More thoughts on Orca

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Everyone seems to be jumping on the story of the Romney campaign’s “Orca” debacle. But it seems to me that this is not really a new story. It’s a story that’s been repeated over and over again thousands of times, in large companies and small, not to mention government agencies.

Tell me that you haven’t heard this one before:

  • To begin with, you have a CEO who is a great visionary. (Everyone tells him he is, so he must be.) He doesn’t know much about Information Technology, but that’s OK–you can hire people to handle that.
  • The CEO is approached by an IT consultant who proposes a great new system, something that has never been done before, which will run rings around the competition.
  • The consultant has never actually developed a system of comparable complexity but the CEO is impressed with his vision. He tells his people to give the consultant everything he needs.
  • Because of the great strategic importance of the project the team accepts an extremely aggressive development schedule. It just has to be ready by the drop-dead date. To make it work the team will have to put in lots of overtime and not waste too much time on things like design reviews and extensive testing.
  • The consultant creates an elaborate marketing presentation to sell the project to the organization (and maybe to outsiders as well.)
  • To simplify the transition they decide on a “Big Bang” implementation. On the deadline date the old system will be irreversibly shut down and the new system will go online.
  • Users are given “training” that is basically a rehash of the marketing presentation. They can’t practice with the new system because it isn’t ready yet.
  • Result: Profit! humiliating failure.

Even this doesn’t necessarily get to the heart of the problem. I’ve seen projects fail even though they came in on time and under budget with all the required features, just because the original specification didn’t match what the organization really needed. You need to understand the problem before you come up with a solution.

Suppose Orca had worked perfectly as designed. Poll watchers would have used their smart phones to submit real-time reports to the giant computer in Romney’s Orbital HQ. The computer would have analyzed the data and issued real-time orders to field workers via their cell phones.

The most likely result would have been that Romney would known a few hours earlier that he needed to write a concession speech. (As it was, with Orca flopping helplessly on the beach, his team was reduced to watching the TV news broadcasts and found out the results at the same time the rest of us did.)

Any experienced campaign manager should know that you need to have your resources in place before Election Day. Any scheme to dynamically shift resources around while the voting is taking place is likely to have very limited effect.

So the correct way to manage this particular project would be not to do it at all. Instead it would have been better to spend those millions on opening more field offices and providing better training for volunteers.

That would probably not have been enough to change the outcome of the election. Nate Silver’s final analysis of the results makes it clear that the situation was beyond the ability of any get-out-the-vote drive to salvage. However they should have at least been able to flip Florida which would have made the final result less embarrassing.