The turmoil surrounding the recent Obamacare website release has led to derision and plenty of jokes at the government's expense. While some of this may be deserved, we aren't really here to talk about the current state of the government. Instead, we are here to discuss how the struggles of the recently released Obamacare web platform are indicative of a simple change management truth - things can go badly wrong, really quickly.
This issue is not exclusive to the Obamacare website release. A recent blog post from industry expert Tom Chatfield explained that a UK IT project to upgrade infrastructure alongside National Health Service plans cost billions of dollars before it was scrapped as not being up to project demands. IT strategies often end up being some of the most extreme when it comes to the degree of failure that many organizations experience. The problem is fairly universal, projects initially go without enough planning and with timelines that are unrealistic. The end result is a set of mistakes that is often repeated across many organizations.
This is evident in the Obamacare incident which is experiencing problems even well after the initial release. CNN reported that the Obamacare site will be shut down nightly for four hours to allow developers to make major changes and updates to improve the functionality of the system.
Understanding the Root Causes of These Issues
Avoiding the discussion on management, political issues and other causes that some may point to as reasons behind the Obamacare website problems, let's take a more practical look at the types of things that can go wrong with any project at this scale.
A recent NPR report highlighted the complexity facing government IT projects by pointing to a Standish Group study that found federal government IT projects face major struggles. The research firm found that 94 percent of federal IT projects are either completed over budget, finished late or are cast aside before they are even finished. Furthermore, spending money is not the solution. Instead, organizations must carefully develop their release strategies to ensure success.
Representative Darrell Issa told the news source that the federal government has put plenty of money into IT, but still needs to improve its management capabilities.
"Federal IT has always been behind, but federal IT has also spent the money to not be behind. So you can't blame it on a lack of money," Issa told NPR.
A recent Financial Times report explained that this problem is not exclusive to government. Instead, many private-sector companies face similar issues with failing IT departments, but their problems do not get the same attention.
The reality is that rising complexity creates major challenges for IT departments. Many operations are intertwined and require careful planning and management to keep projects on schedule and within the budget.
Meeting all of these requirements end up hinging on effective collaboration between development and operations teams and depend on organizations being able to balance the time to market for a solution with the stability of the system when it reaches production status. All of these considerations put immense pressure on IT teams in any organization, let alone government. Throw in some lofty regulatory demands and a large user base immediately upon release and you have a recipe for a change management nightmare that could happen to just about any business.
Following best practices for change, configuration and release management can help IT teams focus on the important stability elements of a service without sacrificing time to market, making problems like those experienced by the Obamacare website avoidable.