In the prior post, we presented Admiral McRaven’s Model of Special Operations for its metaphoric application to Surge Persuasion. In quick review, McRaven’s Model traces a Spec Ops from planning through preparation to execution with a set of six principles. Here’s a diagram.
We detailed the principles in that prior post and if you feel the need, please click back and take a few minutes to refresh your memory. Today we use it with a practical example of Surge Persuasion in one large, current, and negative Case Study with the website rollout for ObamaCare.
Consider right now (November 2013) the website at Healthcare.gov. Since the new health care law and policy will run into the future (or until Republicans get enough votes to change it!), the policy entire is not a surge. But, the website rollout was definitely a Get It Right The First Time moment and it has been nothing short of a wipeout. If this had been a war Spec Ops project, virtually everyone on your team would be dead or trapped deep in enemy territory and you’d be Jimmy Carter in 1980 explaining that disastrous raid to rescue American hostages in Iran. What went wrong with Healthcare.gov?
Begin with Simplicity in the Planning stage. Recall that Simplicity requires limited objectives, good intelligence, and innovation.
First, simplicity. The website tried to be all things to all people and handle all contingencies which is exactly what the Fed aims at by its very nature. That complex, large objective killed the surge for the website. Obama could have selected a few simple, but, crucial functions for the website that would have shown decisive competence, addressed key audiences and concerns, and delivered a clear winner that would have then allowed the website to grow into All Things To All People At All Times. Stated another way, Obama clearly picked a bad strategy. He thought he had to deliver everything to everyone all at once when he could have done a few smart things very well. He completely missed his strategic analysis. Instead he chose complexity in part, perhaps, because he thought he had Good Intelligence and Innovation.
I think Obama had Good Intelligence about especially about a key element, technology. He just ignored all that Good Intelligence because it had to tell him that he didn’t know enough to be successful. Obama came to office as a tech geek and thought he could create an iPod government. After 5 years you’d think he’d have learned such a goal was impossible.
Fed 1789 cannot operate like Web 2.0; they are antithetical perspectives. Obama appears to believe in technology more like a totem than as a tool. Just show him a groovy iGov app with a cool interface and he thinks he got the technology to do all that grubby GS-5 back office stuff when all he’s got is a totem. Expressed as the General Semantics Persuasion Play©™®, Obama ate the Blackberry. To me, Obama exemplifies the continuing risk all smart people face: You are never as smart as you think and you never know it until it is too late.
And, exactly what was the Innovation Team Obama thought they possessed to make Healthcare.gov faster, better, and cheaper than Amazon or Facebook? I’m guessing the hype over their 2012 re-election effort with Big Data and Big Data Analytics and Big Data Persuasion fooled them into thinking they owned tech Innovation when they really only had a WonderBread opponent. Simply because you are better than Mitt Romney does not mean you know Innovation.
Now, consider the Preparation phase with Security and Repetition.
Team Obama did a great job at hiding their persuasion surge with the website and no one, and I mean no one, ever knew everything that was going on. There were no leaks in front of the rollout, no complaints, no hacks, no WikiLeaks. Security was so good, I’d argue, because there was nothing to hide. This was Team Obama just doing what they do: Smart solutions for Hope and Change. When you know you are going to win, Security is no issue and wasn’t here.
(The scarier thought with Security is not over the failure of Healthcare.gov right now, but when the website is up and running. Will Team Obama have continuing Security with the website to protect all privacy and data concerns for literally millions of people? Just think about the potential for fraud, not theft, in a website that is the portal to billions of dollars. Given all the holes in the 1.0 version, it’s not hard to believe it is already riddled with malware and viruses and maybe from foreign governments using an HHS server to worm into DoD or NSA or who knows what other computers. Let’s hope they’ve got a post-doc on leave from Stanford on the case!)
Now, Repetition. Here, Repetition means testing before you go live. CBS News describes that process.
CBS News has learned the website failed with a small test pool of 200 to 300 people that included employees from the government and insurance companies. The government employees worked at their own computers and desks within the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which oversaw the health care implementation.
According to sources familiar with the process, CMS employees were provided fake personal information to enter into HealthCare.gov rather than their own data and were given a date that testing would begin. However, on that date, the employees were told it was being postponed.
When the testing finally took place in late September, the testers started trying to create an application. Just a couple of pages into the process, everything “ground to a stop,” said one source.
“It froze. It couldn’t go forward. It crashed,” the source said.
A couple of days later, testers tried again and had a similar outcome. They were never able to successfully browse plans for cost estimates.
Okay. One source. Surely there was more testing (and Repetition) than this news report describes. But just as surely, that Repetition was not sufficient as proved by the failure of the rollout. If you were not hitting 100% in Preparation 100% of the time, why expect anything different when it is Showtime?
Now, analyze Execution with Surprise, Speed, and Purpose.
Jeepers, just the labels describe the obvious failure. Sure, the Surge with Healthcare.gov was a Surprise and, yep, it was Speedy, and the Purpose was notable in its absence. The execution of Healthcare.gov was an execution of Healthcare.gov.
Obama helped kill any operational Surprise when he ran Inoculation Plays in the days before the Surge, noting there would certainly be a few glitches. And he certainly made any Surprise worse by running the Try It You’ll Like Persuasion Play®™©, essentially telling doubtful Other Guys to be waiting for the Surge because it was going to be the pudding that proved itself in the eating.
And, the website was only Speedy in how quickly it didn’t work. You can score Healthcare.gov high on this principle. The moment Team Obama flipped the green light and threw the website out of that black helicopter, the Surge was full on, hitting the ground running. The scope of the failure obscures this small success. The website did go live on time, as planned. If you’ve ever done any web work, you know the failure to light up does occur.
Finally, with Purpose, a cursory examination of recent Congressional testimony among the key players shows that no one had a clear sense of who was in charge of what, where everyone was going, and how to get there. This was not simply everyone running away from public failure. These guys lacked a central, common, and widely understood Purpose beyond launch on October 1, 2013. When the website began to fail, the absence of Purpose (along with all the technical failures in the website itself, for sure) stymied any creative workarounds, adaptations, or improvisations. All personnel in the Surge just sat there and watched the disaster with no way to get around it.
Don’t get lost in the inherent political and philosophical elements of this case. Focus on the McRaven Model and its principles as applied to persuasion with a particular website. Large projects always involve groups of diverse people all with different agendas, skills, and motivations. That’s just the nature of the Local you face trying to make a persuasion play and it can never be an explanation or excuse for failure. If a gaggle of players gang together and aim at a common goal that includes Surge Persuasion, you’ve still got to follow something like McRaven’s Model or suffer.
See from the beginning the terrible failure in planning with Simplicity. The rollout simply had no chance to succeed because it included virtually every objective Team Obama had with both the website and its relationship to the ObamaCare policy.
For example, the Surge could have focused on a segment of Other Guys, say the oldest and most unhealthy ones who really are most motivated to get into the policy. While older and sicker people present technical problems compared to young, healthy, and tech friendly youngers, they are more highly motivated and would try harder.
The Surge could have focused only upon mere enrollment or registration into system. Just get as many Other Guys safely in the database with an easy to access account. And, if you are involved in this operation, you know that there were hundreds of other objectives (TACTs) that could have been targeted instead of everything all at once.
Part of the Simplicity problem here is the nature of our government. It is so big and complicated and serves so many different interests and functions, trying to make it into One Government is almost impossible (with the notable exception of war and even then the complexity will surprise and confound even patriots). That, however, is not news to anyone in the Fed and certainly among a re-elected Team Obama. Complexity makes the Surge more difficult, but that’s the Local and if you don’t deal with it from the beginning you get failure.
Now take the obvious negative feedback that Team Obama got during the preparation stage with operational failures plaguing numerous testing trials. Failed Simplicity produced a failed Healthcare.gov 1.0 website and everyone knew it from the testing. But nobody stopped the Surge! They just sent the troops up the hill like Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg to certain defeat.
Such action points to either or both inexperience or incompetence at large entrepreneurial projects like this. A dismaying Washington Post article outlines exactly this problem with special emphasis upon a 4 page memo from 2010 (!!!) about the experience problem. Mr. Obama himself never ran anything larger than a law seminar. Secretary Sebelius was governor of Kansas, but that doesn’t mean she actually built and ran something from the ground up like Healthcare.gov. Everyone in this project had tons of experience as policy and white paper guys sitting around large tables and eating prawns on lunch break. But, making an interacting system of people get off the ground?
Even in my limited Fed experience of building a research unit pretty much from scratch with support from some great colleagues and leaders took two and half years of backbreaking effort to finally get an operational machine that functioned well. Then Mr. Bush took office with a new vision for all things communication and dismantled all our effort so that within a few months after I left the Fed, the unit existed only on paper with all personnel scattered to the wind. Please realize I’m not comparing that effort to Healthcare.gov in scope, complexity, or importance, but just the sheer difficulty of entrepreneurial projects. Inventing a new machine of any size is brutal work.
Most of the folks from Team Obama come from advocacy, academic, media, and political backgrounds. Those work areas rarely require the building and maintenance of project machines even in the sense of building an R01 grant machine – a collection of people with coordinated skills who follow a vision with deadlines and milestones and a ruthless administrative core that whips everyone along the march to completion. Building even a small machine that churns out products and services is an amazingly difficult task that kills most entrepreneurs. You see how politicians and professors and journalists did with it at Healthcare.gov.
And, you would have thought that all the election experience everyone involved possessed would have made a difference here, but clearly it didn’t. To an extent, you can survive most elections by working only with those who are for you, but something like Healthcare.gov requires working with everyone, even those who are against you. Elections are not entreprenurial in the same way.
Sharply observe the failure of Team Obama with the Surge on Healthcare.gov and compare it to their prospects for the War with ObamaCare as policy. Sure, the Surge failed, but as long as Democrats control the legislative and executive status quo, they can easily win the War over their policy. Now they are in a standard permanent persuasion campaign with the policy and can bring to bear power in the form of fines, taxes, regulatory permissions, and on and on with the Fed gun. ObamaCare will probably win, again, as long as Democrats control the status quo. See the distinction between a Surge and a Campaign (and ultimately policy maintenance).
Let’s get out of here.
As I close this extended Case Study, the largest persuasion lesson for me is the continuing arrogance of smart people who think that because they are so successful in one area that they can easily be successful with all forms of persuasion. Hey, I’m President of the US. Twice! How hard can a website be? In virtually every work meeting I’ve attended with nonpersuasion professionals, the table has reeked with that smell of casual disdain for something as obvious, trivial, and natural as communication and persuasion. These stars read one book (usually something from Gladwell or such ilksters) and had it all mastered.
Past my prima donna primpings as a persuasion expert safely in the rear counting somebody else’s dead bodies, learn from this negative example with a case study analysis of the McRaven Model as Metaphor for Surge Persuasion. Never forget this only applies to the Surge Local, a particular time and place and mission, that you must get right the first time because that’s the only time you get. This is not a general metaphor for all kinds of persuasion.
Next, observe the operational beauty of this Model. Use this to make persuasion projects happen in the real world in real time. This is more about administrative control than content development (e.g. the Standard Model). It shows you how to make persuasion projects run, but not what the contents, the specific Box ‘n Plays, should be.
Finally, study the Model one last time.
Print this out when you think about your own Surge Persuasion. Reflect with it over past Surge projects and ruthlessly critique your planning, preparation, and execution with each principle. If you have competitors, use the Model to assess as best you can (they should be doing Security, right?) to break down their projects. And, of course, use the Model for your next Surge.
Or, you could use the Hope and Change Model of Surge Persuasion!
William H. McRaven. (1995). Spec Ops, Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice. Presido/Ballantine Books: New York.