VISTA Enterprise Network - Successful Implementation, World Class Support

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Book Recommendation 1: The Oregon Experiment

Dear Reader,

To Roger Baker, the new chief information officer of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, I offer this advice: if you want to be a great VISTA manager, a great VA CIO, I can recommend nothing more important than to read this book. It'll prepare you for your new job in ways no meeting or position paper ever will. It'll tell you things you need to know, things none of your subordinates can tell you. Unless you do this, you'll almost certainly repeat the mistakes of your predecessors despite your best intentions. With it, you create the possibility of becoming the second-greatest manager VISTA has ever known.


Because in the year 1975, in 190 small pages packed with illustrations, Christopher Alexander and his team came as close to describing the VISTA lifecycle as anyone has yet done in writing. It should be required reading for anyone who intends to manage a VISTA project.

The surprises here are (1) that VISTA didn't exist in 1975, except as a set of observations and principles in the possession of VISTA founder Ted O'Neill, so of course Alexander had never heard of it; and so (2) he and his team weren't writing about VISTA or even software development; they were writing about architecture and architectural planning.

They were trying to describe what seemed to most people like an unusual approach to architectural planning; it was the original approach used by humanity for millennia but abandoned in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This is analogous to what Ted O'Neill and his team were setting out to do in the VA: to try out a promising approach to medical-software development that defied mainstream ideas about how to develop software.

Both projects began by studying the past, studying what worked and what didn't, building up lists of tactics for how to succeed or fail, and using those lists to develop a coherent strategy. The two strategies resemble each other closely, but Alexander and his team wrote a book about their strategy, whereas we haven't yet written the book about the VISTA strategy.

Other similarities abound between the two projects. Like physical architecture, medical-software architecture is complex, easy to get wrong, and affects many people who really care about the results, and the costs of failure are paid in time, money, morale, and sometimes human lives.

Most crucially though, both kinds of efforts largely succeed or fail on the effectiveness of their management processes. You can have the best builders of buildings or code in the world, but if you manage them badly you guarantee failure - and it's easy to manage them badly. Indeed, in both disciplines bad management's not an accident but a carefully learned behavior, in which management practices that work well in other situations work badly in these two yet are adhered to forcefully even though they leave behind a track record of failure after failure.

The reason both disciplines are so vulnerable to bad management is that the two subjects share two vital characteristics: (1) flow, and (2) life. Less tersely put, (1) they both have to be managed using organic development-processes, because (2) both physical architecture and VISTA itself are living systems that only superficially resemble mechanical systems.

The full significance of that paragraph will take a few weeks to illuminate adequately, so let's get to it, step by step.

Meanwhile, order yourself a copy and read it carefully.

Yours truly,

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