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Time Capsule: The Olympics as a Project Management Lesson: Those Chinese Would Have Had Your Clinical Systems Live By Now

March 29, 2013 Time Capsule No Comments

I wrote weekly editorials for a boutique industry newsletter for several years, anxious for both audience and income. I learned a lot about coming up with ideas for the weekly grind, trying to be simultaneously opinionated and entertaining in a few hundred words, and not sleeping much because I was working all the time. They’re fun to read as a look back at what was important then (and often still important now).

I wrote this piece in August 2008.

The Olympics as a Project Management Lesson: Those Chinese Would Have Had Your Clinical Systems Live By Now
By Mr. HIStalk


I don’t follow sports much. In fact, I might be the only American who didn’t watch any of the Olympics, other than a little of the women’s nude … uhh, beach … volleyball (I think the US beat some other teams, but I’m not really sure since they kept running back and forth under the net while I was distracted).

Actually, I did watch the closing ceremonies, having little choice because I had bartered away my evening TV rights to Mrs. HIStalk in return for being allowed to watch an Andy Griffith Show mini-marathon that preceded it (“The Pickle Story” episode was a key bargaining point in the protracted negotiations).

I’m glad I tuned in to watch the torch get snuffed. It held a valuable lesson (beyond the inevitability of aging, as evidenced by Jimmy Page’s frightful-looking gray hair).

The lesson is this: given resources and strictly followed project management principles, human achievement is nearly limitless.

Evidence was everywhere. China spent $40 billion on everything from infrastructure to costumes. The closing ceremony was so tightly scheduled and scripted that the elaborate equipment and cast of thousands could not be assembled until right before the show, with no time for on-site practice. Clips of memorable performances (all of victorious Americans, given the homer TV coverage) were a reminder of the incredible logistics of transportation, construction, lodging, computing, scheduling, media support, and preparation that rivaled and maybe even exceeded the obviously impressive human performance of the competitors.

If there was a project management Olympics, this Olympics would have brought home the gold. Everything was finished on time, it worked, and there was little evidence of what must have been hundreds of backstage arguments, compromises, and last-minute changes over several years. There were no excuses, extensions, or exclusions.

I bet you wish your last big project went that well. Me, too. In fact, I jotted down some thoughts about why China can orchestrate a picture-perfect Olympics while the average hospital can’t get its IT projects finished:

  • Ruthless project management. Chinese leaders aren’t generally known as laid back cut-ups, so I’m assuming the pressure to deliver was excruciating.
  • Unlimited budget. There’s no way costs could have been estimated accurately, so it must have boiled down to “whatever it takes.”
  • Tons of dedicated employees and volunteers. China has over a billion people to choose from, none of whom have the “no, thanks” option.
  • Individual and national pride was on the line.
  • Would-be naysayers who were too scared to whine about the impossibility of it all, which left just shutting up and doing what they were told.
  • A hard-stop, no-excuses, immovable deadline with the highly visible result beamed to the entire civilized world.

IT leaders probably shouldn’t rush out and declare themselves supreme ruler or demand billions of dollars just to get a project finished. Still, the Olympics would have failed if the goals were unclear, the money tight, or people stretched.

The lesson is that CIOs can do anything if given the right resources, requirements, and control. That is, if they bring highly polished expertise in planning, communication, and project management to the table. Anything less isn’t the Olympics; it’s more like professional wrestling.

My beach volleyball game would have suffered without these things. It might have been played on asphalt instead of sand because someone forgot to order it. It might have resulted in a tie because inexperienced scorers forgot to write down the points. And, it might have featured players wearing track suits because incompetent security guards allowed the team’s uniforms to be stolen from the coach’s wallet.

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