Dec 31 2009

Own Up and Move On When Things Go Wrong

Photo: Cade Martin

Federal information technology programs are large, complex endeavors that involve dozens of stakeholders, agencies and vendors — that is a given. But even under the best of circumstances, mistakes happen. Who do you call and how do you respond? Your actions define the caliber of IT executive you are and how well attuned you are to the global aspects of federal systems initiatives.

Can you identify a mistake or recognize that an implementation is not proceeding as planned? Do you know when to take action? When things start to go sour, there’s no value in hunkering down with the status quo. In almost every case, not taking action is the worst decision. Challenges can become barriers if not dealt with promptly. You must escalate the issue to the appropriate level of the agency’s chain of command, which is precisely what most managers want to avoid.

When it’s time to confront an issue, these four essential steps will get you on the road to recovery:

Step 1: Recognize and admit you have an issue. Data issues don’t get better with age. Situational decay quickly can become exponential. Owning up and informing your chain of command has tactical and strategic implications, as IT data issues are like viruses — they go far, and they go fast. Quickly remediating an issue is the best medicine.

Step 2: Immediately assess the extent of the problem and find the best people to tackle it. Understanding the operational data or design problem and finding the right people to help solve it may be the single most important aspect of what you do. World-class people working on the wrong problem amounts to wasted time and

energy. Having quality people on the right problem gives you a chance to control the situation.

Step 3: Identify dependencies, impacts and consequences. Analyze the problem with a large-scale and broad perspective, don’t look just at the narrowly scoped problem. How will the issue impact the agency’s mission — or other agencies? A thorough outline of the issues will give you a clear understanding of how big the problem may be.

Step 4: Define the end state, outline your plan of action, move on and track closure. Your “end state” is a return to safe and stable operations. You must involve as many of the right people as you can in the remediation and ensure they own the challenges with you. After you’ve defined the problem, identified the people and determined the plan to get well, you must be diligent and follow through. So whether your style is “plan, do, check and act” or “test, analyze and fix,” you must continually monitor and assess progress.

The reality of federal IT and data program management is that programs will come off the rails. Recognizing the issues and providing proactive solutions increase your chances

for success.