Developer in Chief: Lessons From the Debacle

by David Heitman

There is some irony in the fact that an administration recognized for having run the most digitally savvy political campaigns in history, should now be shipwrecked on the rocks of technical difficulties. One can certainly empathize with the president’s predicament regarding the failures of the new website, and there are a number of lessons to be learned here:

1.  Better to Launch Late Than Launch Badly

Choosing between these two options may feel like a “name your poison” proposition, but business leaders, product managers and marketing professionals occasionally find themselves in precisely this kind of dilemma. As difficult a choice as these situations present, they can be character-defining moments when an organization and its executives are willing to take responsibility for a bad situation. For business leaders, it’s about deciding that doing things right—even if it means an embarrassing delay—is better than wishful thinking. Imagine how much less flak Mr. Obama would have taken if he’d just said, “We’ve done our due diligence, and the site is not ready to launch. We’re going to need another six weeks.” That would have subjected his administration to some ridicule, but not accusations of malfeasance.


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2.  Placing a Premium on Critical Feedback

Too often, organizational leaders place such a premium on loyalty that the people who work for them are inclined to tell them what they want to hear rather than the truth. It wouldn’t be surprising to learn that this dynamic was at work with the premature launch of In fact, details have emerged that numerous parties knew the website was not ready to launch, but were either unwilling to say anything or were ignored. Great leaders seek out unvarnished truth, because only when dealing with unpleasant facts can they help guide their organizations out of danger.

3.  Public and Media Relations Thrive on Transparency

One of the cardinal rules of PR is to be straightforward about the facts. It’s the foundation of building trust with the media and the public. Even embarrassing details are better revealed than obscured. It is always the cover-up that damns and damages political, business and religious leaders. Americans are a forgiving bunch, especially when they feel that people are shooting straight with them. The Obama administration’s seeming inability to be forthcoming with the numbers of visits, inquiries, enrollments and purchases has engendered public distrust. It has even turned otherwise sympathetic news outlets like the Huffington Post, The Daily Show, MSNBC and The New York Times into harsh critics.

4.  Respect Your Audience

The selective statistics that HHS and the White House have provided to the media are disingenuous at best and intentionally misleading at worst. In a world where every move on the Internet is tracked, analyzed and sorted in real-time, precision and integrity of data should be givens. For example, while HHS boasted that 15 million visits demonstrated the popularity of, Pew Research found that 70% of those visitors already have insurance and are just curious tourists, not serious shoppers.

5.  Business Leaders are More Beholden to Technical Experts That They Would Like to Be

It would be unfair to blame Mr. Obama per se for the technological failures of the website. Every CEO has felt this same kind of helplessness at one time or another. The IT director walks in and says, “We need to spend another $500,000 on network upgrades.” The CEO really has no way to evaluate the merits of the request. Is it really mission-critical, or is the IT department just bored with their old equipment? Technical experts wield an increasingly large share of influence in most organizations. And since most CEOs don’t have time to learn how to write code, they have to trust their technical people, while still possessing the insight and judgment on how to integrate their advice.

6.  Failure in the Details Threatens the Larger Vision

The biggest setback for the Obama administration is the movement of the conversation from the merits of healthcare reform to that of a dysfunctional website. The website has become a synecdoche for the entire healthcare issue, and as a result, tarnished the larger vision with an atmosphere of incompetence. This is perhaps the biggest issue of all in the failure.

The lessons?  Quality before deadlines. Respect your audience’s intelligence. Truth over spin. Seek out bad news, rather than demanding loyalty. Don’t allow failure in the details undermine the larger vision.