Monday, October 20, 2014

Does FirstNet illustrate the deficiencies of "ready, fire, aim"...or does it illustrate the advantages?

One of the principles in the Peters/Waterman book In Search of Excellence is a bias for action - probably derived from the way in which the book itself was written.

Peters and Waterman were both consultants on the margins of McKinsey, based in the San Francisco office. In 1977 McKinsey director Ron Daniel launched two projects; the first and major one, the Business Strategy project, was allocated to top consultants at McKinsey's New York corporate HQ and was given star billing. Nothing came of it. The second 'weak-sister' project (as Peters called it) concerned Organisation - structure and people. The Organisation project was seen as less important, and was allocated to Peters and Waterman at San Francisco. Peters travelled the world on an infinite budget, with licence to talk to as many interesting business people he could find about teams and organisations in business. He had no particular aim or theory in mind.

This aimless wandering, which eventually resulted in the best-selling book, is an illustration of a principle that Peters and Waterman attributed to then-EDS head Ross Perot:

“Ready. FIRE! Aim.”

This technique sometimes works, and it sometimes doesn't. Martin Zwilling has characterized the failures as "the dreaded premature execution syndrome." Zwilling asserts that different techniques are called for in different situations.

I believe that many ... have benefited from [the ready-fire-aim] approach, especially in early startup stages. If your product is highly innovative, and speed to market is critical, you won’t get it right the first time anyway, no matter how cautiously you plan.

The ready-aim-fire traditional approach works best in more mature markets, where your strategy is to add features and value to competitive products, or address an underserved new segment of the marketplace. These are the environments where you really need extended planning to ensure proper positioning before launching the product.

Let's look at an example.

After Sept. 11 exposed huge holes in the country’s public safety communications capabilities, Congress passed a law on Feb. 22, 2012, creating the First Responder Network Authority (better known as FirstNet) to build a nationwide wireless broadband network dedicated to public safety and emergency response. The nation’s 5.4 million first responders would no longer have to rely on commercial carriers to communicate and transmit critical information during major emergencies.

So how should such a problem be approached?

One could argue that because this is a critical initiative affecting thousands of public safety agencies, the development of FirstNet should be carefully managed to ensure that the system is designed correctly - the "ready-aim-fire" method.

Alternatively, one could argue that a delay in the initiative could result in catastrophe and loss of life, should an emergency situation occur while first responders were still trying to get their communication devices to work. Better to get the work done now - the "ready-fire-aim" method.

The chair of FirstNet's Board of Directors, Samuel Ginn, decided on a course of action that clearly favored "ready-fire-aim":

The board’s first chair, Samuel Ginn, a long-time industry executive with experience at Vodofone and AirTouch Communications, faced two problems: First, how to staff FirstNet with enough expertise to build a reliable nationwide wireless broadband network using the latest technology; and second: how to do it fast.

Ginn decided to do it fast, quickly hiring nearly three dozen technical consultants without going through a competitive bidding process. The technical consultants were people that Ginn and his private sector associates knew and trusted - people who could quickly build a reliable wireless broadband network.

Unfortunately, some did not agree with Ginn's course of action.

In April 2013, a FirstNet board member, Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald criticized the consulting contracts and raised the possibility of “conflicts of interest” in the hiring process. In September of this year, an investigative article by Greg Gordon of McClatchy News Service raised serious questions about FirstNet’s hiring process and whether or not the authority broke rules or violated laws. One thing was clear: In the board’s rush to find technical expertise, it ignored the most important constituency: the EMTs, firefighters and police who were actually supposed to use the system.

At which point you could ask, so what? Firefighters aren't experts in creating networks, so is there really a need to consult them? (I'm playing devil's advocate here.) After all, as long as Ginn and his people can get a network rolling, the firefighters and police officers can provide suggestions after the fact, and those can be included in version 2.0. The private sector does this all the time.

Unfortunately for Ginn, one aspect of the FirstNet project gave the ignored firefighers and police officers some significant bargaining power.

[P]ublic safety agencies aren’t mandated to use the network. “Once the network is stood up, there’s no requirement in the law that any public safety agency has to use it,” said [former Seattle Chief Information Officer Bill] Schrier. "If FirstNet doesn’t consult with its anchor customers at the beginning, it’s going to be harder to market later on.” And if too few public safety agencies use the network, it becomes less effective and more costly to run.

This happens in government - and in business - all the time. Several years ago, I was trying to improve an internal company process by championing adoption of a particular tool. If this tool were adopted, I believed, we could realize significant cost savings. A wonderful concept - until one of the stakeholders told me that there was no way that he would use the tool. The effort died.

As for FirstNet, the Commerce Secretary (FirstNet falls under the Department of Commerce) said some wonderful things in a May 2014 press release - or, more accurately, some communications analyst claimed that Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker said these things:

“Sam Ginn’s leadership and experience building an organization from the ground up has been invaluable to FirstNet over the past two years, and we greatly appreciate his service,” Pritzker said. “As FirstNet enters the next phase in its development, Sue Swenson brings to this start up effort seasoned management experience in the telecommunications field to carry out this important mission.”

Tammy Parker worded the news a little bit differently.

Las Vegas bookies probably would have calculated pretty strong odds against Sam Ginn staying on as chairman of the First Network Responders Authority once his term expires in August. And that's exactly why Las Vegas bookies make money.

Parker went on to quote from incoming chair Swenson:

"We are working toward several important roadmap milestones--including consultation with the states and territories and the development of a comprehensive network request for proposal (RFP) and an RFP for network equipment and services."

Did you catch that word "consultation"?

For more of this, see the Government Technology article entitled FirstNet: Scandal and Resurrection. (Strong words, especially since the Inspector General's report still hasn't been released, so there may not be a "scandal" per se.)

So, is this a failure of "ready-fire-aim"? Should Ginn have spent more time consulting with stakeholders? Did FirstNet effectively waste its time for two years because of the controversy?

Or is this a success of "ready-fire-aim"? Did Ginn's tactics serve to jump-start FirstNet so that new leadership could, in the words of the anonymous communication flunky, enter "the next phase in its development"?
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