This “Tectonic Speed” series is about why Government IT Projects take such a long time. The name refers to tectonic plates, rubbing against each other. No visible movement for a while then… CRACK! Government change is like that; it can take a long time to build, but when it happens it can be intense. For more on that here is my 20:50 speech on this theme from the Code for America Summit 2020, which turned into a virtual event. (I can tell you that it’s 20:50 because of the PechaKucha-ish format: 25 slides for 50 seconds each.)
Disclaimer: All of the ideas expressed in this article are my personal statements and opinions, and do not reflect the opinions/statements of the City of Urbana.
One impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is a shake-up of priorities, including for IT Projects. (Note #1 - notes are below) For IT managers, March and April were suddenly about connecting people from home, and almost everything else had to give way. That was the appropriate response, but it also meant that other projects came to a crashing halt.
Since April, I’ve been working to re-start some stalled efforts, and it’s made me appreciate the impact of momentum on projects. Unfortunately, Newton’s first law of motion (“An object at rest stays at rest…”) applies to IT projects, too.
Restarting the Gears of Progress
Like pulling a train, to start (or re-start) an IT project you must apply tremendous force just to get things moving and Newton’s second law tells us that the bigger the object, the more force you need. At this point, the analogy breaks down a little because for IT projects the force can (and actually… must) be accumulated over time through sustained effort – you don’t apply it all at once. Overwhelming force all at once isn’t a great strategy in government anyway – as predicted by Newton’s 3rd law – it tends to produce an opposite reaction.
So the bad news is that gaining momentum requires continual pushing against resistance. This ties into my overall metaphor in this series about the Tectonic Speed of Government. You need to exert force for a long time before any visible movement occurs (just remember that when there is movement it can be sudden!)
The good news is that you can build momentum through small steps, so getting started doesn’t require huge accomplishments. Just a few hours’ work can be enough to get something rolling. The key to creating momentum is getting other people involved to the point where their excitement helps the project takes on a life of its own. (Note #2:) Excitement's important because you still need to go through the procurement and then the project.
Also like pulling a train, once the project is rolling it is easier to keep things moving forward. This is the middle part of Newton’s first law: “… an object in motion stays in motion…” although you do need to keep in mind the final part of the law that says it will stay in motion “…unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.” The pandemic is only one example of many unbalanced forces that can act upon projects.
You can feel momentum. Things are moving forward in the right direction, people are collaborating on the right things. Shit, as they say, is getting done.
Monitoring momentum is key, however. Projects can lose momentum for all sorts of reasons, and bigger projects only have more opportunities to stall. Fortunately, there’s a tool to measure momentum – tracking effort against the ongoing project plan. Even small (and agile) projects can benefit from a project plan and status reporting, but it seems like a lost art these days. (Note #3)
3, 2, 1… Do we have liftoff?
There was a cliché (proved wrong by the Internet) that the space shuttle burned 90% of its fuel just lifting off the ground. It’s a vivid image, and a hopeful message when you’re in the drawn-out phase of pushing with no movement – the idea that liftoff will soon start and you can just lean back and watch it launch into the stratosphere. Like the cliché, though, the metaphor is wrong - IT projects don’t have an escape velocity where you are able to stop pushing.
A better analogy for getting an IT project started is a pinball machine’s plunger. You pull the plunger back into a spring, then release it to smack the silver ball. If you didn’t hit it hard enough then the ball rolls back. This is the IT project that never takes off. If you find that your first shot didn’t put the ball into play, you need to try again with more oomph. That’s the effort of re-starting a project. (Note #4)
But even the pinball analogy breaks down because you know when you’ve put the pinball in play. Launching a project is more like pulling a train up a hill… there’s always the danger of it rolling backwards at any point until it’s “done” – and as I wrote about in Part 3 of this series, it’s never done!
Final Thoughts – Some Good News at Last
Most of this piece has been about how hard momentum is to create and sustain, but keep in mind that momentum means things are moving in a direction. (Hopefully a good one.) Taking an unmoving object and getting it to start rolling is the hard part, but at some point momentum makes things easier.
There is a flywheel effect to momentum, where action and progress create a positive reinforcement cycle and the momentum can be self-sustaining. It’s a wonderful thing when the flywheel is spinning because the person who’s overseeing the project can stop pulling and instead fall back to monitor progress. (Note #5)
More good news: Don’t overlook the power of transferring momentum from one completed project to others. Sometimes the best way to get started on a big project is by finishing a small one first. (Note #6) There is a mindset of success that you bring with you from finishing the other project – and the small project will free up some mental space by knocking one thing off your to-do list. In fact, I had the momentum to finish this piece because I finished the first stage of the telephone procurement mentioned in Note #4. For a few weeks I’ve been doing both at the same time, and it only seems fitting that I should use the momentum from one to launch the other!
Note #1: For simplicity, I’ll say “IT Projects” but know that I’m thinking about Government IT projects. Yet, even though I’m talking about Government IT projects, much of this series applies to all IT projects.
Note #2: For example, let’s say you’re looking at procuring a new software package (the kind of project I know best). You can start with some research about the types of systems out there. Once you’ve read up a little, arrange some demonstrations. Watching the demos with end-users will get them thinking about the possibilities with a new system – and generate some enthusiasm for the project to start. Excitement from end-users? A good source of momentum.
Note #3: In my earlier career I worked on large projects with lots of people, and detailed task reporting was mandatory. We’d report hours worked by a granular list of tasks and (if it was a good project manager) also provide an estimate of hours to task completion. (Never ask for the percent complete! It’s only ever 25, 50, 75, or 90.) All of that information was entered into the project tracking software and then we had a good picture of where we stood. Those were large projects (dozens of people working for 1-2 years), and I haven’t seen the same amount of tracking on the smaller projects that I deal with now - even though it would be much easier nowadays.
Note #4: Re-starting can sometimes be MORE painful than starting. I had this experience recently with a telephone system procurement. The project stalled because writing the RFP was harder than I expected, and other priorities came up… so it got shelved. Re-starting was hard because I knew what was ahead, and I dreaded it. However, I had some momentum on my side – like a well-shot pinball, I flew into the task because of a new motivation: getting phones people could use from home during the pandemic.
Note #5: In my experience so far, the key point is getting through the cycle of procurement and starting a contract. Once payments start, and an implementation begins, everyone involved (the vendor, the client, the project team) has an incentive to get it over with and move on to the next task.
Note #6: Assuming they’re both important, of course. Don’t procrastinate on important projects by being distracted by small ones.