by Steve Adubato, PhD

Leading a successful change effort requires several key elements, including a strong leader who communicates with a sense of urgency what exactly needs to be done by when. Successfully leading change also requires that you have the right team who can execute, perform and get the job done right.

Just this week, when President Barack Obama addressed the serious problems connected to the Affordable Care Act website malfunctioning, he said they needed to “scrub the site” of “glitches”. He also said “nobody is madder than me” and that the website problem is a “good problem to have”. When leading change, persuasive speeches are helpful at the beginning to move people, but understanding the importance of executing the details is even more important because when things break down, people lose confidence that you and your team can get the job done. These are not “glitches” and they are surely not “good problems to have”. When leading change, every detail matters.

Recently, I wrote about the failure of the healthcare exchange website’s launch on October 1 from a customer service perspective, arguing that the effort failed because it didn’t empathize enough with how challenging it was for consumers to navigate the system. But now it is fair to conclude that from a leadership, managerial and communication perspective, the situation is much worse. Let’s break it down.

--No real sense of urgency. Many in the federal government knew for well over a year that October 1 was the deadline for the implementation of the healthcare exchange. It appears that no responsible government leader was sending the message that there were serious problems and that reinforcements were needed. After the initial failures on October 1, President Obama communicated in a very calm, relaxed manner that consumers had 6 months to sign up and implied the exchange “glitches” were nothing to worry about. His message has changed dramatically in the past week, and now there is a real sense of urgency, if not panic.

--Having the right people on your team. Clearly such a complex initiative such as the healthcare exchange marketplace required that the most talented and technologically capable experts were on board from the start. But were they? When Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said after a series of embarrassing website debacles that we “have asked the contractors to bring their A team to the table”, one wonders why the “A team” wasn’t brought in from day one?

--No excuses. While the president said this week there is “no excuse” for technical problems with the website, that was not his initial response when things went wrong. In fact, his initial communication was filled with excuses, including the erroneous argument that the internet-based program wasn’t working because the demand from consumers going online simply overwhelmed the system. Not true. Rather, the system was flawed. Strong leaders make no excuses right from the start instead of changing the narrative when backed into a corner because the initial excuses don’t cut it.

--Call a time out. Great leaders have the courage and practical insight to simply STOP when enough information indicates that the original plan is seriously flawed. There was enough reason to call a time out and push the October deadline to a later date. Would it have been embarrassing? Yes, but not nearly as embarrassing as what has happened. Strong leadership requires that you acknowledge when things are not working as planned and then come up with a plan B.