Technology projects scare the hell out of me. And I’m a Chief “Technology” Officer! Tech projects are full of risk – there are two dozen career-ending ways projects can go south.
But how do you measure and control risk?
Bill Schrier’s first project management rule is the “P-I Test”.
Now, what is “P-I”? No – it is not “private investigator”. I named the “P-I test” after Seattle’s beloved daily newspaper, the Seattle Post Intelligencer. Although I’ve been using the “P-I test” for years, the real Seattle Post Intelligencer publishes its last paper edition today, March 17, 2009, after 146 years of publishing.
The P-I test is simple: if a particular technology project goes south, where will it show up in the Seattle P-I – front page above the fold? Local section, page 5, beneath a mattress advertisement? Or will the failure (hopefully) be off every reporter’s radar, that is, no one cares?
One of the big differences between government technology work and private industry is the P-I test. Only very rarely will a failed technology project from a private company make the newspapers. Private companies care about stock price, shareholder value and “face”. So their project failures are buried deeper and darker than the bottom of a coal mine.
But in government, everything is (at least eventually and theoretically), subject to public disclosure. Successful projects (or any good news, for that matter) rarely sell newspapers.
And, in an environment where taxpayer money is at risk and voters give a verdict on government leadership every four years (i.e. by electing a Mayor or City Council members), mitigating the risk of failing the PI test is “job one”.
But when projects are successful, no one notices! Indeed, that is possibly the truest measure of a successful tech project – implementation without notoriety.
Determining how newspapers or reporters or the public will determine failure is notoriously hard. I’ve had relatively trivial projects make headlines, like a simple mistake of sending an e-mail message with all recipients’ e-mail addresses in the clear, or having a bit of difficulty getting a Wi-Fi hotspot to work right.
On the other hand, implementation of a new billing system in 2002 for the City of Seattle’s electric utility – a project a year late and $10 million over its budget of $28 million – probably played a part in the end of the electric utility superintendent’s career.
I have a whole set of “Schrier’s project management rules” including (2) “hire somebody who knows what they are doing” and (3) “make sure the butt of someone in the business is on the line”. And I’ll write about those rules in a future blog entry.
But the real bottom line is that – since I took over as CTO in 2003 – the City of Seattle has not had a single significant information technology project failure. And we’ve done more than $100 million in projects! Credit for this string of successes belongs, not to me, but rather to Mayor Greg Nickels, who demands accountability from every department director, and to the Project Management Center of Excellence in my department, a dedicated set of four professionals who track and demand accountability on over 30 projects-in-progress.
I’ll write more about the other “rules” in Schrier’s project management lexicon. In the meantime, I’ll be extraordinarily sad about the last paper edition of the Seattle Post Intelligencer, publishing today, and the loss of the namesake of my first and most important project management tool, the “P-I Test”.