If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done In Government

November 20, 2009
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ifwecanputamanonthemoonI found If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government to be a book I couldn’t put down. This great read is about results and how to get them. And, as the title implies, it focuses on big results in government. The government is doing many things to the highest of standards and getting many big things done, but the list of failed programs, fiascoes and squandered opportunities seems to be growing longer and longer. Some highlighted in the book include Iraq, Boston’s Big Dig, Hurricane Katrina and the drowning of New Orleans, Abu Ghraib, the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, failed immigration reform, and the massive economic meltdown. Many successful pursuits/accomplishments were also studied. The point, of course, is that we can study both failure and success and glean lessons relevant to our decision-making.

The authors, William Eggers and John O’Leary, organize lessons from their study into seven categories of traps:

  • The Tolstoy Trap
  • The Design-Free Design Trap
  • The Stargate Trap
  • The Overconfidence Trap
  • The Complacency Trap
  • The Silo Trap

In laying out the details of these dangers, Eggers and O’Leary write in a fast-paced, page-turning style



ifwecanputamanonthemoonI found If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government to be a book I couldn’t put down. This great read is about results and how to get them. And, as the title implies, it focuses on big results in government. The government is doing many things to the highest of standards and getting many big things done, but the list of failed programs, fiascoes and squandered opportunities seems to be growing longer and longer. Some highlighted in the book include Iraq, Boston’s Big Dig, Hurricane Katrina and the drowning of New Orleans, Abu Ghraib, the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, failed immigration reform, and the massive economic meltdown. Many successful pursuits/accomplishments were also studied. The point, of course, is that we can study both failure and success and glean lessons relevant to our decision-making.

The authors, William Eggers and John O’Leary, organize lessons from their study into seven categories of traps:

  • The Tolstoy Trap
  • The Design-Free Design Trap
  • The Stargate Trap
  • The Overconfidence Trap
  • The Complacency Trap
  • The Silo Trap

In laying out the details of these dangers, Eggers and O’Leary write in a fast-paced, page-turning style that at times injects analogies from science fiction TV and action movies. I appreciated that.

The most important chapter of the book, as you might imagine, is the last. A call to action titled “Creating a Better Future.”

As a former government Chief Technology Officer, I wish there had been a greater examination of IT programs in government. There were several key IT programs reviewed, including NSA’s Trailblazer, the U.S. Census Bureau’s handheld computer initiative, The FBI’s Virtual Case File program and the Navy Marine Corps Intranet (NMCI). There are definitely lessons there I appreciated and I strongly recommend this book to any CTO. But I just wish there were more IT-focused case studies. For example, I would have liked to see a review of the Military’s command and control programs or the continuous struggle to improve security in the federal nets.

I guess some exercises must be left to the reader.

I also believe they missed a key trap that slows progress. There is a huge tendency to over-study and turn small things into massive programs that never end. Tasks that could have taken a couple months take a year or two and next thing you know they are never done. This seems to be one of the root causes of the recent Network Enabled Command and Control (NECC) failure, for example

Another thought that crossed my mind reading the book is that the government’s move to and leadership of big efforts in Cloud Computing , Open Source Software, and Web2.0 (including Gov2.0) can also provide lessons to this body of knowledge, and of course can also benefit from the lessons from this book.

My recommendation: Buy, read and implement the lessons in If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government

Related posts:

  1. Government 2.0 Camp 27-28 March 2009 in DC
  2. Federal Government Technology Directions and the Fed CTO
  3. Another government IT program succeeds beyond all expectations!



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