Why you need a 'hunicorn' to successfully implement complex systems for government agencies

Who is a ‘hunicorn’ and why is it critical to find one for your company’s modernisation efforts and complex system implementations? In the first article in this series on hunicorns, I delve into the traits required in a leader executing modern technology initiatives in Health and Human Services.

11th May 2020
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Modernising government systems is a monumental challenge. Entities across the world have found themselves unwittingly making headlines when the task goes wrong. A quick Google search of ‘failed government technology upgrades’ lists countless pages showcasing the disastrous results when taxpayer-funded systems failed to meet the requirements to protect the most vulnerable segments of the population. 


Why is the task so challenging? It is a multi-faceted problem that requires alignment across stakeholders with conflicting goals.


Clearly, there is a need for technology leaders to be able to build a steering committee that is a coalition across stakeholders, and keep them all aligned over a period of 12 to 24 months, while the organisation and environment are changing, in order to successfully go live.


Then there are the challenges of effectively integrating with legacy systems. Dealing with the lack of knowledge base and experienced staff in implementing cutting-edge technologies like automation and artificial intelligence (AI). Cybersecurity and mobile access are basic requirements for new systems that didn’t exist during previous platform upgrades.


Additionally, understanding and communicating the advantages for a solution built on cloud infrastructure with unlimited integration capability – as opposed to the previous standard of custom solutions – can prove difficult for agency technology leaders.


In my years of experience with complex and challenging implementations, watching leaders struggle and do it well, the greatest indicator of success doesn’t lie in the technology but in the agency’s technology leader. This is my attempt to codify the traits that you want when searching for this leader.


You want a “hunicorn” - a human unicorn.


Hunicorns, by definition, are a rare breed. If you’re in a “must succeed” situation, you are either going to hire a proven leader, convince them to do a tour of duty, or look for that leader with potential, successes in small stages and give them the big stage.


My good friend, DMI CEO Sunny Bajaj, and I have talked often of hunicorns. Sunny founded DMI in 2002 with the vision to create a global leader in innovative, next-generation technology solutions. He has successfully built a respected, fast-growth business that is pioneering digital, mobile-first transformation for government agencies and commercial enterprises around the world. Over his 16 years working with government agencies, he knows when he sees a special leader.


This is not a conversation I’ve only had with Sunny.


I’ve talked with leaders at the biggest consulting firms around the world, like Christopher Merdon, Senior Vice President, Public Sector, for NTT Data Services. Chris has spent his career in the information technology and services industry, working with government agencies to implement change.


Christopher has seen it all and knows the struggle to find the right leader to drive the kind of change management needed to transform agencies. We all agree: hunicorns are a rare find.


Here is my attempt at defining what makes a hunicorn, someone who is capable of delivering success, in spite of the conflicting goals of stakeholders and a constantly evolving scenario.

The five traits that make a human unicorn:

1. Complete a task, well!

Ability to complete a task well, especially a technical one, helps in understanding what needs to be done at a granular level. This allows the leader to comprehend new technology easier and set appropriate expectations across stakeholders.

2. Execution: Get it done!

Big ideas can impress but a hunicorn can effectively break down big, complex problems into small, understandable tasks, assign to the right team member and leverage the skills of the entire team to get it DONE!

3. Empathy: Who will do what? Why?

Emotional Intelligence is the current buzzword but the bottom line is you need a leader who can empathise with the organisation’s community served, provide a calming influence on internal teams nervous about big change, and communicate the programme’s message effectively to vendors and other stakeholders to keep them all aligned and motivated.

4. Business acumen: What to do well and when?

Throughout history, many military battles required invading forces to traverse rivers without the use of bridges. Leaders couldn’t build a bridge every time they encountered a body of water to get their forces into position. They would send scouts to swim across the river and report back their findings.


Too many questions needed answering before investing the time and resources to build a bridge: is the enemy there? Is there a more strategic location for a bridge? Could a temporary bridge serve the current need and be re-engineered later? Based on the reports of the scouts, leaders could decide a plan of action.


Rarely do problems follow the sequence planned to arrive at a solution.


When tackling a complex technical programme, teams cannot afford to do every task perfectly and in the sequence originally planned. There is an art to prioritising, sequencing, and deciding how well a certain task/component of the solution needs to be done. Hunicorns understand the importance of sending out a scout and adjusting the plan accordingly.

5. The X factor

This is the most difficult one. The ‘X’ factor is the set of intangibles: drive, perseverance, grit, positive attitude, leadership, etc. Individuals who are consistently challenging themselves are a great place to start. Ask candidates about their hobbies and interests. What are their goals? How about their passion? Candidates who are challenging themselves in personal pursuits have figured out how to balance their interests. The X factor is hard to pinpoint until you see it in a candidate and then you will immediately know you’ve found it.


Based on our close association with the challenges faced and our understanding of the greater good when done right, we are planning a series of articles on our learning and insights for the benefit of the ecosystem.


If you are a state leader responsible for finding a hunicorn, you need to follow this series to identify and attract top talent. If you are a technology leader, this series can provide insight into how you can grow as a leader while using the playbooks of these hunicorns to learn valuable lessons.


Throughout the series, we will break down the complexities and challenges to share a layout of the battlefield through the eyes of the hunicorns we’ve come across.

(Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta)

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

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