the non-expert manager does not share.
For example, consider how businesses (and governments) manage their IT departments.
Like climate science, an IT project requires input from specialists with diverse and arcane skills. Arguably a climate science research effort is an IT project, given the level of computer involvement in climate modelling. However, unlike climate science, most business IT projects have a lifecycle measured in years, not decades, so there is a lot more data available on why business IT projects fail.
According to ISM journal, one of the key causes of IT project failure is lack of stakeholder support.
No stakeholder involvement and/or participation.
Any project of significance has a number of stakeholders. These stakeholders have to contribute resources if the project is going to succeed and often have to take away resources from lower priority activities to do so.There are always more demands for resourc- es than there are resources available. If all relevant stakeholders are not engaged and committed to project success, it is just about guaranteed the project will not get the resources and attention required to deliver the promised project scope on time and on budget. If key project stakeholders do not participate in major review meetings, it signals they are not engaged in the project and therefore the project is not a high priority for them. Other stakeholders soon begin to disengage too.The project manager then finds it harder to get the participation and resources necessary for project success, especially from those who are not full-time members of the project team. Often such project team members get reassigned to other projects that are perceived to be more important. However, the project scope and due date remain fixed. The project falls into a death spiral. Important projects have and keep the attention of major stakeholders.
But surely President Obama is very involved and supportive – he talks about climate science all the time!
Actually no. I would argue that the President is not engaged – because he doesn’t try to understand the details of the project. As he has repeatedly said, he doesn’t feel any need to try to understand the science himself, because he has scientific advisors to tell him what it means.
An article by Project Skills does a good job of describing this distinction:
Case Study: The worst project I have been in as a project manager saw a rather insidious case where senior management support was lacking. This “Senior Management Person” (call him “SMP”) in question was the CEO of Retailing Banking for Singapore and Malaysia at the time for a large regional bank.
I was project manager in charge of delivering a banking system to the bank. During Project Steering Committee meetings, the SMP would appear, ask some clever questions but never worry about the real issues in the project. When I surfaced serious scope creep issues to him and that users were being unrealistic, he would say (in front of his senior vice presidents, etc) – that my team and I were hired to manage all of these things.
Wrong! Projects are a team effort. A team effort between the client (in this case the bank) and us (the vendor). The SMP continued to ignore my pleas for executive support to tone down user requirements.
So guess what happened to the project? Yep – it was an epic failure.
Is there any other instance in which the President’s hands off approach to management of IT projects has caused problems? In my opinion the answer is most likely yes. A substantial part of the delivery of Obamacare depended on the success of a major IT system. The rollout of Obamacare has arguably not been a glowing success.
Obviously some level of delegation and disengagement is necessary – you can’t be an expert in everything, you can’t be everywhere at once. A manager with poor delegation skills is a bad manager.
However, there is a huge difference between a lack of engagement, and engaged management of experts, even if you don’t share their expertise.
Steve Jobs, the legendary former CEO of Apple Computer, was not a code developer. But Jobs was intensely involved in the process of producing Apple products. He would never have said something like “I don’t have to understand product design, I have advisors to tell me whether the next iProduct will sell”.
A low level of engagement – even enthusiastic support, without an effort to comprehend – in my opinion is fatal to the success of a project, for the reasons I have given.
How can the President possibly devote enough time to climate research, to understand the issues well enough to provide engaged management oversight? Quite possibly he can’t. The US Federal government is composed of almost 500 agencies which between them employ millions of civil servants – all of which must place significant competing demands on the President’s time.