How might the politics of ObamaCare offer lessons to senior managers responsible for managing innovation and new product development (NPD)? A recent article (1) about how a key ObamaCare official managed the failed launch of the ObamaCare website offers important lessons for every senior manager committed to maximizing the effectiveness of their organization’s ability to innovate.
Ahead of a recent congressional hearing on the failed launch of Healthcare.gov, emails from the former No. 2 official, Michelle Snyder, at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS was responsible for managing the website development) to the former CTO of the U.S. were released. As the article states:
…Snyder characterized her then-boss, CMS Administrator Marilyn Tavenner, as a temper tantrum-throwing, demanding official who vowed the website would launch on time “no matter what.” Synder implied that Tavenner had threatened her job if Snyder was unable to deliver. “Just so you know (Tavenner) decided in January we were going no matter what,” Snyder wrote. “Hence the really cruel and uncaring march that has occurred since January when she threatened me with a demotion or forced retirement if I didn’t take this on.”
Snyder goes on to say in the email exchange that “Tavenner did not have a good enough understanding of the risks of launching before the website was ready to fight for a delay…I appreciate you (sic) believe in the goodness of others but at this point I am too tired to pretend that there is a decision to be made-it is just how much crap my team will have to take if it isn’t sufficiently successful-you haven’t lived through the temper tantrums and threats of the last 9 months.”
For any senior manager responsible for their organization’s ability to innovate, this email exchange offers important lessons. Unfortunately, many senior managers will read this and if they are honest with themselves, will admit they approach managing new product development at their company in much the same way. In other words, they 1) believe that products must launch “no matter what”, 2) throw tantrums and threaten employee’s jobs if products do not launch on time and 3) do not have a true appreciation or understanding of the project risk to make informed decisions. If this is the norm in how you manage new product development, then the long-term negative consequences will be dire.
Much is written about creating a “culture of innovation”. The example above illustrates how to destroy that culture and in my experience, create the conditions for long-term failure in creating innovative new products, let alone the impact on employee retention and morale. So what are some important aspects of creating a “culture of innovation”? Based on my experience, here are my “5 Golden Rules” for creating a positive innovation culture:
- Not all, but far too many senior managers believe that throwing tantrums and berating those involved with projects will somehow motivate them to do better and go faster. Wrong. It does not. It only serves to encourage the team to hide bad news and do everything they can to protect their own jobs. Teams become dysfunctional and bad situations will get worse, not better.
- It is important to have open and honest information flow throughout the organization, up and down and across the organization chart. That is crucial in new product development. Without the honest and free flow of information, problems do not get discussed early enough to get solved quickly. Instead, problems get pushed aside because those with the information feel vulnerable and will not offer up their opinion. The senior manager is responsible for modeling this behavior.
- Do not punish bad news. If you do, no one will feel free to discuss the problems and risks. I have witnessed this time and time again. A related issue is the difference between a negative attitude and a healthy dose of skepticism. There is a difference. A truly negative attitude can be damaging to the team and the ability to innovate, but senior managers who refuse to consider information contrary to their world-view do so at their peril.
- Understanding project and product risk is important for the senior manager (2). A senior manager who says “I don’t need to understand nor do I want to discuss the risk of this project…just get it done”, which is essentially what the key ObamaCare official did, sends a very specific message to the team. That message gets translated to “I don’t care what corners you have to cut, I don’t care who you have to treat badly, and I don’t care about the quality of the final product, just meet the schedule or else.” The senior manager might win the battle, but will lose the war, so to speak.
- Finally, treating people with respect and trusting in the judgment of your teams will build trust and good will. It will help prevent good people from leaving the organization. It is also the right thing to do and will lead to engaged employees. Engaged employees are more likely to go the extra mile without being asked. This does not mean that the senior manager should never get upset, it just means they must control that frustration and not let it damage the relationships that are so important in creating a culture that rewards innovative thinking or punish “good” failure. If you are not willing to accept the possibility of failure, then you should never develop any new product.
Have you seen senior managers behave in ways similar to the ObamaCare official? How did that impact the project teams and employee morale? Were there negative effects when new products were introduced to the market? For instance, quality problems? Do you have some examples of senior managers that were particularly skilled at creating a positive innovation culture? What did they specifically do?
- “Key ObamaCare official used threats, ‘tantrums’ to push website launch despite concerns, email claims” FoxNews.com. Stephanie McNeal. Nov. 19, 2014.
- See this article for more information: Quantifying Project Risk in New Product Development (NPD)
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