Not long ago, I worked with an international systems integrator. My division consisted of architects, planners, and project managers. We focused on corporate and government markets for the most part.

One afternoon while out working on a client e-mail and file services upgrade, one of my corporate moles paged me. He warned me that our CEO had just scheduled a lunch with his client counterpart. I thanked him and then let the team know to expect a surprise visit from corporate.

True to form, the CEO meandered into the work area just after lunch. He shook hands (and probably would have kissed babies if any were offered). We chatted as a group for a bit. Then he went off to pin down the project manager (PM) on a few things that came up during his conversation with the client CEO.

After upbraiding the project manager a bit, our CEO stopped by my desk. He let me know that he’d “opened his friend’s eyes” about the “network problems we were having.” I would have a senior network analyst on site within 48 hours. Everything would be fine.

Unfortunately, our only network problems stemmed from a bad box of NICs, and we had stamped out that issue over a month ago. When he left, I scrambled one of our techs to get a desk, phone, and office access card ready. The PM spent the rest of the day on the phone working to get the decision reversed.

Enter the specialist
On Monday, our specialist breezed into the office around 10 A.M. We spent the rest of the day getting him set up, moving his stuff from the hotel to our corporate apartments, and getting to know one another. He fit right in with our introverted project team.

He also possessed an amazing amount of experience with Bay equipment, network traffic analysis, and satellite communications. Over a bottle of wine that night, we talked about his last decade of work. All of it sounded like an incredible amount of fun.

Unfortunately, none of it met our needs. Worse, his manager received orders from on high to perform a network analysis. He would spend the next four weeks flying around the country distributing network probes to gather data.

After some more wine, I pointed out that the client already had probes installed. He then did the “consultant shuffle,” claiming superior technology. I also pointed out that none of the 20 some hub sites he wanted to visit were aware of his schedule. My new friend asked me to handle that for him.

On the third day, the specialist vanished from sight. He sent the PM and me occasional notes about his travels. Other than the usual litany of consultant woes, things progressed at a fairly normal pace.

At the end of four weeks, we received a final report from his activities. Based on barely a week of data for traffic analysis, he saw no problems with the network.

What really was the problem?
My project team, the specialist, and the client suffered from two distinct problems in this situation. Solving either one would have positively changed the situation. Unfortunately, we acted on neither issue, so the client ended up wasting a substantial amount of money.

The first problem came from the weight of the decision-making process. Given the political weight and authority of both individuals involved, the project team had no way to reverse the decision. No matter how high-profile the project or how connected in our offices we were, an IT project team cannot reverse decisions made at the CEO level. We could argue, fight, bite, and curse, but in the end we also had to follow our marching orders.

Both of the CEOs wanted to help. They felt that by taking an active hand in a detailed decision, they positively impacted an important project for both companies. By acting on hearsay, they ended up just wasting cash.

The second problem was in how I, as the senior architect, dealt with that decision. I knew the specialist was useless from the beginning. Therefore, I did not spend time with him to create a good work plan. As soon as I heard the decision, I resigned myself to wasting my client’s money and time.

Rather than just giving up, I should have approached the situation creatively. The specialist could have done any number of things. Network traffic analysis can reveal all kinds of interesting details if you think to ask the right questions. By simply accepting the inevitable, I created it. Without guidance or creative input, the specialist produced the report his manager requested. As predicted, that generic report provided us with exactly as much useful information as we asked of it, which is to say none at all.

Fast forward
A few years later, I got an e-mail from my specialist friend. He wanted to tell me he just overheard a conversation between two coworkers. One of them was headed out to my site. He knew that communications sometimes lagged a bit. I tossed back an e-mail expressing my thanks for the warning and got to work.

Having had some time to mull over my mistakes the first time, I decided to try a different approach this time around. During my team’s end-of-week meeting, I introduced a brainstorming topic: What kind of information would we like to have about our network? We generated a two-page list of possible questions and artifacts.

When the specialist arrived the following Monday, we used that list to outline the contents of the inevitable report. Some of what we wanted could not be done in the allocated timeframe. But a lot of the service utilization questions lay within his scope, so long as he knew what to tune his data gathering toward.

Four weeks later, we had both the generic report and a “side” report highlighting file-print server and network access utilization patterns. The generic report went into the circular file. The side report became the basis for a massive network reorganization, saving the client millions in leasing fees.

In the first case, I allowed my own resignation about an executive decision to stifle my creativity. This ended up wasting both the client’s money and the specialist’s time. In the second case, I drew on my team’s creativity and insight to make a positive impact for everyone.