Eric Shinseki, a truly noble soldier and leader, became Secretary of Veterans Affairs for the United States in 2009.
He was handed a project of immense scope and intractability. It was bulging with problems and pulsating with explosive risk. The VA mess went back decades, and that was well known. The agency also had been honored for the quality of care that it often provided for at least most of the people who made it into the VA facilities.
But hundreds of thousands of additional candidates for VA care were produced by the wars of our last two decades, and Vietnam veterans are into their care-intensive age. Studies and commissions have shown that the VA is buried under demands it simply cannot meet.
Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, including in his promised programs the solution to the VA mess. Eric Shinseki was qualified as a superb executive. He had risen to the very top of the military hierarchy of the United States, serving as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He had demonstrated great courage in opposing the Bush administration’s Iraq War, a stand that cost him his career.
Eric Shinseki was the new president’s choice to engage the VA challenge, and he has done that for more than five years.
Today, the challenge overcame Eric Shinseki. He handed in his resignation, after steadfastly resisting a growing chorus of calls for him to go.
This is a project management story. I don’t know half enough to speak with real authority on this matter, but I’m a blogger and we aren’t slowed at all by that failure of qualification.
More seriously, I am a project manager. Shinseki’s mission was a project, a massive and unfathomably tangled monster that needed to be nailed. He had become the manager of a project that had hundreds of powerful, adversarial stakeholders, uncounted thousands of team members, millions of end users and a decades-long history of mismanaging its mandates.
That’s the shorthand version of the situation analysis. The reason why something should be done is implicit in the description. The companion assets and opportunities are not at all as obvious. There are multiple potential supports for the project, but they do not offer themselves as openly as the problems do.
That’s why you need the project manager.
The project manager is someone who takes personal responsibility for making this bad thing go away, for creating a situation in which that part of the world is serene and rosy. A good place to be. All the bad stuff will have been replaced by good stuff.
Eric Shinseki did a lot of good things. From the accounts I’m familiar with, he addressed the symptoms of demands that had overwhelmed a good system. One by one, he knocked a number of them off.
But, in the eternal damning dynamic of management vs. leadership, he took the low road. He managed a lot of the solutions to the obvious shortfalls. Those were the symptoms, the fun problems on those branches you reach without a ladder. He was busy.
And, with that focus, he failed as a project manager.
He should have been clear that his project goal -- however foggily articulated – was to ensure prompt and effective treatment of the needs of our damaged warriors. There is virtually universal agreement that what they have sacrificed for us demands our response with whatever they need.
The fatal flaw in Shinseki’s project plan was its apparent strategy to work through an endless forest of symptoms with the expectation that sooner or later you’d get to the root of it all. And then you would resolve the ultimate problem, and achieve the final goal.
A cold shot of realistic thinking says, “Hey, Eric -- You won’t live long enough.”
The real problem? It was born probably before Eric Shinseki was. It was the failure, going back many years, of the Congress and successive presidential administrations to properly fund the Veterans Administration. There weren’t enough doctors and other medical professionals and support staff. The salaries were inadequate to compete with the private sector, even for committed patriots.
There weren’t enough facilities, including those in more-remote areas that could be well-served without full-service hospitals. This became a continuing crisis with the huge military enterprises of recent years. There was no strategic allowance for the enormous predictable increase in demand on military healthcare.
In short, the project sponsors were not providing the resources the project manager needed to do the job the sponsors were asking the project manager to do.
The project team’s response appears to have been that many of the team members, left to their own devices to protect and advance their personal situations, lied on the documentation they were tasked to use in recording their performance.
It is a truism that when the people in power create an impossible situation, those subject to their authority will play survival games. They have no choice. The customary outcome involves the exposure and punishment of those low-level people. Some of that probably will transpire as this sad situation is fully revealed.
Colin Powell, a predecessor of General Shinseki as chairman of the Joint Chiefs (and later, briefly, Secretary of State), once gave a graphic description of how a solution should be managed. His image was a snake. His how-to advice involved going directly to the head of the creature and decisively removing it.
Eric Shinseki, project manager, had a fundamental issue. If he had made it his business to identify as quickly as possible that the root cause was that Congress and the administration simply were starving the VA of resources, that’s all the situation analysis he would have needed.
His project, then, would have been to delegate the internal cleanup of the organization while he devoted the political and persuasive skills of a top project manager to the real challenge: Getting those sponsors/political leaders to fulfill their responsibilities: Give us the resources, and we’ll do the job.
Taking on the system is no cakewalk, but if you accept the job of project manager and intend to succeed, you don’t nibble – you take the big bite.
The mass of a project is not the challenge for the project manager. The challenge is nailing the real point.