Monday, May 9, 2011

Federal Decision Making

Who is in charge does matter, but good coordinating mechanisms matter more. The ability to make high quality business IT decisions is within reach, but making them part of our organizational fabric is easier said than done.

A "high quality decision" in this context is a somewhat complex concept that deserves a few words. High quality decisions maximize resources and minimize flail. They produce the biggest bang for the buck, mitigate "tail" or after-the-fact costs, and put "rounds on target" meaning they satisfy the organizational requirement for a given period of time (vs. a perceived requirement or collateral requirements). High quality decisions endure over time and reach distributed audiences in tact. They are clear, capable of being executed, and understood by all stakeholders involved.

It also bears mentioning that not making a decision at all can cost as much as making a poor decision. I have seen cases where not making a decision can cost as much as $1 million per day. A high quality decision, therefore, is also timely. 

The Department of Defense (DoD), like other Departments, is struggling with some important problems. Pressure to manage resources more effectively is mounting, bureaucracy is slow, and business systems (like financial management and materiel management systems) are not working together as well as we would like them to. Interoperability, clean audit, financial visibility and common supplier engagement on a Department level are a few problems that remain elusive. Transformation of the DoD remains a top priority of the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

These problems are not new. The DoD has been wrestling with them for more than two decades. In my 20 years working with the government, a long line of leaders have stepped into the batter's box and taken their best swings. Each time a new leader steps up to the plate, hopes run high for about two years. Again and again, the “new” leader's ideas don't seem to work as planned and energy fizzles. Status quo washes away most of the progress made by individuals like ocean waves wash away sand castles.

When one leader can't seem to make things work, we usually let them run their course and install a new one.

Occasionally, we get rid of them early. In either case, spirits soar once again. It is clear to everyone that the “new-new" leader is a good person and has some good things going for them. We continue to hope that each new leadership selection is the one that will take us across the goal line to real and lasting Transformation.
 "Give me a lever and a place to stand and I will move the world" - Archimedes
Yet, no matter how many changes of command or administrations we see - or where we go in the Department – the same problems persist. Do we keep selecting bad leadership, or is there something else going on?

I've been behind closed doors and in meetings with people in high-level (1, 2 and 3 stars; and SES) leadership positions many times. Several of them have been kind enough to be references on my resume. In my experience, with few exceptions, these are good people and good leaders. They want to make a difference, and they put a lot of energy into doing what they can to fix problems and improve their environment. A few have confided frustration with the system they work in and a desire to do more.

The problem (and the solution) lies within the decision-making ecosystem - not with the individual decision makers. The decision-making ecosystem is often a dangerous place for a decision maker to work - often threatening a decision maker's longevity or overall effectiveness. It is full of political agendas, traps, and lack of clarity. The noise level created by the mass of information and competing interest groups can be overwhelming.

Staffs that support our decision makers are the best and brightest. They are loyal, resourceful and tenacious. They do their best to minimize the noise, protect their decision maker, and present the best possible alternatives for their decision maker to consider.

The problem, at least when it comes to making high quality decisions in the business IT space, is larger than the decision makers and their staffs. It is the product of basic human nature, and an increasing level of complexity and connectedness. Fixing the problem requires a systemic approach, and it requires leverage.

The problem cannot be solved by any one leader, by staff work, or with good data alone. The decision making system must be supported in such a way as to minimize risk for the decision maker (ensuring their survival is not threatened by making the "right" decision). It must be supported by accurate and complete information that is served up in a time frame that works for the decision cycle time. And it must contain adequate feedback mechanisms for both the decision maker and the ones affected by the decisions.

Minimizing risk means giving our decision makers the freedom to make the right decisions without the threat of doing damage to their career or reputation. A common way to get rid of a "disruptive" decision maker is to discredit them or fail to support them on other important issues after they make an unpopular (even if correct) move. No leader wants to spend a career getting into a place where they can make a difference, only to spend all of their political capital and kill their career over a single difficult issue.

Accurate and complete information means cutting through the noise, working out the dependencies, and ensuring collateral issues are clearly identified and easy to address. Too often, especially in a world where technology is ubiquitous - crossing the boundaries of many ecosystems - performing one action can be duplicative (raising cost), contradictory (raising cost), or otherwise have unintended consequences (usually raising cost).

Understanding the complete picture accurately is not possible through unassisted human effort. Modeling, analysis and data sharing techniques are available today that can mitigate the risk of not having accurate and complete information at the time of decision making.

The decision cycle time refers to a window of time that is considered reasonable for making a decision about a given subject. Tactical decisions usually have short windows - a leader is expected to make those decisions quickly. Strategic decisions are allowed a little more time. In any case, organizations have their own decision making "tempo." The challenge for the ecosystem is to ensure that the time it takes to do the analysis is not longer than the decision cycle time. Good analysis that misses the window is often wasted effort.

Adequate feedback mechanisms are engineered into the decision making process and adjusted to fit the situation. Some decisions require testimony to get the full picture. Some don't. Information Technology (IT) portfolio decision making windows are known one to five years in advance. Annual reviews of decisions already made are known at least a year in advance. With proper planning and expectation setting, input can and should be gathered and processed in a time and manner that is appropriate to the decision being made.

The results of decisions and the raw materials (e.g. standards and budget priorities) can be conveyed to all corners of the globe along internet channels. And raw data from legacy systems can be shuttled back to leadership along an information service bus using Web 2.0 methodologies.

Transforming the decision making ecosystem deliberately and uniformly can save the Defense Department billions of dollars in redundant spending, after-the-fact interfaces, and re-work; but it may literally take an act of Congress to get started. Fortunately, Congress and the GAO have taken action in the form of statute that affects the entire DoD - regardless of branch of Service. 10USC2222 and 10USC186 provide the DoD with a set of tools, that when properly applied, can help to support decision makers across the Department.

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