Mission-Focused Management and Transit

Followers on Twitter may know that I’m a big Chicago Cubs fan, the type whose heart races at every mention of baseball until the beginning of spring training. One of the best things about following the Cubs in recent years has been the proliferation of high-quality baseball coverage from nontraditional media, both team-specific and sport-wide. Since there have been blogs, there have always been bad Cubs blogs, but now there are several very good ones too. One of the best newcomers is Baseball Prospectus’ (yes, I have a subscription) Cubs-centric offshoot BP Wrigleyville, launched just last season.

What does this have to do with the usual topic of this blog, planning and transit? Well, today BP Wrigleyville’s Matthew Trueblood posted a challenging article  that apparently got a solid segment of Cubs Twitter enormously pissed off. His sin? Arguing that perhaps, mostly in the name of innovation, the Cubs should not extend genius-GM-of-the-moment Theo Epstein. Drawing on a Harvard Business Review article about DARPA, Trueblood argues that management and project leaders should be brought on for a set period of time, for a specific task, and not expected to stay indefinitely.

Leaders who leave when projects end. Altering a portfolio of projects faster. A sense of urgency. A willingness to challenge convention. In addition to being effective, this is an extremely exciting way to do business. Admittedly, of course, the Cubs aren’t DARPA, and baseball simply isn’t as ripe for innovation as many other fields. More to the point, a single business review article does not an academic case make. Still, a lot of the major principles here bear considering. After all, the primary project Epstein took on—not only rebuilding the Cubs, but making them both dominant and sustainable—is complete. He’s even put in place a codified Cubs Way, providing a degree of stability to the ongoing project of team-building.

In short, the DARPA model may indicate that innovation–and a sense of urgency–is best created by an in-and-out, project-based style of leadership and organization, rather than an institutionalized, up-through-the-ranks one.

Got an idea of where I’m going with this yet?

It just so happens that as I was reading Trueblood’s article I was also following Ben Kabak‘s (quite justified) Twitter rant about the conservatism of MTA board and management when it comes to innovations as simple as the introduction of open-gangway subway cars.

Now, granted, a lot of the problems with conservatism in the MTA could be fixed by simply having more dynamic, creative leadership under any structure–a fault that can mostly be fixed on the political echelon. But it got me wondering. Is (American) transit a field that in some ways may particularly benefit from a fixed-term, project-based style of management?

I’m not confident of it myself–in many ways, American transit just needs to get the basics right, because in too many cases we’re not even doing that. But here’s the case.

  1. Transit is a field inherently vulnerable to the revolving door problem. Staff and management move back and forth between the public and private sectors, often leaving projects hanging, or leaving agencies without sufficient institutional knowledge. Close ties between public sector and consultant/contractor staff may also play a role in abnormally high construction costs for infrastructure. But there’s not really a feasible way to end this dynamic within, say, a generation. So let’s turn it into a strength! Assigning project management on a per-project basis would acknowledge the revolving door dynamic and hopefully turn it into an advantage by allowing the hiring of staff with specialized knowledge and a drive to succeed within a short time frame.
  2. Transit agencies could benefit from application of more specialized knowledge, rather than do-it-all “project managers.” That transit agencies are known to struggle with management of major projects might be the understatement of the century. James Somers’ recent Atlantic piece about the slow progress of countdown clocks on the New York City subway details some terrific examples of that. But it also contains a potentially valuable counter-example: “In the spring of 2010…(MTA) hired a small team of software-savvy MIT grads to come in-house and manage the bus project. Instead of procuring a single contractor, they defined the specifications for the project themselves, broke it into pieces, and brought contractors on to build each one…Having full-time software experts running the show turned out to be crucial. Previous incarnations of the project didn’t have a technical leader at the MTA—just old-school senior managers who would try to wrangle the contractors by force of will. The new in-house team, by contrast, was qualified to define exactly what they wanted from software providers in terms those providers could understand. They were qualified to evaluate progress. They could sniff out problems early.” Project management is a skill, yes, but so is having valuable specialized knowledge.
  3. Sometimes you just need leadership for a defined task or period of time. Sometimes an agency finds itself in crisis. Sometimes, like the MTA today, it finds itself burdened by success, with ridership straining the system’s capacity at the seams and challenging a slow-adapting institution to find solutions it may not be equipped to implement quickly. Might it be valuable to have a leader, or leaders, whose job it was to dedicate themselves to modernizing the MTA–to cope with an era of rapidly rising subway ridership, especially at off-peak times, but strangely falling bus ridership–for a brief period of time, and then get out of the way? Would MBTA have benefited from a time-limited project manager whose only job was to get the already-years-delayed, but legally mandated Green Line extension into service with minimal delays and cost escalation? Maybe. Maybe not. But it’s worth thinking about.

Look, I’m a millennial. Though the stereotype of a job-hopping generation may be exaggerated, I certainly expect to change jobs more frequently than a transit planner might have in previous generations. And if you read this blog, you know I’ve moved around a lot and value the variety of experience that can give. So maybe I’m just unusually sympathetic to the idea that mobility can give fresh perspective and motivation (note to future employers: I am, at this point in life, looking to settle down for a while!). Certainly, many of my political compatriots on the Left still see job mobility as a vulnerability for workers–and in a society where the safety net fails too frequently, it can be.

But I’m not making the argument that Matthew Trueblood is right, that DARPA’s management style can be applied anywhere outside of DARPA itself. But maybe–just maybe–mobility is the key to unlocking innovation, or even more basically, competence. Maybe even geniuses–maybe even Theo Epstein, who I firmly believe will go down in the minds of Cubs fans as the team’s Messiah (Moshiach if you live in Crown Heights)–have an expiration date.