“Where there is no guidance, a nation falls,
but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.”
– Proverbs 11:14 (NRSV)
A dozen (or so) years ago, I was a Technical Lead for an IT services contractor in the DC area. After wrapping up one project, I had been assigned to lead a project for a new client of another division within my company. A few months later, I was pulled back into my old group because a project that had been waiting approval for a long time had finally gotten the green light: writing a new and very complex logistics-support application for a branch of the military.
Several members of my team had spent years supporting (and fixing) the predecessor to the proposed new system. They had developed a very deep and thorough knowledge of the way the client used the system, the system’s remaining flaws, and the needs it was failing to address at all. We had known for a long time that it would cost far more to finish fixing the existing system’s critical problems and gaps than to rewrite the whole thing from scratch. The client had finally agreed: a design and project plan had been developed, and the proposal had been approved. I was brought back to lead the technical side of that effort.
Just a couple of weeks later, we had our initial meeting with the primary stakeholders of the new system in an office building not far from the Pentagon. I arrived along with my boss. She and I were escorted into a conference room. Several of the folks associated with the use of the system were already there, and we all chatted for a few minutes as the rest of the team trickled in.
Suddenly, an aide came in and announced an Officer: after that introduction, he strode in and sat down. Wasting no time, his message was pointed and brief: he had talked to the commander about an hour earlier and convinced him that our project should be under his command, since he was already tasked with leading the development and deployment of a similar system. (Although similar, not identical – its mission actually had very little overlap with that of our project.)
He explained that our project was needless duplication, and that it would detract from what he was trying to accomplish. Besides, he’d had a conversation with the vendor of the workgroup product his own “portal” was going to be built-with, and the vendor had assured him it would only take 8 months to duplicate the functionality our project would provide. And so, he’d promised his commander that he would have the new system up and running in eight months time.
Therefore, he was shutting down our project, effective immediately.
Having nothing to loose, I spoke up. (…You try challenging a Major! I’ve done it twice: no fun, either time.)
I explained to the Major that we had a skilled team with years of experience supporting his people. The skills and knowledge they had were the result of a huge investment on the part of the Government, and should not be discarded lightly. I suggested that time be taken to move a bit more cautiously, and that at the very least, we would be of great help in porting the old system’s functionality (and its users) over to his new system.
My key point was that, above all else, he needed to be aware that once the government cancelled this project, our team would be gone – many of them would leave the company for other opportunities, and those that remained would be reassigned to other projects. The team could never be reassembled. The knowledge they had, and which he could greatly benefit-from, would be lost forever.
He listened, repeated “the project is cancelled,” got up, and left the room. The rest of us: my boss, myself, and the stakeholders on the military’s side of the project; just sat there, shocked by what had just happened.
After the official termination notice was received, we did as our contract’s termination clause required: we organized and bundled up all of the software, documentation, design documents, test data, government owned equipment, etc.: everything related to the project in our possession, and sent it back to the client. We cautioned them that we’d given them was everything, and that we would be unable to help them if they lost track of it, since the project team was being disbanded.
Sure enough, a year (or so) later, we got a call from a new vendor who’d been hired to fix the old system. (We’d declined to submit a proposal when invited to do so.) The new guys were in deep trouble and knew it, and were asking for help. Could we provide them with any old documentation, source code, advice – anything, really – that would help them understand what they were dealing with, and how to support it?
We told them the truth: we had no one left who was able to help them, and everything that had anything to do with the project had been sent to the client a year ago. We had nothing left. We advised them where we’d sent everything, might have even given them a list of what should be there. We gave them a quick overview of what they were getting themselves into, and wished them luck. (We also learned, to no one’s surprise, that the workgroup software vendor’s assurances that they could duplicate our system’s functionality in just a few months had turned out to be a complete bust. Their hot new product turned out to be incapable of supporting even a fraction of the offices and users of the old system.)
So, why am I telling you all this?
The heart of the problem is that many, such as this Major, believe that being in a leadership position means they no longer need advice, particularly unsolicited advice: They must have all the answers, and see accepting advice from others as a sign of weakness. They think they’ll lose face for accepting help from others; or that “naysayers” are seeking to undermine them and their cause.
Nothing could be farther from the truth.
And yet, that is exactly what is going on in our Nation’s capitol right now: those raising concerns, those trying to speak truth in the middle of all this madness are being silenced. They want to help the New Administration succeed. And yet, for all their trouble, they are being labelled as troublemakers: many muzzled by gag orders, some forced to resign. Important conduits of communication with each other, with those they support (and with us) are being shut down.
The advice of the many (on both sides of the fence) who are seeking to help the new Administration’s leadership understand the complexities of the challenges they face, and the effects of their actions, are being ignored. Many highly skilled and hard to replace people, are retiring or resigning: leaving huge knowledge and skill gaps in the departments and agencies they leave behind. Skills and knowledge that is crucial to the effective governance of this nation, and to the pursuit of our own best interests both here at home and abroad, is being lost forever. And, our leaders are proceeding blindly, thinking they know everything they need to know, heedless of the complexities of governance, and unshakable in their belief that they know best, and all “resistance” must be crushed if they are to succeed in their mission.
“…they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.”
– Matthew 15:14 (NRSV)
That Major made exactly the same mistake, and it not only was a huge waste of valuable resources, but it caused a great deal of heartache and trouble for many, many people. Yet, the magnitude of the trouble and chaos he caused through his overconfidence, blindness and pride is nothing compared to what the effects of what we are seeing now will be.
I looked that Major up a few years ago: it seems he sank out of sight pretty quickly once his highly visible, expensive and prestigious project fell apart.
Ironically (and truthfully), his last name was Crow.
Copyright (c) 2017, Allen Vander Meulen III.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.