19 February 2020 at 11:00AM
Guest Post: Caucus Lessons for the Project Manager by Phil Dunshee
Caucus Lessons for The Project Manager
The Iowa Caucus is over and the candidates have moved on. Since the results were announced (still not
completely final at this writing) there have been numerous stories and articles dissecting just what went
wrong. Whose fault was it anyway, and how can it be prevented from ever happening again? Will this kill
the Iowa Caucus as we know it? Let’s leave it to the pundits to continue the discussion about methods
for counting delegates, alleged interference with the Iowa Democratic Party phone banks, or the now
Like many folks interested in politics, I tuned in to the media to learn the results of the caucus. I
optimistically stayed up later than usual hoping for some breaking news. But there were only angry
journalists and quizzical expert analysts. For some reason my thoughts that evening turned to the many
times I’ve read and heard about the high percentage of projects that fail, and what a good project
manager should do to ensure success. As a project manager, what lessons could I learn from this event?
First, have some empathy. Haven’t most of us experienced a project that failed? The possible causes are
endless, and no matter what the textbook says, a project manager usually doesn’t have control over all
the variables. I don’t know who the project manager was in this case, or even if there was one, but
whoever the people involved were, I feel badly for them. I know what crisis management is, and it is
Managing risk has also been a strong theme as I think about the caucus. It isn’t hindsight that tells us
that the impact of failure was off the charts. We’ve seen it play out before our eyes in a very public way.
But how do we measure the probability of failure? In this case there were multiple points of potential
problems, ranging from the event itself and the tabulation of results to the primary and secondary
methods for reporting the information. The fact that there could be no flexibility in the launch date was
also a factor. For many projects, the act of pushing back the schedule a week isn’t such a big deal. For
this event, no such opportunity existed. As I think about my current and future project activities, this is a
stark reminder to take risk management very seriously.
Hidden in the reporting was a small item that stood out to me as an issue that may have increased the
risk of failure. The essence is that an external party had allegedly required a security update shortly
before moving the application into production. The specific facts are not known, but haven’t we all
experienced the last-minute request of a stakeholder or product owner? Of course, we want to be agile
and satisfy the request, but we also know that the introduction of something new can increase risk and
affect the quality or performance of a product.
A final lesson for me is the importance of communication with all of the stakeholders. In this case it
included the caucus participants, the volunteers in the so-called “boiler room,” the media, the
candidates themselves and the entire community of the State of Iowa. As project managers we will all at
some point be confronted with the challenge of balancing the desire to “buy time” and “get it fixed first”
with the benefits of being open and transparent with all of our stakeholders. That is such a tough
judgment to make, but when the impact and probability of failure is high, I am reminded that it is vital to
plan for those communication actions in advance.
My hope is that cool heads will prevail and that the Iowa caucuses will continue. It is an imperfect but
valuable process. In the meantime, these are a few lessons that will stay with me for a long, long time.