Project management systems never get the credit they deserve. It’s always superstar engineers or beautiful products that steal the spotlight. But how do they come together, the engineer and the product? How do the two of them join together in a beautiful technological embrace and move forward? That’s what project management systems are for.
In Scrum, Jeff Sutherland describes his Scrum system, a way of managing projects that is so effective at saving time and money that it has been used to clear up the bureaucratic mess at the FBI. And now, Scrum is changing the way most technological companies approach their work.
Although Sutherland is already known as one of the geniuses behind The Agile Manifesto, these book summary will explain the ideas that make him one of the most important behind-the-scenes thinkers in the world.
In this summary of Scrum by Jeff Sutherland, you’ll learn
- how Scrum learns from fighter jet pilots;
- why leaders should report to their teams, not the other way around; and
- how to start your first Scrum project today.
“At its root, Scrum is based on a simple idea: whenever you start a project, why not regularly check in, see if what you’re doing is heading in the right direction, and if it’s actually what people want? And question whether there are any ways to improve how you’re doing what you’re doing, any ways of doing it better and faster, and what might be keeping you from doing that.” – Jeff Sutherland
All major projects require cycles of execution and improvement called Scrum Sprints. Scrum Sprints are typically conducted bi-weekly, and they contain the following 7 steps:
LIST: Create/Update a Backlog List (list document)
- Quickly list or update ALL desirable outcomes for the project.
- Format these outcomes to represent specific points in the ‘User’s Experience Story’: Who (X) + What (Y) + Why (Z) – “As an operator (X), I use the touch screen to start the motor (Y), so I can control the pump remotely (Z).”
- Ensure each item is testable (can be built and tested according to a clear set of pass-fail requirements).
- Sort items in order of their ability to validate critical assumptions AND provide immediate value.
- Part 1: Refine and Estimate Backlog Items (list document with numbers and sections boxed off)
- Assign the longest duration item(s) with a 13 (highest Fibonacci number in the sequence: 1,2,3,5,8,13)
- Assign Fibonacci numbers 1,2,3,5,8,13 to all items, relative to the hardest item
- Part 2: Sprint Planning Session
- Set fixed Sprint duration (time till next evaluation – max 20% of the project duration)
- INITIAL SPRINT: estimate points to be completed within that time
- SUCCESSIVE SPRINTS: previous Sprint actual point total + 10%
POPULATE: Make Work Next Actions Visible
- Write all items that need to be completed during the current Sprint onto cards and put them in the ‘DO’ column of your Scrum Board (a Scrum board is a wall board with post-it notes OR software program with 3 lists: DO, DOING, DONE – I suggest using the software program Trello.com).
- Move the three top priority items into the ‘DOING’ column (never have more than 3 items in the DOING column).
- When you complete an item move it from the ‘DOING’ column to the ‘DONE’ column.
CHART: Make Work Progress Visible
- At the end of each day, take the total number of points in the ‘DONE’ list and subtract that that total from the Sprint total.
- Show the results on a ‘Burndown Chart’ (a line chart that reduces in value each day, with the y-axis representing the Sprint point total and the x-axis representing the number of day in the Sprint):
ASK: Conduct 15-minute Daily Stand-up Meetings
- What did I/we do yesterday to help the team finish the Sprint?
- What can I/we do today to help the team finish the Sprint?
- What upcoming obstacles might slow my/our progress?
DEMONSTRATE: Host a Sprint Demonstration
- Invite all project stakeholders (client, management, product owner or potential customer).
- Show the Sprint results (functional products only).
- Gather constructive feedback.
REFLECT: Conduct a Sprint Retrospective (lessons learned document)
- What went well?
- What could have been better?
- What can we do differently next Sprint?
If you want to get things done, ditch the traditional waterfall method, and try Scrum.
How many times have you planned to complete a project, only to find yourself painfully behind schedule as the deadline loomed closer?
Unfortunately, this happens often when we use traditional management processes, like the waterfall method epitomized by Gantt charts.
Gantt charts illustrate project timelines using color-coded parallel bars that indicate the timing and length of different parts of the process, which may occur simultaneously (the result can look like a stylized waterfall, hence the name). Although these are popular organizational tools, they often assume an outsized degree of importance, as when a project has fallen behind schedule, and managers pile more resources into it so that they can make their work fit that schedule, and not vice versa. It can lead to disastrous results.
For instance, the FBI planned to implement a modernized software system called Virtual Case File (VCF), in order to better share information and prevent another 9/11.
Using a Gantt Chart, the agency created a deadline for every important milestone. So the “technical design” stage was scheduled to end on a specific date, at which point the “coding and testing” phase of the project would commence.
Unfortunately, the project broke down before a single line of code was written. VCP ultimately wasted years of the agency’s time and $170 million in taxpayer money.
Since these kinds of failures happen periodically with the waterfall method, many organizations have adopted the scrum project management system instead.
Scrum is characterized by team building and constant feedback. This team-oriented approach is reflected by the name, which describes the moment in a rugby game when the team works together to move the ball down the field, all united by the same clear goal.
And this process works: When the FBI applied Scrum to Sentinel, their next attempt at large-scale modernization, the agency successfully implemented the system in less time, with fewer people and at a lower cost.
Curious to know more about the core ideas behind scrum? Well, keep reading to find out!
Effective project management is all about promoting great teamwork.
When you’re working on a project, your best chance for success lies in how well your team works together. And as a manager, you can improve team performance by making four changes.
Firstly, let team members decide how they’re going to reach objectives.
For instance, NPR’s award-winning reporting on the Arab Spring in Egypt was only possible because the staff who were responsible for coverage had autonomy. The team made all the decisions about how to produce their stories, working together to navigate Egyptian bureaucracy, translation, issues of safety, and so on.
Here’s another way to improve team performance: Teams accomplish exponentially more than individuals can on their own, so make sure your team has a broader purpose. In other words, teams are more powerful than the sum of their parts, so expand your staff’s expectations and make sure everyone’s working toward the same common goal.
This was probably another factor that contributed to NPR’s success during the Arab Spring: This once-in-a-lifetime event was a huge reporting opportunity, which gave the journalists a higher sense of purpose.
And the third change you can make to improve teamwork is by asking different teams to periodically share results and create new, self-sufficient teams.
This is important because teams should be cross-functional, and have every skill needed to complete a project. Because it’s about the final product and not just the individual team members, diversity in skills, thinking and experience will help achieve better results.
And finally, help your teams to work better by reducing their sizes. For most teams, seven members (plus or minus two people) are ideal.
Why do small teams make a difference? Well, increasing the number of people involved in a team creates more communication channels, which the brain can’t really handle. When we have to work too hard to figure out what everyone else is doing, we slow down.
Create a regular feedback system to keep your project on track.
As you surely know, humans are bad at estimating how long things will take – and this leads to major project management problems. Luckily, Scrum addresses this issue through a system called Sprints, which will help your team with time management.
Sprints are short periods of work (one to four weeks is optimal) focused on a specific task. After a Sprint, the team meets to review progress and refine goals before embarking upon the next Sprint.
The ultimate advantage of this process is that it allows you to respond to problems quickly; by checking in regularly, you can re-calibrate the objective for the next round of Sprints. That way, no one spends months working on something that ultimately gets discarded.
In order to use this process efficiently, focus on one task per Sprint. The Sprint periods are so short, you’ll be able to concentrate effectively. It also helps to establish a consistent working rhythm: don’t follow a one-week Sprint with a three-week Sprint.
And for another way to improve time management, try Daily Stand-Ups, daily meetings which always occur at the same time and ask the same questions: What did you do yesterday to help the team finish the Sprint? What will you do today? What obstacles are you facing?
Make sure everyone stands up, and make sure that the entire meeting lasts no more than 15 minutes.
The author’s friend, Eelco Rustenburg, actually put Daily Stand-Ups into practice when he was remodeling his house. The project was completed in just six weeks – on schedule! The short daily meetings brought every team member together to discuss their progress.
Eelco’s successful remodeling process impressed his neighbors, who tried to replicate the results in their own home. They hired the same group of contractors to work the same job – but didn’t use Scrum. And without Scrum, Eelco’s six-week project took them three months!
Avoid anything that distracts you from meeting your goals.
We’ve arrived at another core idea in Scrum: avoid waste – that is, anything that distracts you from completing the task at hand. Here are a few ways to eliminate waste.
Firstly, finish your projects by focusing on one thing at a time. Multitasking might seem appealing, but it just wastes time and energy. Do you really want to promote the project management equivalent of texting while driving?
You can also avoid waste by using what you’ve created. If you don‘t use what you create you expend effort without seeing the fruits of your effort, and you waste time and money. General Motors experienced a great loss when it started layoffs in 2012, because it had $7.5 billion in unsold trucks just sitting around.
Another way to avoid waste: If you make a mistake, fix it immediately, because it will always take longer if you have to fix it later.
In fact, a study by Palm, an American smartphone manufacturer, found that it takes an average of 24 hours to fix a bug three weeks after it emerges. By comparison, it takes just one hour to fix the same bug the same day it’s observed. The reason for this discrepancy? Well, remembering all the different factors that caused the bug wastes a ton of time.
Overworking your employees is another thing to avoid if you want to eliminate waste. Because when overworked employees get distracted, they mess up, and sometimes when they mess up they distract others and create still more mistakes. Along those lines, working fewer hours, taking vacations and eating lunch outside of the office will make everyone happier and improve the quality of their work – ultimately boosting productivity.
To that end, groups of researchers demonstrated that Israeli judges make better-reasoned decisions after a break. On the other hand, judges are more likely to make unsound decisions just before a break, when they’re low on energy.
We’ve discussed a few different ways to avoid waste, but the most important guideline for achieving this is simple: Be reasonable, and don’t waste your employee’s motivation by setting impossible goals. After all, a series of crises and near-misses will burn your employees out.
Increase your employees’ happiness in order to boost productivity.
How is happiness connected to success? Well, people aren’t happy because they’re successful – they’re successful because they’re happy.
Zappos is a great example of this principle. The über-successful retailer works to keep its employees happy by focusing on connection via various programs – like a “boot camp” introductory training and internal “apprenticeships” – to foster learning and growth. And thanks to these policies, Zappos has been rewarded with 124 percent year-over-year growth.
In addition to connection, visibility is another value companies can support to promote happiness. Visibility is the opposite of secrecy, and secrecy is toxic, because it creates suspicion and mistrust, which ultimately lower motivation and damage performance.
In addition to avoiding secrecy, you can also promote visibility by putting projects in a place where everyone can see them.
You can do this by creating a Scrum board that lists every project under one of the following columns: Backlog, To-Do, In Progress, In Review and Done! This way, everyone can see which projects are underway and which are stalled, ultimately giving employees the opportunity to step in and help where they’re most needed.
Another way to improve visibility is to identify the kaizen – this is the Japanese word for “improvement” – after each Sprint. You can do this by organizing a Sprint Retrospective after each Sprint. You can ask your team questions such as:
- On a scale from one to five, how do you feel about your role in the company?
- On the same scale, how do you feel about the company as a whole?
- Why do you feel that way?
- What one thing would make you happier in the next Sprint?
Pay special attention to the answers to the last question and, if possible, apply the improvements immediately. Doing so will promote trust and happiness on the team, which will ultimately lead to better results.
Prioritization is a crucial component of project management.
The last core value of Scrum is knowing how to prioritize. And this is exactly the job of the Product Owner – figuring out what to do, when.
But first, taking a step back, there are three roles in the Scrum model:
- The team member.
- The Scrum Master, who helps the team figure out how to work together effectively.
- The Product Owner, who’s responsible for the overall vision for the project, managing the backlog and setting the course for each sprint.
And to do the job effectively, the Product Owner should possess the following characteristics:
- Knowledge of their particular market.
- Authority to make decisions without interference from management.
- Availability to explain what needs to be done to team members.
- Accountability for the final product, or for how much revenue is produced.
It’s worth noting that the Product Owner role was inspired by Toyota’s Chief Engineers, who are responsible for their own product lines, like the Corolla.
Although the Corolla Chief Engineer creates the Corolla team, they don’t actually report to her. Rather, the Chief Engineer’s role is about guiding the project by creating a vision and persuading the team that they should share it.
Within the scrum system, Product Owners work with an OODA loop to make decisions based on real-time feedback. OODA stands for Observe (start the process by seeing where you are), Orient (evaluate how to create more possibilities), Decide and Act. Once these four steps have been completed, the Product Owner starts again from the beginning, with Observe (evaluating results of the prior action).
Fighter pilots are actually trained to use this decision-making process: First they assess current danger, then modify their position, figure out what to do next, and finally they follow through on that action – before starting the loop all over again.
When they’re trying to decide which Sprint to embark upon, Product Owners should follow this very process.
Follow these simple steps to launch your first Scrum project.
Now that you’ve seen how Scrum can help you complete projects, how can you implement the system in your own workplace? Well, there are just a few simple steps:
- Pick a Product Owner.
- Choose a team. Remember, there should only be about five to nine people per team, and they should encompass all the skills needed for the project.
- Pick a Scrum Master – someone who has already read these book summary. This person will be responsible for coaching everyone on how to maintain good Scrum techniques.
- Create the Project Backlog – that is, a list of tasks you’ll need to complete.
Move the tasks with the highest value and the lowest amount of risk to the top of the backlog. Do this by asking questions like: Which tasks have the biggest business impact? Which are most important to the customer? Which will earn the most money? Which are easiest to complete? Of course, you should also pay attention to what you can realistically achieve and what makes you passionate. But when you’re looking at the backlog and making decisions about where to start, prioritize by what’s easiest to accomplish and most valuable.
- Make sure that everything in the backlog is actually doable in Sprints – meaning, it should take less than a month to achieve.
- Host the first Scrum meeting and plan the first Sprint.
- Create a Scrum Board to make sure all the work is visible.
- Hold your Daily Stand-Up meetings to ensure that the initial Sprint runs smoothly.
- When you’ve completed the Sprint, organize a Sprint Review so that the team can demonstrate that they’ve produced something usable. Keep this meeting open to anyone who wants to attend, including company executives and management.
- Hold a Sprint Retrospective, and find actionable improvements you can implement to support your team in future Sprints.
- And once this is all done, move on to your next Sprint!
The key message:
Because it’s based on employee-friendly principles like team building and transparency, the Scrum system will make your company happier and more productive. Ultimately, the core idea of Scrum is to create a process of constant feedback. So as long as you review and refine your goals on a consistent basis, you’ll be heading in the right direction.
About the author
Jeff Sutherland is currently the CEO of Scrum, Inc. and Senior Adviser to OpenView Venture Partners where he coaches venture-funded companies. One of the original signers of the Agile Manifesto and a father of the Scrum movement, he travels the world conducting training and speaking. You can find him at www.scruminc.com.
J.J. Sutherland spent most of his career covering wars, conflicts, revolutions, disasters and terrorist attacks for NPR. More recently, he has been writing, teaching, and consulting with corporations and non-profits on how to use Scrum. His work has been recognized with Peabody, DuPont, Overseas Press Club, Associated Press and Edward R. Murrow awards.
Productivity, Self Help, Leadership, Technology, Personal Development, Programming, Business planning, Management, Organization and Time Management Skills, Project management, Scrum (Computer software development), Stress and Anxiety Management, Success, Motivation, Self-Esteem
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 The Way the World Works Is Broken 1
Chapter 2 The Origins of Scrum 23
Chapter 3 Teams 41
Chapter 4 Time 71
Chapter 5 Waste Is a Crime 85
Chapter 6 Plan Reality, Not Fantasy 111
Chapter 7 Happiness 145
Chapter 8 Priorities 171
Chapter 9 Change the World 203
Appendix: Implementing Scrum-How to Begin 234
For those who believe that there must be a more agile and efficient way for people to get things done, here is a brilliantly discursive, thought-provoking book about the leadership and management process that is changing the way we live.
In the future, historians may look back on human progress and draw a sharp line designating “before Scrum” and “after Scrum.” Scrum is that ground-breaking. It already drives most of the world’s top technology companies. And now it’s starting to spread to every domain where leaders wrestle with complex projects.
If you’ve ever been startled by how fast the world is changing, Scrum is one of the reasons why. Productivity gains of as much as 1200% have been recorded, and there’s no more lucid – or compelling – explainer of Scrum and its bright promise than Jeff Sutherland, the man who put together the first Scrum team more than twenty years ago.
The thorny problem Jeff began tackling back then boils down to this: people are spectacularly bad at doing things with agility and efficiency. Best laid plans go up in smoke. Teams often work at cross purposes to each other. And when the pressure rises, unhappiness soars. Drawing on his experience as a West Point-educated fighter pilot, biometrics expert, early innovator of ATM technology, and V.P. of engineering or CTO at eleven different technology companies, Jeff began challenging those dysfunctional realities, looking for solutions that would have global impact.
In this book you’ll journey to Scrum’s front lines where Jeff’s system of deep accountability, team interaction, and constant iterative improvement is, among other feats, bringing the FBI into the 21st century, perfecting the design of an affordable 140 mile per hour/100 mile per gallon car, helping NPR report fast-moving action in the Middle East, changing the way pharmacists interact with patients, reducing poverty in the Third World, and even helping people plan their weddings and accomplish weekend chores.
Woven with insights from martial arts, judicial decision making, advanced aerial combat, robotics, and many other disciplines, Scrum is consistently riveting. But the most important reason to read this book is that it may just help you achieve what others consider unachievable – whether it be inventing a trailblazing technology, devising a new system of education, pioneering a way to feed the hungry, or, closer to home, a building a foundation for your family to thrive and prosper.
“Full of engaging stories and real-world examples. The project management method known as Scrum may be the most widely deployed productivity tool among high-tech companies. On a mission to put this tool into the hands of the broader business world for the first time, Jeff Sutherland succeeds brilliantly.” – Eric Ries, New York Times bestselling author of The Lean Startup
“Engaging, persuasive and extremely practical…Scrum provides a simple framework for solving what seem like intractable and complicated work problems. It’s hard to make forward progress when you can’t see your impediments clearly. Sutherland offers a lens to remedy that. Amazingly, this book will not only make your life at work and home easier, but also, better and happier.” – Shawn Achor, New York Times bestselling author of Before Happiness and The Happiness Advantage
“This book contains immense practical value that could be transformative for your company. If you have a project that requires people to accomplish, your first act should be to read and be guided by Scrum.” – Stephen Lundin, New York Times bestselling author of Fish: A Remarkable Way to Boost Morale and Improve Performance
“Scrum is mandatory reading for any leader, whether they’re leading troops on the battlefield or in the marketplace. The challenges of today’s world don’t permit the luxury of slow, inefficient work. Success requires tremendous speed, enormous productivity, and an unwavering commitment to achieving results. In other words success requires Scrum.” – General Barry McCaffrey
“Jeff Sutherland has written the essence of Scrum for the masses. In this easy-to-read book, which is filled with lively stories, apt metaphors, and illuminating quotes, Jeff has converted all the ‘tacit knowledge’ he has gained — as a West Point cadet, fighter pilot in Vietnam, Aikido enthusiast, academic, technology expert, and father of Scrum — into wisdom. This book elevates Scrum from a fix-it tool to a way of life.” – Hirotaka Takeuchi, Professor of Management Practice, Harvard Business School
“Jeff Sutherland’s book masterfully speaks truth to the political complexities that easily stand in the way of getting a lot of work done in the least amount of time. He lays out a doctrine of simplicity, showing — with surprising insight — how to categorize roadblocks, systematize solutions, choose action over prolonged study, and retain the important emotional aspects of work that ground meaningful interactions. The busy professionals who’ll likely be drawn to this book will find not only an effective manual for getting things done but, also, a how-to guide for living a meaningful life.” – John Maeda, Design Partner, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers
“This extraordinary book shows a new way to simplify your life and work, increase your focus, and get more done in less time than you ever thought possible.” – Brian Tracy, bestselling author of Eat that Frog and Time Power
“I’ve used Scrum on projects big and small throughout my software career with great success. It’s the best way I know to manage small teams and no doubt has applications beyond software. This book cuts through the jargon and pedagogy and gets to the essence of what makes it work.” – Adam Messinger, Chief Technology Officer, Twitter
“Engaging…Sutherland tackles the problem of the perennially late, over-budget project—and actually shows how to solve it. His fascinating examples of rescued projects will change the way you think and act.” – Dorothy Leonard and Walter Swap, authors of Deep Smarts: How to Cultivate and Transfer Enduring Business Wisdom
“Jeff Sutherland is the master of creating high-performing teams. The subtitle of this book understates Scrum’s impact. If you don’t get three times the results in one-third the time, you aren’t doing it right!” – Scott Maxwell, Founder & Senior Managing Director, OpenView Venture Partners
“Jeff Sutherland used the common-sense but seldom-applied principles of the quality movement, user-centered design, and lean development to come up with a process that dramatically increases productivity while reducing employees’ frustrations with the typical corporate nonsense. This book is the best description I’ve seen of how this process can work across many industries. Senior leaders should not just read the book—they should do what Sutherland recommends.” – Jeffrey Pfeffer, Professor, Stanford Business School and c-author of The Knowing-Doing Gap
“Groundbreaking…Will upend people’s assumptions about how productive they can actually be…Here Jeff Sutherland discloses to the non-tech world the elegantly simple process that programmers and Web developers have been using since he invented Scrum, showing how a small, empowered, and dedicated team can deliver significantly higher quality work at a faster pace through introspection, iteration, and adaptation.” – Michael Mangi, Senior V.P. of Interactive Technology, Social@Ogilvy
“As a warrior-citizen of the United States Army Reserve, co-founder of a software startup, and harried father of teens, I found myself instantly drawn to this eye-opening guide, which suggests how we can balance our vital roles with discipline and joyful diligence. Sutherland’s secret to surmounting professional and personal obstacles is approaching tasks with deliberate attention and a resilient mindset. This book will change the way you do everything. Even better, it will help you feel good in the process. Just read it, and get more done.” – Arnold V. Strong, CEO of BrightNeighbor.com, and Colonel, US Army Reserve
“This deceptively simple system is the most powerful way I’ve seen to improve the effectiveness of any team. I started using it with my business and family halfway through reading the book.” – Leo Babauta, creator of Zen Habits
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The Way the World Works Is Broken
Jeff Johnson was pretty sure it wasn’t going to be a good day. On March 3, 2010, the Federal Bureau of Investigation killed its biggest and most ambitious modernization project–the one that was supposed to prevent another 9/11 but that had devolved into one of the biggest software debacles of all time. For more than a decade the FBI had been trying to update its computer system, and it looked as if they would fail. Again. And now it was his baby.
He’d shown up at the FBI seven months earlier, lured there by the new Chief Information Officer, Chad Fulgham, whom he’d worked with at Lehman Brothers. Jeff was Assistant Director of the IT Engineering Division. He had an office on the top floor of the J. Edgar Hoover Building in downtown Washington, D.C. It was a big office. It even had a view of the Washington Monument. Little did Jeff know he’d end up in a windowless cinder-block office in the basement for much of the next two years, trying to fix something that everyone believed to be unfixable.
“It was not an easy decision,” Jeff says. He and his boss had decided to declare defeat and kill a program that had already taken nearly a decade and cost hundreds of millions of dollars. By that point, it made more sense to bring the project in-house and do it themselves. “But it needed to be done and done well.”
The project was the long-awaited computer system that would bring the FBI into the modern age. In 2010–the era of Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, and Google–the FBI was still filing most of its reports on paper. The system the Bureau used was called the Automated Case Support system. It ran on gigantic mainframe computers that had been state of the art sometime in the eighties. Many special agents didn’t even use it. It was just too cumbersome and too slow in an era of terror attacks and swift-moving criminals.
When an FBI agent wanted to do something–anything, really–from paying an informant to pursuing a terrorist to filing a report on a bank robber, the process wasn’t that different from what it had been thirty years earlier. Johnson describes it this way: “You would write up a document in a word processor and print out three copies. One would be sent up the approval chain. One would be stored locally in case that one got lost. And with the third you’d take a red pen–I’m not kidding, a red pen–and circle the key words for input into the database. You’d index your own report.”
When a request was approved, that paper copy would drift down from upstairs with a number on it. A number written on a piece of paper is how the FBI kept track of all its case files. This method was so antiquated and porous that it was blamed in part for the Bureau’s failure to “connect the dots” that showed various Al Qaeda activists entering the country in the weeks and months before 9/11. One office was suspicious of one person. Another wondered why so many suspicious foreigners were getting flight training. Another had someone on a watch list but never told anyone else. No one in the Bureau ever put it all together.
The 9/11 Commission drilled down after the attack and tried to discover the core reason it was allowed to happen. Analysts, said the Commission, couldn’t get access to the very information they were supposed to analyze. “The poor state of the FBI’s information systems,” reads the report, “meant that such access depended in large part on an analyst’s personal relationships with individuals in the operational units or squads where the information resided.”
Before 9/11, the FBI had never completed an assessment of the overall terrorism threat to the United States. There were a lot of reasons for this, from focus on career advancement to a lack of information sharing. But the report singled out lack of technological sophistication as perhaps the key reason the Bureau failed so dramatically in the days leading up to 9/11. “The FBI’s information systems were woefully inadequate,” the Commission’s report concludes. “The FBI lacked the ability to know what it knew: there was no effective mechanism for capturing or sharing its institutional knowledge.”
When senators started asking the Bureau some uncomfortable questions, the FBI basically said, “Don’t worry, we have a modernization plan already in the works.” The plan was called the Virtual Case File (VCF) system, and it was supposed to change everything. Not letting any crisis go to waste, officials said they only needed another $70 million on top of the $100 million already budgeted for the plan. If you go back and read press reports on VCF at the time, you’ll notice that the words revolutionary and transformation are used liberally.
Three years later, the program was killed. It didn’t work. Not even a little bit. The FBI had spent $170 million in taxpayer money to buy a computer system that would never be used–not a single line of code, or application, or mouse click. The whole thing was an unmitigated disaster. And this wasn’t simply IBM or Microsoft making a mistake. People’s lives were, quite literally, on the line. As Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, then the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, told the Washington Post at the time:
We had information that could have stopped 9/11. It was sitting there and was not acted upon. . . . I haven’t seen them correct the problems. . . . We might be in the 22nd century before we get the 21st-century technology.1
It is rather telling that many of the people who were at the FBI when the Virtual Case File disaster happened aren’t there anymore.