Ever since I gave a webinar about the Affordable Care Act (informally known as Obamacare) earlier this year, I’ve followed the law’s progress – including the debacle that was the launch of the federal website, Heathcare.gov. In fact, I was just about to write about the biggest career lessons to be learned from the site’s early days when Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business Review beat me to it.
I’m going to report on Amy’s observations as well as my own. Not surprisingly, we agree on quite a few points. And although Healthcare.gov is on its way to full functionality, its reputation has certainly been damaged by the initial launch fallout, which brings us to our first lesson.
Make the first impression count
I often quote author Camille Lavington, who said that we only have three seconds to make a first impression, and that regardless of what we do later, people’s feelings will always be colored by that initial interaction. Well, the same goes for healthcare laws and websites. Healthcare.gov was the first tangible experience much of the American public had with the law. When the site didn’t work the first time people tried to use it, getting them to go back was bound to be an uphill battle. It was easy for the law’s critics and change resisters to grab hold of the common man’s negativity and run with it. If the government could do it again, I’d recommend opting for more limited functionality that had been extensively tested and was bulletproof at launch.
Set realistic expectations
Amy Edmonson commented that to expect anything as complex as this particular project to emerge fully functional on day one was the first (and perhaps most important) failure. Communications between the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and the hired private IT company, Consultants to Government and Industry (CGI) were tangled and mistrustful, making simple requests for access and information cumbersome and time consuming.
In particular, the two major players didn’t share priorities – with CMS prioritizing the October 1st deadline above operability. Amy said that the situation wouldn’t have been such a disaster if people had understood that all this was par for the course. Novel and complicated initiatives will encounter stumbles and falls along the way to success. If people know to expect them as an essential part of the learning process, they’ll more willingly grant time to work out the kinks.
Don’t point fingers
According to Amy’s article, the CMS monthly status reports leading up to October 1 (especially the report for August, 2013) revealed increasingly desperate language and blame shifting, with CMS and CGI at each other’s throats in public and in private. The two sides were so busy with their email wars that no one was focusing on the true problem of Healthcare.gov’s inadequacies.
And, as Amy pointed out, it was simplistic to seek a single culprit. As one computer expert with intimate knowledge of the project told New York Times reporters, “Literally everyone involved was at fault.” The lesson? There are always plenty of reasons for failure to go around, and it’s almost always a poor use of time to seek out and punish those responsible. Instead of “who did it?” we should take personal ownership and ask, “What happened? What can we learn? What should we try next?”
Talk up concrete successes
When Healthcare.gov failed to deliver, it stirred up so much attention that the media and the public totally forgot about the point of the ACA, which is to provide affordable and adequate healthcare coverage for Americans. And despite the fact that so far, the ACA has resulted in lower per capita healthcare expenditures and over 1 million plan sign-ups, a lot of the television interviews I’ve seen with Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius have been somewhat defensive. Instead of allowing reporters to focus on the website situation, Sebelius should have proudly spouted off these impressive statistics. People need to understand that at the end of the day, the plan is working and we are well on our way to achieving a truly noble goal.