There needs to be clear communication and that includes everyone involved in the project. Image: Fotolia.
There needs to be clear communication and that includes everyone involved in the project. Image: Fotolia.

WE’RE HEARING that the Obamacare website has some “glitches.” Before I venture further on my commentary regarding this, let me assure you that I am not going to take a political position on the value of Obamacare, and hope that the responses I get to this will take the same approach. I know that when I write about compensation issues, I get some very emotional responses, and sometimes the most innocent comment in a blog ends up turning into a partisan response. I can only imagine how it might be regarding health care. So, my commentary today is not about the health care plan itself, but rather some comments on the poor execution of the launch of the site.

I don’t know exactly what happened with the debacle, but I have a guess, and that is that the problem is based on PPT. I don’t mean OPP (“other person’s problem” or a really catchy 1980’s hip hop song). And I don’t mean PowerPoint, although I am sure there is some presentation somewhere that causes the executives to buy off on the plan to launch the site as they did. What I mean is People, Process and Technology, each of which contributed to the overall failure to launch this program successfully. And it’s the same three elements that need to be part of the solution.

So, what I am interested in discussing is whether anyone else had a sort of awful deja vu moment when it became apparent that the website was not going to work well. Anyone who has been in technology for any period of time has experienced a launch where certain functions did not work, or even where the site worked as intended but was suffering performance issues. This is not meant to excuse what happened, but rather to serve as a warning for those in the industry that it’s important to think through potential issues before they launch. At Stratmor, we often assist companies with LOS selection and are also brought in when the projects run into trouble. What we frequently find is that the trouble is caused by a combination of People, Process and Technology. And I bet that the health care launch is no exception.

So, let’s address the first one—People—and their responsibility for ensuring the success of any technology project. There very frequently are not enough resources or thought put into how a system should work, and those requirements are not always communicated consistently to the project team. What is obvious from the Obamacare “glitches” is that the team did not fully expect or fully appreciate the level of complexity of the project. Yet the people involved time-boxed the project. One of the critical elements of any project is that you understand the relationship of Time, Features and Resources—those are three elements that must be balanced at the beginning of the project. As a project sponsor or business executive you need to clearly communicate which of the three elements is the priority (referred to as the fixed component), which is second in importance (the chosen part) and what is third (flexible). For example, saying “I want it all done by a fixed date and you have a certain budget to do it” will almost always fail.

Obamacare was established as a fixed date, so that was the fixed deliverable, much as compliance changes from the CFPB are fixed date implementations. They have to be done by that date. What is not clear from the health care rollout is whether the features or resources were adjusted to meet that date. And that is a big warning for companies that are embarking on big technology change—you need to clearly set how those three elements are balanced. Now, many say they can juggle this as a project evolves, but I would warn that while that is possible, it’s risky to not have the team know upfront what the priority is, and try to default to those priorities as the project progresses. So, for any project the entire team should know what was decided upfront. I have no idea what was established for the health care rollout. But I offer this warning that everyone in the project needs to be able to recite one of the following two sentences: “Given a fixed schedule, we will choosea level of resources and adjustthe features set as necessary” or “Given a fixed schedule, we will choosea feature set and adjustresources as necessary.” If everyone does not know which it is, then you end up debating whether time is adjusted, features are dumped or you have a project team that keeps begging for more resources (perhaps even getting a “surge in resources to solve the problem). And if the executive can’t articulate this message (what is fixed, what is chosen and what if flexible), the failure has started at the top, and most surely will permeate the entire implementation.

So, there needs to be clear communication and that includes everyone involved in the project. Not all of us have to give press conferences when a project goes awry, but we often feel like we are being grilled when they don’t go well. It starts with People, and that is where the problems and solutions need to come from.

So, next week, while we are all at MBA annual, I will write about my personal experience with trying to get health insurance, and I will have commentary that specifically addresses the Process and some unbelievably advanced (not!) technology that may be part of the solution.

Garth Graham is a partner with Stratmor Group, and has over 25 years of mortgage experience, from Fortune 500 companies to startups, including management of two of the most successful mortgage e-commerce platforms. He was formerly with Chase Manhattan Mortgage and ABN Amro, where he was a senior executive during the sale of its mortgage group to Citigroup.