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When projects go wrong – now what?

In a House Oversight Committee Hearing on the Affordable Care Act website, Chairman Darrell Issa pressed Todd Park, Chief Technology Officer in the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, on just how many simultaneous users could have been handled by the website on the day of its launch.

The hearing was just the latests in a long line of tense conversations between Congress and the staff charged with the rollout of the Affordable Care Act’s website.

Congress is looking to pin the blame on the failed rollout squarely on someone’s shoulders. But with large scale government projects like the Affordable Care Act there is no clear culprit. No one person that caused the program to derail. So

Tom Fox is the Vice President of Leadership and Innovation at the Partnership for Public Service. He told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program that sometimes projects fail. But they key is to learn from those failures.


How do you bounce back when a project goes wrong?

“Politics aside, the implementation of something so substantial like the ACA requires a lot of hard work. As a leader whether you are tackling a big initiative or a little one, it requires the inputs and efforts of a lot of different people. There are some ways you can run things where you give yourself every chance to succeed so you are not looking back in hindsight and saying, “I wish I had done things differently.” said Fox.

Fox highlighted five things every leader should do when implementing a large project:

  1. You have to know where you are going.

“Anytime you get a team of folks together there is an assumption that everyone knows the direction that you are headed in. But oftentimes that direction is actually unclear. We have have had a little confusion with process over purpose with the Affordable Care Act. It is an important role for the leader to play to be really crystal clear about the goal, timeframe, what does success look like, so the team is really working collectively towards a shared purpose. You don’t want people to just be checking the box and doing what they think is the right thing in the absence of that information,” said Fox.

  1. Define the responsibilities. Who is doing what.

“Another issue that gets brought to the floor in any team environment, let alone a big team environment, is when there is a lack of role clarity. If you are going to be collaborating amongst a bunch of different folks you really do need to clarify roles and responsibilities. Otherwise you get toddlers on the soccer field, where everyone runs after a ball in a pack, leading to inefficiencies and missed opportunities. You really want folks playing their position on the field so that the team can achieve its collective outcomes. Not everyone can be a goal scorer,” said Fox.

  1. Right people, right place.

“Especially if you are putting together an initiative that is collaborative and inter-agency, you want to make sure you are playing close attention to talent. You want to find the right mix of skills, knowledge and attributes so that you have a high performing team. I was think about some of our Olympic basketball teams. Back in the 1996 we had the Dream Team, where it was all of the very best basketball players coming together. As the years went on, it was an All-Star team, but people weren’t really suited to playing their positions. As a result we really failed to achieve our success in our expectations of winning a gold medal. The same is true anytime you have a team environment. You either have to pick the right people or if you are dealt a certain team, you have to figure out what your strengths really are and put people in the place where they can succeed,” said Fox.

  1. Why is collaboration so difficult?

“Too often a team doesn’t really figure out how to work together until a crisis hits. You are much better at the front end deciding how you will work together if you establish clear expectations on the front end. You need to clearly define your methods of how you will work together. How will we communicate? How will we solve problems? How will we manage conflict? How will we ultimately make decisions? Is this a leader led team? Is it leadership by consensus? Set those boundaries early and you will find your team will be able to tackle any problem quickly and with very little incident,” said Fox.

  1. Avoid the catchphrase

“You have to put an end to negative catchphrases fairly quickly. The best part of setting expectations at the outset is banning those sort of phrases. Especially if your team is asked to do something extraordinary difficult, make sure people don’t bring those negative mindsets to the group. But, you still have to make people feel comfortable bringing up bad news. Oftentimes people don’t want to be the squeaky wheel. As a leader you need to establish early that if you are worried the team is headed in the wrong direction, you want to hear that. You want to surface issues so you can ultimately learn together as a team. You are not stabbing each other in the back,” said Fox.


“You will be criticized for doing things. Just making sure you are doing what you need to and you will be able to weather that storm,” said Fox.

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Profile Photo Dale M. Posthumus

His points are good, although he doesn’t answer the question, how do you bounce back after the s–t has hit the fan. These can be applied when a project needs to be fixed, but there are other issues involved. A few of my suggestions:

– Avoid recriminations. Need to learn “what” didn’t work, not “who”. The “who” can be addressed later.

– Admit the error, stop blaming, stop defending. Start fixing.

– Break big projects down into littler ones, set obvious, achieveable, internediate goals (this can be done at the beginning, too).

I am sure others can add to these few.

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