Obamacare and the Unstopped Project

| November 13, 2013


The most valuable IT consultant is someone who stands athwart a failing software project, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.

(with apologies to William F. Buckley)

After a flurry of posts over several weeks on the unfolding Healthcare.gov debacle, I haven’t written much in the past several days. In part, that is because I have actual work that I’ve had to get done, including a trip to London, a deposition here in Denver, and an expert report involving (surprise!) a failed large-scale IT project.

Mostly, though, it has been because I have had a hard time thinking of anything new to say that I didn’t cover in my earlier Obamacare posts and that didn’t subsequently come to pass, right down to the latest backpedaling on Jeffrey Zients’ prediction that “By the end of November, HealthCare.gov will work smoothly for the vast majority of users.” My predictions (such as here, here, and here) have come to pass time and again not because I’m brilliant or insightful, but because I have reviewed so many failing and failed IT projects myself — and because I have studied so many of those who have written on this subject — that I know all the root causes and telling symptoms.

On multiple occasions over the past 18 years, I have been that IT consultant yelling “Stop!” to a client (sometimes a software developer, sometimes a customer) who very much does not want to hear that. In one instance, the executive vice-president in the charge of the project I had just spent a few months reviewing walked out of the meeting in which I was presenting my findings in order to track down and destroy all copies of the report containing those findings. Likewise, I’ve had a few engagements that have ended abruptly due to my insistence on honesty and reality, but I sleep well at night, so the trade-off is excellent.

What finally inspired me to write a new post was a question posed to me recently by a lawyer about a particular failed IT project. Put simply, he asked: “If the people working on this project knew that it was failing and likely to fail, why did they keep trying to come up with a plan to move it forward?” And that really is the $100 million, $400 million, $1 billion, or even (over in the UK) $16 billion question.

The answer actually varies depending on where in the project hierarchy the person sits, but it usually boils down to some combination of these five factors:

  • Optimism not yet tempered by personal experience of IT project delays, overruns, and/or failures.
  • Deliberate or unconscious ignorance of the realities of IT projects and the attendant risks and consequences.
  • A fear of getting fired or other pressure from upper management (“Failure is not an option!”).
  • Denial.
  • Greed.

Because of these factors, large IT projects push ahead long after they should have been stopped, re-examined, and then either re-started on a more rational basis or killed altogether. The single most critical problem in large-scale IT project management is not the rate of failed projects (which is quite high), but rather that troubled projects almost never fail soon enough. The information is all there, if anyone has the experience to see it and the courage to speak up. But it is very, very hard to get that plug pulled, and both years and vast sums of money are wasted as a result.

As for Healthcare.gov, well, let me quote from one of my vain attempts many years ago to yell “Stop” athwart a multi-year IT project that eventually failed:

The irony is that [the project concept] itself is not a big, complex problem; it is a relatively straightforward problem that has been made big, complex, and possibly unsolvable in the current implementation.

Now, look again at the list of factors above, and place your own bets as to when Healthcare.gov will be shut down until further notice. My most recent guess has been just before or during Thanksgiving weekend — that magical “end of November” date — but given the steady stream of information coming out about just how poorly the project was run and just how badly it was built, it may not make it that long.

We shall see.  ..bruce..

P. S. Click here to see all my Obamacare posts.

Dilbert on project management thumb

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Category: 2014 Election, Creeping socialism, Healthcare Reform, Idiot bureaucrats, Idiot Congresspersons, Information Technology, Just plain idiots, Liberal Meltdown, Main, Obama Administration, Obamacare

About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at bwebster@bfwa.com, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.