What the Pope's Visit to Philadelphia can Teach Leaders

What the Pope's Visit to Philadelphia can Teach Leaders

Michael Restuccia, VP & CIO, Penn Medicine, University of Pennsylvania Health System

Michael Restuccia, VP & CIO, Penn Medicine, University of Pennsylvania Health System

Large, complex, unique projects are challenges for all leaders. Identifying critical success factors and addressing expectations tied to the project require dexterity, sound management, and proper communication.

As Penn Medicine’s CIO, I had opportunity to witness one such project firsthand, the historic visit to Philadelphia by Pope Francis in September 2015. The visit provided an opportunity to assess how Philadelphia prepared and managed a once-in-a lifetime experience. As CIO of a large, complex organization, I likened the preparation and hosting of the papal visit to unique, complicated technology projects that take place within institutions such as mine.

Please note that the concepts shared in this article represent my personal observations. I’m sure many other discussions that I was not a part of may have taken place to address the items I have identified.

1.Ensuring the safety of the pope
2.Ensuring the safety of those attending the related events
3.Providing a stage for the pope to share his beliefs and spirituality with as many people as possible.

Under these criterions, nearly 36 hours which the pope remained within the city of Philadelphia should be considered an unequivocal success. Yet, as with many complex projects, this success was not without cost. Major city roads and interstate highways were closed, and numerous train, subway, and trolley stops within the city were shut down for all or part of the papal visit.

Pope Francis’s visit to Philadelphia represents an opportunity for IS leaders to learn that identifying challenges to major events, anticipating and responding to them swiftly, and communicating their actions effectively determine the true success of a project.

Leadership – Who is in Charge?

There were many organizations involved in hosting the pontiff’s visit including the city of Philadelphia, Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia, United States Secret Service, and the pope’s staff. But similar to countless other visits of high-level government and religious figures worldwide, no one entity was the natural, self-evident decision-maker for key activities during the Philadelphia papal visit.

From a textbook perspective, a single, final-say decision maker should be identified during the planning process and throughout the event itself. In the real world, however, this is not always possible and the next best thing must suffice. For example, for major projects at complex health care organizations, such as a role should be filled by a representative from Information Services (usually the chief information officer for sufficiently large projects) working in concert with someone from Operations (usually the department head). Clearly, such jointly managed projects require coordination and compromise between the two representatives (not of course always easily attained). This necessity increases commensurately in a project as complex as a papal visit.

Identifying and Responding to Problems

Despite the best planning, in most reasonably complex IS projects things are bound to go astray at some point. How IS leaders react to these events often determine success or failure. On Sunday September 27, I joined an anticipated two million people for an outdoor papal Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. (It was later determined that 800,000 in fact attended.) The logistical considerations of funneling these many people into a relatively small portion of the city was a mammoth sight. Unfortunately, several unexpected wrinkles complicated matters further on.

First, the pope fell behind schedule by spending more time at earlier scheduled events than planned, resulting in less or even no time for thousands of people anxiously waiting his presence to see the pontiff make his way to the site of the Mass. This was especially distressing for many who decided to wait at the papal parade route in lieu of utilizing their pre-ordered passes to enter the papal mass zone, where security lines in excess of three hours were the norm. In hindsight, tens of thousands of visitors were effectively excluded from the event due to reduced coordination and communication among the multiple factions in charge of various segments of the event. Briefly turning to my own area of expertise, during our various software installation efforts, we at Penn Medicine have learned that it is essential to have visible leadership present at all times in order to reassure constituents, continually survey the situation, and exercise authority to rapidly adjust to problems. This can take the form of shoulder-to-shoulder support, leadership within the project command center, ongoing communication updates, and re-adjustment of resources from one entity/department to another. There also needs to be a rapid action team empowered to move swiftly to address problems. While I cannot speak to the formal logistics of the papal visit, it appears that if a similar arrangement were in operation, many people who missed seeing the pontiff because of the papal route reduction would have in fact been able to see him. This is because the lengthy security lines that dissuaded many from attending the mass, driving them instead to line the partially aborted parade route, were primarily on the east side of the Parkway entrance while minimal lines and delays existed on the west side entrance.


Clear, measured, non-emotional communication with participants and constituents is the foundation for successfully completing complex projects.

Moreover, at the outset angst could have been alleviated by presenting a bigger, more reassuring picture: despite inevitable restrictions in an event of such magnitude, there would be ample opportunity for safe, positive participation by the citizens of Philadelphia and its visi­tors. While again I had no access to internal decision-making, I can speculate that including or more actively involving constituent religious and cultural groups in the planning process might have alerted officials to the potentially negative consequences of some terminological and logistical de­cisions that were ultimately made.

The lesson for us in the IS world is that involving constituents in clearly defining and communicating goals at the onset of a major project through a project charter will assist in gaining broad support, improving the likelihood of attaining ultimate aims.

Final Thoughts

At the completion of his trip, the pope safely departed the city and matters returned to their normal course of operations. Despite the problems I have mentioned, the visit was nonetheless a clear, compelling overall success resulting in no long-lasting or permanent inconvenience or hardship. Major IS projects, the equivalent of papal visits in our world, offer the possibility of providing analogous professional upliftment to the caregivers and support personnel who use the products of our efforts. In October 2017 Penn Medicine will begin activating a new software suite to replace the current electronic medical record throughout our health system. While obviously much smaller in scope than a papal visit, the long-term material (if not necessarily spiritual) consequences will be manifoldly greater. This project, which will affect virtually every one of Penn Medicine’s 25,000 employees, will bring many benefits, but attaining them is not without risk. As I and my Penn Medicine IS and operations colleagues spend a significant portion of our time today preparing for this major shift, it is in the spirit of learning from the papal visit that I offer my views in this article for whatever benefit they may bring to readers embarking on major initiatives within their own enterprises.

Weekly Brief

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