Thursday, December 16, 2010

"Good Managers" And Complex Technological Projects - Recipe for Poor Results?

Once more on the topic of CIO’s and other health IT leaders lacking in solid healthcare informatics and clinical credentials, there’s this letter in today’s WSJ that I think says it all about complex technological projects, including (perhaps especially) healthcare IT.

Emphases mine:

Wall St. Journal
Letter to the Editor
Dec. 16, 2010

Manhattan Spirit for Cyber Defense

In “How to Fight and Win the Cyberwar” (op-ed, Dec. 6), Mortimer Zuckerman uses the analogy of the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb in World War II and suggests forming a “Cyber Defense Administration” (CDA).

We need to keep in mind how the Manhattan Project managed to succeed in achieving its objectives. The direction and top management of the project was by scientists like Robert Oppenheimer, who understood the scientific details of the project, and project director Gen. Leslie Groves, who made sure the scientists got what they wanted. This is not like any bureaucracy in the U.S. government today.

I would visualize a CDA more as a TSA- or EPA-type bureaucracy with a politically sensitive lawyer or bureaucrat at the top, and having to go down two or more administrative levels before you find the first Ph.D.-level computer scientists with a history of serious research and publications in computer/network security. The head of the CDA would probably be clueless about the computer science details and would have no basis for making rational decisions. This is a field where the devil is in the details, and to truly understand those details requires much more than bureaucratic and political skills.

Whoever created the Stuxnet worm that attacked Iran’s nuclear program’s computers probably was not managed by a bureaucrat, but by a team of very high-level scientists who clearly understood the details. Countries like China often have real experts running their organizations, not just politically smooth bureaucrats who go from job to job with a false theory that a “good manager can manage anything.”

In reality, especially in a field like cyber security, a good manager can only manage what he understands. Our bureaucrats will lose the cyberwar against scientists who understand the details.

Dallas Weaver

Huntington Beach, Calif.

It is a bureaucratic conceit to think that a "good manager" can manage major healthcare IT projects - or pharmaceutical companies - or anything else outside their core competencies.

This holds true even assuming, at best, that one of their "core competencies" is competency itself (warning: PDF on the Dunning-Kruger effect on illusory superiority).

-- SS

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