Friday, November 15, 2013

How do you prevent "You didn't tell me!" from happening?

In the midst of the recriminations about the execution of the Affordable Care Act's online marketplace, a classic bit of CYA in the New York Times (emphasis mine): 
Plenty of finger-pointing remains about how the situation developed so badly. Aides said the president did not believe that anyone had purposely deceived him or his top advisers, but they have concluded that some of the people working in the trenches on the website were not forthcoming about the problems. 
At the same time, the White House trusted its own policy and political teams rather than bringing in outsiders with more experience putting in place something as technically challenging as HealthCare.gov and the infrastructure to support it. 
Officials at the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services repeatedly expressed doubts that the computer systems for the federal exchange would be ready on time, but they said that neither they nor their contractors had recommended a delay in opening the exchange. Political and policy teams at the White House insisted on pushing ahead without delay, they said.
As someone who "works in the trenches" (and foresees a lifetime of trench-work), I found that comment singularly enraging when I read that last Saturday. I had to take a minute to walk around the house and cool myself off.  It wasn't a political thing; it reminded me of many project management foul-ups that I've been involved with: unrealistic deadlines, vague goals, hoped-for science with paper chemistry that violates most literature precedent, finally concluded with the classic "You didn't tell me!"

"You didn't tell me" is classic boss-speak (or in this case, boss' aides-speak) for "It's not really my fault this project didn't go well."* My (mental, usually unsaid) response to "you didn't tell me" is usually "you weren't listening" or "you weren't listening closely enough."

Here's the question that I have -- how do you avoid getting to those points in projects? How do you let the boss (or the boss' aides) know that things aren't going well? How do you adjust expectations early? (My typical means of solving the problem is to get someone that the boss trusts aside and having a frank sotto voce conversation about the likelihood of us meeting the goals that have been laid out.)

Readers, what has been your experience with project management? Any advice that you can give us all?

[I discourage explicitly political talk on PPACA in the comments -- there are plenty of other places on the Internet to talk about this issue.]

*To his credit, in my opinion, President Obama took quite a bit of responsibility in his press conference yesterday.

17 comments:

  1. Well, at least you own a house.

    Now more the point: The most important principle I operate on at work is this: I have no personal ambition whatsoever (needless to say I am not an alpha male and it shows in my dating life). I am extremely transparent with experimental data, tell the boss the things that work and didnt work. As for goals (in my case whether I think the work I am doing can be assembled to a paper of some significance), I give the boss some opinions here, but he has the final say. If he thinks that the work will get in a better journal than I think it will but if I turn out to be right, and for that reason we don't get the next grant, than that's life. He's fine (He's tenured), but Im toast. I accept this and all its ramifications (unemployment).

    This is why it is important for me to have no personal ambition. If I did, then the past failures that my boss and/or co-workers created would have given me a stroke by now.

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  2. Comments like these are obviously, patently false.

    OK, so in the months leading up to the failing project, not a single person brought it up to their manager that they were behind schedule? Nobody? Really?

    It's like when people say that Bush staged 9/11. No, I don't believe you. It's not because I don't think he's that evil. It's that I think that with all the people it would require to pull it off someone would have spoken up about it.

    Regarding avoiding the working man being the scape goat - Always report up. Always do it in writing. Usually do it to more than one person. Maybe your manager and other managers, or functional groups working on the project. If you're feeling ballsy, consider including your boss's boss on the email. Always. Report. Up. This way if it falls back on you, and there's a colossal mess up nobody can in good faith pin it on you. And if they do, you can sue.

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    1. Your GWB/9/11 analogy is interesting, in that it seems like, with the Kennedy assassination, there were all these people coming out of the woodwork to claim to have known some part of some conspiracy. I feel like there's been much less of that w/9/11. I guess no one wants a piece of that notoriety.

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    2. Also, "always report up in writing" is helpful.

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    3. I should note here, for the record, that I am neither a Kennedy conspiracist (i.e. I believe Oswald acted alone, using the Italian rifle, from the Texas depository) or a 9/11 truther.

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    4. explain the 'magic single bullet', then, you government flunkie plant. back, and to the left...

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    5. Obama manages over three trillion dollars in spending. The website is something like 0.01% of that. Yes, it is quite believable that issues in that 0.01% didn't filter to the top. Do you think the CEO's of major corporations are on top of the status of every few hundred thousand dollar project?

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    6. It would have interfered with his golf game.

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  3. I've been on lots of project teams, some that failed, some that worked. On every team I've been on, good news filtered up and bad news didn't. I think it's a part of human nature.

    The only way to really stop that stovepiping is to follow an extremely disciplined process. I've been on those too and I tell you it is really difficult. It means not giving updates to the boss until the review. That's really hard to do.

    I haven't been on one team that hasn't had setbacks. What usually happens is that your timeline extends. The healthcare site was in an unusual position because the timeline couldn't move. They had to release what they had on the date.

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    1. Those are good thoughts, UI. I guess that "boss human nature" is "if I haven't heard about it, I'm not going to think about it, therefore everything is fine and I don't have to think about potential bad news."

      Perhaps, for large project teams, there should be anonymous internal reviews?

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    2. I've seen projects with outside review panels and I bet that would work. The problem with following a disciplined process (like a stage-gate) is that it's perceived on the outside as being too slow and burdensome. It is slow and burdensome, that's part of the point - you can't move on until certain things are done and no short-cutting.

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    3. Whoa: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phase%E2%80%93gate_model

      I had never heard of that before. Awesome, thank you so much.

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  4. I am cynical enough to think that with something this public, there would be mechanisms in place to keep information that might be unhelpful from ever getting to the President or whoever is in charge so that he has "plausible deniability". Iran-Contra seemed to be replete with people who didn't want to know things (or been known to have known them, more likely) that would have been politically or criminally hazardous, and I can't imagine that those lessons weren't learned well.

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  5. Since moving abroad, having a nice salary boost, a full refrigerator and some savings, I am more inclined to deliver the bad news as well as the good. I don't have to scan mindlessly for only "good" data and dismiss "bad" results and I can read the tea leaves appropriately. The stakes are so damn high to deliver only good news that bad news is just swept under the rug. I feel there is an ethical obligation to report up and polish even your bad results so that they are easy to digest for management. But with unrealistic deadlines, long hours, and dreams of being able to cut corners to achieve these Herculean Labors, should we be surprised at all?

    At least that's my excuse, these people work for IT in software design. They are the current winners of the STEM lottery (I was just told anecdotally the other day of several people leaving UCSD chemistry grad school for software engineering ... ). What are they mortally afraid of? Getting granted family leave by guilting the yahoo CEO?

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  6. "At the same time, the White House trusted its own policy and political teams rather than bringing in outsiders with more experience putting in place something as technically challenging as HealthCare.gov and the infrastructure to support it."

    This costs money. Republicans have veto power over any spending. This was why responsibility for building the website was hidden away within the Medicare system (which has its own funding which can't be cut), rather than created as a separate unit. If it hadn't been, you can be sure that Republicans would have taken hostage after hostage in order to de-fund the exchange.

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    1. That's right, "responsibility for building the website was hidden from the evil Republicans, and we only trusted our in-house people that we knew were politically sound, and that caused the website to fail, ergo it is the Republicans' fault." Did you not hear the complete and total absurdity of what you were saying, here?

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