Unfortunately, the plan went awry. Visitors to the health care exchange website immediately encountered technical problems, and according to some estimates, only one percent were able to enroll during the first week. It was a horrible embarrassment for the president.
The search for a guilty party began immediately, with contractors for the website being called to Capitol Hill to testify on what went wrong. According to the contractors, their individual projects had delivered the expected results. It was the testing of the overall system that had occurred too late, which put the entire program at risk. The late testing had been due in part to the many changes that had been requested by the government. Ultimately, the fingers pointed back to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the person on the spot became Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius.
Good Project Management Matters
Like Sebelius, many leaders suffer embarrassing outcomes on their most important initiatives. In many cases, it is because they are unaware of the critical importance of sound project management. In my experience providing Program Management Office services to mid-sized and Fortune 500 organizations and training executives for the Project Management Institute's Project Management Professional exam, I have found that many companies were unaware of the importance and value of project management until they had actually used our PMO services or taken the PMP exam preparation course themselves.
While many leaders believe their managers are capable of coordinating a program (a set of projects) or executing a project properly, they may not realize that - much like a science - the discipline of project management follows a clearly defined set of processes and relies on a number of tools and techniques to obtain an organization's desired results. Equally as important to the proper execution of this "science" is the assignment of a project manager to ensure that all of the necessary steps are followed.
Who's in Charge?
HealthCare.gov was a monster of a project and no one was clearly in charge. According to a November 2, 2013, Washington Post article, "there was no single administrator whose full-time job was to manage the project." The same article stated that while people had been convening early in the project to move it along, "By late summer and early fall of 2010, the meetings petered out after some of the participants stopped attending."
Had CMS understood the importance of good project management, it would have assigned a trained and experienced project manager (very likely a certified PMP) to coordinate the many projects among the various contractors and given this person the necessary authority to ensure the overall program could be delivered successfully. This project manager would have ensured that the October 1 deadline was met within the agreed-upon budget and scope, or she would have received approval to alter the deadline, scope, or budget by following a clearly defined series of steps, involving the appropriate people to authorize those changes.
It is the job of a project manager to know the exact requirements and risks associated with the project from the very beginning. They obtain these through the careful identification and vetting of key individuals who will influence or have an important stake in the project. It is also the job of the project manager to form communication, risk, and change management plans that will allow the project to remain on schedule and within budget By involving key stakeholders early in the project, managing their expectations, and keeping them informed, the project manager greatly increases the likelihood of the project's success.
It is interesting to note that, according to a 2013 Economist report sponsored by the Project Management Institute, 88 percent of executives believe that successful implementation of strategic initiatives would be "essential" or "very important" to their organizations' success over the next three years. Yet, only 56 percent of their strategic initiatives had been successful in the preceding three years. A full 61 percent of the study's respondents admitted their organizations struggled to "bridge the gap between strategy formulation and its day-to-day implementation," but only 41 percent said their companies provided "sufficiently skilled personnel to implement high-priority strategic initiatives."
If 88 percent of executives believe their strategic initiatives are important or essential and only 41 percent feel their organizations have the skills required for the execution of these initiatives, why aren't they hiring project managers or training their people in project management?
Perhaps as more leaders become aware of the failures leading up to the launch of HealthCare.gov, they will come to understand the importance of project management and take the necessary steps to obtain the right skill set, either by hiring project managers or by training the appropriate individuals. Following good project management practices will help these leaders avoid embarrassment and ensure their strategic initiatives are met.
Smyrna resident Cindy Hannafey, is Principal, UHY LLP Atlanta.