04 May When innovation gets off track
If you’ve followed this column, you know I have a penchant for the CSI side of project management and innovation. I can’t imagine why CBS won’t return my calls suggesting a spinoff. “CSI: Project Management” has such a ring to it.
What’s caught my investigator’s eye most recently is the flurry of news about Acela, the fast train service along the Eastern Corridor. If you haven’t heard the story, cracks have developed in the disc brakes and all the trains have been taken out of service because of a lack of parts. Almost buried in the usual wringing of hands, shaking of heads and shouting down of one’s opponents, was an article focused on the historical events and context of the Acela project.
Apparently, Acela has not been the smoothest, most rewarding implementation of a new technology.
Two lines stand out from the April 24 front page New York Times article. First: “Political pressures, tight budgets, contested regulations, and design changes turned a high-speed train into something slower, more expensive and less reliable than what Amtrak had promised.” Sound like any IT projects you know? The second line was a quote from Tom Till, who led a Congressional study of Amtrak: “There’s an old saying in the acquisition world: You want it bad. You get it bad.”
That last line, if put to music, could be the theme song for many an IT project. I can just hear Mick Jagger growling it out as he struts across the stage.
Guess what? Political pressures, tight budgets, contested regulations, and design changes are not going to disappear from the business landscape anytime soon. There will always be vested interests. There will never be unlimited resources. The legal and social context will always be in flux. And we’ll always get a better picture of what we actually want as we learn by doing. It’s not quite as catchy as the old version, but you could say, “Only six things are certain in life – death, taxes, political pressures, tight budgets, contested regulations, and design changes.”
So what’s a business-driven person to do? Roll over and accept that IT will always cost more and deliver less than one hoped? Not exactly. A good first step to synching up expectations and realized value is to understand what kind of technology you’re dealing with. Technologies that have become commodities behave very differently in organizations than the innovative, customized stuff. If you’re stretching the envelope, it probably isn’t realistic to expect the same levels of efficiency, reliability and predictability as in well-defined and constrained commodity technologies. Of course, one of the challenges in figuring this out is getting a straight answer out of the techies about what has to be custom and what can be commodity.
That’s the ante from the IT side of the table: a real effort to understand the objectives of organizations we serve and to translate that into a vision of what’s critical to customize, versus what can simply be bought for the most organizationally appropriate combination of quality and price.
For too long we’ve wanted to have our cake and eat it too. “IT is the cool new thing that changes everything, but not to worry, we’ve got it all under control.” When that approach didn’t quite pan out, people tended to swing to the other extreme, assuming that IT is just like any other business expense where a little more financial and management discipline would get us to the promised land.
As usual, the truth is somewhere in between. The ante from the business side of the table is to put more effort into understanding what kind of technology we’re investing in. If it’s a commodity, go ahead and bring in the dump trucks loaded with business cases, RFPs and cash. Back ’em up to the problem and bury it in well-known, best practice solutions.
If, however, it’s innovation you’re after, you might want to hold off on the heavy equipment and big budgets until you’ve completed a few iterations and experiments. It’s fairly unusual to bring innovation in by the trainload.
The space program is a good example of innovation done well. Yes, I said the space program. Much of our current hand-wringing about the space program ties directly back to not understanding whether we’re buying commodity space travel or whether its still an innovative, risky customized adventure.
Think about all the small rockets sent up long before President Kennedy set us on a 10-year course for the moon. Think about all the tests, all the trips to low Earth orbit and then out to the moon before Neil Armstrong took that one small step. The current struggles of the program come not from lack of innovation, but rather from the inherent difficulty of translating innovation into reliable daily commodity and knowing when to make the switch.
Space shuttles, high-speed trains, and IT. Nobody has gotten it completely right, but if we bring together the tech-heads and the suits, we can find that balance over time.
As President Kennedy said, we do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.