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How to Keep a Big Government Project from Exploding on the Launchpad

Sometimes a major initiative can never recover from a poor launch. To maximize the chances of success, it's critical to avoid the "Overconfidence Trap."

When it comes to launching a big, controversial government program, first impressions are everything. As we saw with the ill-fated rollout in the 1990s of California's electricity deregulation and of the Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act a decade earlier, sometimes a big government initiative can never recover from a poor launch. It remains to be seen whether, as well as a few of the states' Affordable Care Act health-insurance exchanges, will recover from their own launchpad struggles.

In a book I co-authored with John O'Leary, If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government, we examined the launch of more than 75 major government initiatives since World War II. We found that the biggest danger during the launch phase was succumbing to what we called "the Overconfidence Trap," in which political leaders and public-sector managers underestimate the risks that accompany a new initiative.

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Being overconfident, public leaders sometimes don't take the sort of prudent steps they should to maximize the changes of successful execution. But if you accept the possibility of failure, you can take steps to reduce its likelihood. Here are ways to avoid the Overconfidence Trap and minimize the risks of a catastrophic program launch:

Establish clear ownership. Who is the high-level political sponsor? Who is the day-to-day manager? Someone with strong execution abilities and the trust of the political leadership needs to own the project throughout the implementation phase. And take a cue from many successful initiatives by setting up a war room to manage the implementation. This helps to avoid the box-checking tendency of many project-management organizations.

Be realistic not only about costs but also about resources and time. Fight the political pressure to produce unrealistically rosy projections and timelines. Savvy politicians set expectations low. And assign a dedicated ream to the project. It is unrealistic to ask people with major current responsibilities to execute a major initiative while still keeping up with their current jobs. The project won't get done right, and it might not get done at all.

Get the design right. This might seem obvious, but many implementation failures are actually the products of faulty design. In 1998, the California legislature unanimously voted to restructure the state's electricity system. Within two years, blackouts were rolling across the state and bamboozling California consumers to the tune of $40 billion. Why? The bill was crafted to pass through the legislative wringer, but the system it created wasn't designed to work in the real world. The solution is to treat legislation as a design process rather than a bill-drafting exercise. That means allowing those who will be implementing the project to scrutinize the design, scoping out issues that will cause them problems down the road.

Map out the risks and plan for every scenario. Plotting the significance and likelihood of risks allows you to visualize them in relation to each other, gauge their extent and plan what controls should be implemented to mitigate them. And expect the unexpected. What if you get five times the number of expected visitors to your new website? What if your welfare-to-work contractor is accused of fraudulent billing weeks before launch? Play out all the potential scenarios and make sure you have strategies for addressing them.

Segment your customers. Break up the universe of potential customers into manageable segments with similar characteristics. Segmentation involves data-driven analysis of the customer universe based on surveys, focus groups and test marketing that cover as many aspects of program delivery as possible.

And "chunk" the project. Government projects are often much larger and more complex than those in the private sector. Breaking initiatives into bite-sized pieces that can deliver incremental, stand-alone value reduces risk for the larger project. It also encourages organizational learning because chunks that go online later in the process can learn from the experiences of earlier chunks.

If there is a way to summarize these steps that public managers should take to stay out of the Overconfidence Trap, it is contained in this mantra: Be humble, or prepare to be humbled.

Executive director of the Deloitte Center for Government Insights
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