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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Project U.S.A.

It's been a year since the presidential campaign, an exhaustingly difficult and risky project, was successfully concluded by Barack Obama. He was elected on a wave of optimism and expectation.

Now, just past the first anniversary of that big win, the mighty wave has ebbed. In fact, the follow-on project that is actual service in office is getting bashed around in some very nasty rapids.

What happened? Shouldn't the historic level of Obama/Democratic victory have guaranteed a lengthy period of broad support for the policies that would implement the campaign promises? Why are Democrats now desperately scrambling to the right, or to the door? Why does it feel as if the public has turned against the administration it boosted so improbably to power so recently? Was the triumph empty?

Let's look at the available evidence through a Project Management lens. Caution: President Obama, Rahm Emanuel and company have not shared their thoughts with us, so this is strictly winging on what can be known from the safe distance of total noninvolvement.

The very first point to be made is that sliding sideways from one project to another is invariably fatal. If ever there was proof that a bright line must be drawn between separate but related projects, this is it. Once a clear goal has been reached (getting elected), the table must be cleared and a brand-new project plan begun (getting things done). Any assumptions imported from the previous round must be rigorously vetted. Did the new team do that?

Sticking just with the past year, what were the foundational elements of the project that was launched on January 20, 2009? The election results, both presidential and congressional, were of course a major factor. The horror of the economy was, too, as were the costly, bloody, unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The stakeholders included the president and his coterie of close advisers, the hierarchies of the two houses of Congress, the wildly differing members of those bodies, the two major political parties, the public and the hydra-headed cacophony of multitudes loosely referred to as "the media." And, of course, bankers, homeowners, voters of all persuasions, etc.

A central function of successful Project Management is to analyze each stakeholder for potential impact on the project and for positive and negative characteristics, most especially seeking to understand how best to maximize this group/person's productive integraton into the project. Or, as necessary, neutralize its power to cause harm.

This process should, to the greatest extent possible and necessary, go to the individual level rather than simply examine classes, organizations and groups. Within each collection of people, no matter how large, there is a very small nucleus -- sometimes an individual -- who holds tremendous sway over the thinking of the reaction-prone majority. Who are the influencers in any organization, and how are they to be influenced?

The development of the rational base for a project goes on to similarly dissect the nonhuman factors in the pre-existing situation, and applies hardheaded risk management processes to every meangingful segment, with generous allowance for unknowns. This is particularly true in a political project, even as it is particularly difficult.

Such practices head off the disaster that surely results from thoughtlessly skating from big success into an abyss of unexamined reality loaded with risk. The analysis counters a tendency to assume certain attitudes and likely actions from possible allies and opponents. While you know an agent of change is going to run into resistance, doing your homework can be of enormous value in reducing unnecessary damage from the unexpected.

Did the Obama administration blunder into traps because of superficial analysis and poor decision-making based on sloppy assumptions?

Or are we, not privy to the inner thinking at the White House, missing the fact that this is a four-year project? A skyscraper one-quarter built doesn't look too user-friendly, either. What if this chess game of a project has many moves ahead that will astound us?

Stay tuned. Great case study.

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