No Pain, No Gain

By Thomas Boyce Print this article Print

When Thomas Boyce arrived at the National Institutes of Health in May 2005
as a senior fellow at the Council for Excellence in Government and program manager for the Electronic Research Administration, he faced the monumental task of transforming a paper-based organization that processed up to 3 billion forms a year into a humming digital machine. Achieving that goal required major cultural changes as much as it did adopting and developing new technologies. Boyce reflects upon his challenges and resolutions for taming the paper beast.  

No Pain, No Gain

The past two and a half years have been tough, but rewarding. Given the chance to do it again, I would definitely start with the budget, making sure I understood the program from that perspective first. I would also freeze all but the most critical projects, taking a broader, portfolio view of our investments to determine how our priorities aligned with the interests of the program’s steering committee and stakeholders. In addition, I wouldn’t be so quick to implement Microsoft Project Server, because my approach prompted us to change course several times as we pinpointed root causes and more promising solutions.

In retrospect, I should have allowed more time to make sure staff members understood proper planning, the essential review points in the life of a project, and how to build and track projects within a more structured environment. The main lesson I learned was to develop and understand the processes first; then choose a tool to help implement and enforce those processes.

Finally, engaging and empowering the staff to identify challenges and develop solutions was absolutely critical to our success. The previous management team was risk-adverse: They simply did not want to hear about problems, preferring instead to “shoot the messenger.”

This attitude had contributed significantly to the dysfunction I discovered when I started the job. Once the staff determined that I was open to hearing about problems—potential or existing—I had a line at my door. Our discussions helped me realize not only the full scope of the challenges we faced, but that I had a dedicated staff willing and able to help. All they needed was an opportunity.

I can honestly say I have never worked as hard in my entire career as I have during the past 30 months. In preparing to move to another government agency and new challenges, I find myself asking whether all the hard work was worth it.

Two separate meetings in recent weeks answered that question. In one, I met with the NIH senior management group that oversees the eRA program to prepare for the 2009 budget request. In reviewing the current eRA budget and priorities, several in attendance asked why the program was being nickeled and dimed in light of all the success it had achieved during the past two years. Clearly, it was a sign that what my team and I did was producing tangible benefits.

More rewarding to me personally was a recent preliminary design review meeting—just one of the new process gates the staff must go through in preparation for our enterprise software releases. There was a heated exchange about how to improve the project templates and the design review report to make them easier to generate and more meaningful.

It was clear that the staff had gotten past their resistance to a new way of doing things, and had embraced my continuous-improvement approach. I took that as a sign of progress toward achieving my ultimate goal—smart change management.

This article was originally published on 2008-02-21
Boyce is senior fellow at the Council for Excellence in Government and program manager for the Electronic Research Administration. He is transitioning to a new job as deputy chief information officer and director of the Office of Information Systems at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
eWeek eWeek

Have the latest technology news and resources emailed to you everyday.