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Strategic Planning and Project Management are Focus for California CIO

Fail fast and fail small: CIO Teri Takai says state must manage project risks more effectively.

by / May 27, 2008

Business as usual is coming to an end in California -- both for state agencies and technology vendors.

That was the message from state CIO Teri Takai, who signaled her intention to bring a more strategic and unified approach to state government IT at GTC's Conference on California's Future earlier this month.

"The legislation that created my office includes the authority to set statewide standards and policies for IT, and we will be exercising that authority," she told an audience of technology industry executives on May 15.

Takai became California's first Cabinet-level CIO in January, after spending five years as CIO of Michigan.

Beginning this year, Takai will require all California Cabinet agencies to submit plans outlining their technology projects and investments for the next five years. These plans should tie agency business objectives to IT investments, she said. The plans also will play a major role in the project approval process.

For technology vendors, the changes will mean much better direction from the state on IT projects and purchases, Takai said. On the other hand, the new approach also will reduce the amount of selling done to individual agencies and boost the use of enterprise agreements.

In addition, Takai said she will focus on strengthening project management and improving communication with state lawmakers.

Although the state's size makes IT projects difficult to deliver, California has a better technology track record than it gets credit for, said Takai, pointing to more than 90 successful IT projects over the past four years. But these successes haven't been well publicized, she added, creating the perception that state technology projects are destined to fail.

"In Sacramento, there's a pall over IT. Many state legislators see IT as a problem, and that perception has to change," Takai said. "We need to promote the good things we're doing. It's absolutely important. We have to get the message out that technology is not something to be scared of."

One by-product of California's risk-averse climate is multiple layers of project oversight intended to prevent failures. But the state's current fixation on reporting and third-party monitoring -- known as independent verification and validation -- is counter-productive, she said.

Instead, the state needs to manage risk more effectively. "We need to focus on risk mitigation, not risk elimination," Takai said. Project managers must learn spot problems early and in some cases, pull the plug on troubled projects quickly -- a strategy Takai called "fail fast and fail small."

"We need to increase the skills of state employees," she said. "And we need state IT staff to own projects instead of vendors."

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