Finding the Right Pace

PM Network, October 2012 | Go to article overview

Finding the Right Pace


Delivering major projects in the public eye is always fraught with risks, and few people know that better than Srikantha Nalhamuni, head of technology for the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) in Bangalore, in this role, Mr. Nalhamuni is leading a four-year, countrywide project to provide a unique identification number to all Indians using eye and fingerprint recognition, creating the largest biometrie database in the world.

When the Indian government hired Mr. Nalhamuni, he immediately recognized that the need for speed and agility could create some problems. "The project had to move quickly," he says, "but the government of India, like most governments, is a pretty bureaucratic organization."

Rather than run the project as a traditional government effort and expose it to the myriad associated stakeholder risks, he created distance between the team and the sponsor. Instead of setting up shop in the government headquarters, he rented an apartment near his home as his base office. Then he pulled in people from different government departments, hired technology experts from the private sector and asked professionals from around the world to join the team.

This ensured he had individuals with the broad expertise and viewpoints he wanted, and who could work in a flexible project environment. "We broke down the barriers and made it a barebones operation," he says. "That gave us quite a. bit of agility."

Agility was particularly important in the early days of the project, when his team was still brainstorming. Together they created a series of innovative ideas to alleviate the potential risks of a project involving more than a billion people. For example, the team partnered with dozens of vendors, municipalities, registrars and other community groups to run scaled-down versions of the project locally, rather than trying to hire thousands of workers to fan out across the country.

"It was all about speed," Mr. Nalhamuni says. "We realized early on that the project was too big to deploy as one monolithic system. By partnering with local groups, we could actually get the job done faster."

Rolling out the project in smaller groups allowed local teams to address critical concerns. Data security and transparency became priorities as the team deployed the biometrie technology and infrastructure to local partners and began collecting data. "The key is controlling the chaos and bringing in structure a little bit at a time," he says. "And recognizing that speed is the price you pay for structure."

As the project plan was honed and they began to implement pieces, Mr. Nalhamuni brought structure in incrementally, adding process and oversight, and eventually moving it into the government offices.

Today, the project has a formal project management structure with regular milestone reviews. It is under budget and ahead of schedule for the 2014 deadline, according to Mr. Nalhamuni. As of July 2012, the teams had signed up 1.2 billion people.

PMI'S VOICES BLOC On Iterative Processes

I strongly believe that we tend to underestimate complexity. Most IT projects today involve innovation and learning while we work. New technical solutions emerge while we work. New needs pop up while we work. And we discover new opportunities while we work.

Risk analysis and traditional change management will not do in these cases. They just get sand in the machinery and will delay progress and learning.

In predominantly complex projects, there is no use making detailed plans up-front You need to have a process that emphasizes learning while working. …

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