Oswald Letter

Obamacare provides lessons for every manager

Obamacareby Dan Oswald

It’s one of the most controversial pieces of legislation passed in my lifetime, with its legality being ruled on by the U.S. Supreme Court, but whether you support or reject Obamacare, it’s obvious that its execution has been deeply flawed. There’s a lesson in this for all of us.

It’s not unusual for a talented, newly appointed executive to announce a bold and innovative course of action for the department or company she was just chosen to lead. And with bold plans come risk and detractors.

For President Barack Obama, that innovative and risky course of action was taking on healthcare reform. It was the key legislative focus during his first term. And there certainly was risk associated with the plan—as well as plenty of detractors. The president spent a tremendous amount of political capital getting the Affordable Care Act passed, and it hurt his ability to get other legislation passed. But in the end, you must respect him for setting his agenda, following it through, and successfully getting his signature piece of legislation passed.

But when it came time for execution of the plan, that’s where things went terribly wrong. The New York Times referred to “the calamitous debut of the Affordable Care Act” and went on to say, “The White House [has shown] two kinds of incompetence: the technical failure of the health-exchange website and the political failure of the president in falsely promising that no one would lose an insurance policy they already had.” These mistakes are where there are lessons for all of us.

For starters, we should realize it doesn’t matter how bold or brilliant our plan is because if we fail to execute it, that will be all that matters. People won’t remember how great the plan is; they’ll recall only its failed rollout. Now you can debate whether the plan is flawed or whether it was just executed poorly, but it won’t matter. All anyone will remember is that it didn’t work.

In this case, the president launched a website that didn’t work. People couldn’t get access or were being dropped from the site. It took an average of eight seconds for a page to load, which is an eternity in our hurry-up, instant-gratification world—especially for the younger generation, who are so desperately needed for the plan to work. Suddenly people were talking about the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on a site that didn’t work. The Affordable Care Act is being portrayed as an overly complicated piece of legislation that is unworkable. Had the website worked as expected from day one, how would that have changed the perception of the Act itself? Plans are great, but execution matters!

And while we’re on the subject of cost, let’s talk about tracking. Let’s face it, we live in a data-driven world. We see numbers everywhere. So when David Powner, the director of IT management at the Government Accountability Office, was testifying before the House Oversight Committee and was asked how much it would cost to fix the website, he should have had a pretty good idea. Instead, his response was, “We’re kind of blind to that.” That’s unacceptable!

And there are other questions about the website, including the cost to build it, how many people have accessed it, how many people were dropped, and—most amazingly—how many people have actually used the site to acquire health insurance.

How do you spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a site critical to the success of your plan and not have the data necessary to measure results? Efforts without measurement are meaningless. If you can’t measure your progress, you have no way of knowing whether you’re succeeding or failing—or what to change to make improvements.

And here’s the biggest lesson of them all for every manager—if it’s not true, don’t say it. And if you aren’t sure whether or not it’s true, don’t say it. The biggest damage the president has done to himself as a result of his key legislation is that he has lost the trust of the American people. When his “if you like your plan, keep your plan” promise was discovered to be false, his integrity and honesty were called into question.

A recent CNN/ORC poll found that 53 percent of those polled said Obama isn’t honest or trustworthy. It’s the first time a majority of Americans have questioned the president’s integrity. It’s impossible to lead if the people you’re supposed to be leading don’t trust you. Impossible. Forget about the controversy surrounding the Act. Forget about the failures associated with the plan’s rollout. If you lose the trust of your followers, you’re in deep trouble. Maybe President Obama can recover from this blunder, but it won’t be easy.

Regardless of your politics or what you think of the Affordable Care Act, there are lessons in it for all of us as managers. Having a grand vision and being able to sell it are only the first steps. Once you’ve sold your vision, you must be able to execute it, you must be able to measure results, and you must be honest about the plan and its strengths and weaknesses. A plan is just a plan; it’s the execution that counts.