Virtual Case File – A Post Mortem – Part 1 – The Balancing Act

This weekend, I picked up my issue of the IEEE Spectrum which they’ve devoted to software failures and started reading the fascinating article: Who Killed the Virtual Case File? It details the FBI’s failed Virtual Case File System from its start to its mind-numbing $170M collapse into a steaming pile of unusable code, 800 pages of recommendations, and quite a few destroyed careers. It’s absolutely stunning with respect to poor project management, so I’m going to focus on this article for a couple days to lay out where some of their biggest mistakes were and potential ways the risks could have been mitigated.

About halfway through the article, this quote floored me:
Mueller blamed himself for the delay, because he’d asked for an accelerated schedule. But Higgins blamed Mueller’s staff for not being straight with him about his agency’s ability to deliver what he wanted.

“Did somebody come to you and say, okay, Mr. Director, sir, you can have it sooner, but it’s going to cost you this much more money or you’re going to have to do without something?” Higgins remembered asking Mueller. “And he said, ‘No, nobody ever told me that.’ And I said, ‘Well, lesson No. 1: faster, cheaper, better. Pick two, but you can’t have all three.’


Now, I’m not going to criticize FBI Director Robert Mueller. He’s a lawyer, not an engineer, so he has probably never seen the Faster, Cheaper, Better triangles. You don’t want lawyers thinking in those terms, so I can forgive that. What stuns me is the fact that there are highly competent and experienced Project Managers throughout the FBI and the contracting organizations and yet no one laid out this basic Project Management balancing act. This is one of the simplest principles that everyone MUST get into their heads. You can definitely get one, you might get two, but you can’t have all three.

You can make it Faster, but it will cost more or do less.
You can make it Cheaper, but it will take longer or do less.
You can make it Better, but it will take longer or cost more.

On one of the first projects where I was the Project Manager, I had my boss look at my Requirement document and Project Plan which had both been signed off by the customer. It was the first time a project within his department had a written specification or a plan, so I thought he’d be impressed. He promptly cut the project plan in half, added new requirements, and removed one of the people from the team. It’s a great way to start a project.

Everyone out there – a project manager or not – must accept this as the Newton’s 4th Law or the 4th Law of Robotics or the 11th Commandment. Trying to deny this balance will cost dollars, time, credibility, and even a careers.

PM 101. Class is in session.