I was talking recently with a group of systems engineers at an INCOSE conference—these people build satellites and aircraft carriers for a living—and not surprisingly the topic around the early failures of healthcare.gov came up.  They have an insiders’ view of how government contracts like this one work, including what goes right and what goes wrong.

Regardless of politics, it is plain to see that the healthcare.gov launch failed from a project management perspective, but as you read news articles, watch hearings with IT executives, and talk with scary-smart systems engineers, a few other leadership lessons emerge:

  • One of the keys to successful leadership—and systems engineering, according to INCOSE—is focusing on customer needs early on.  In other words, getting crystal clear on the outcome is priority one.  Sometimes leaders fall into the trap of getting bogged down in the exact how—the administrative tasks, the in-the-weeds requirements, the specific risks to be avoided at all costs—and we forget to focus on the big idea and the outcome we want to achieve.  Our vision is at best a blurry mess.   The clearer we get on what we are trying to achieve, and the more we communicate that outcome with everyone involved, the better our results will be.
  • This was a massive, complicated, and complex project.  As projects and even organizations grow to this size and complexity, old-school top-down control becomes impossible.  In addition to getting clear on the outcome up front, and then influencing again and again and again about that vision, it’s important to establish what Harley Davidson calls “freedom with fences.”  The fences are the have-to-haves, including the values that must be used to make decisions and honored every step of the way.  Inside those fences, people have the freedom to innovate, to find the best path, to come up with the best how.   Think of it as loose-tight . . . some things, you are tight on—like doing work with integrity, in an honest and transparent manner—and other things you are loose on—like what technology to use.

Most of us don’t work on projects of the size, scope, and complexity of healthcare.gov, but the leadership lessons still apply.  Get clear on the outcomes rather than the exact how, and establish freedom with fences allowing others to come up with the best how.


Tom Epperson

Tom Epperson

Dr. Tom Epperson is the President of InnerWill, and an instructor in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Executive MBA program. Tom is a certified business coach and has a Doctorate in Leadership from The George Washington University. Tom works with clients on cultural transformation, leadership development, executive coaching, and igniting individual and organizational potential. Previously, Tom served as the HR Director for Luck Companies, and played a significant role as one of the architects of Luck Companies’ cultural transformation.

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