How Obamacare Fell into the Athena Trap

We here at Rebels at Work have never been afraid of courting conspiracy. Heck, as a Rebel at Work, you pretty much decide to marry controversy. That's why we are writing today about the Affordable Care Act. Yup, we want to discuss Obamacare. As change efforts go, the Affordable Care Act, is of Olympian proportions. And so are its problems--most of them centered around the non-usability of its website. Even the supporters of  the ACA concede that multiple things went horribly wrong.

But we think that trying to find exactly what went wrong--or what two or three things went wrong--misses the point. The Affordable Care Act, like so many change efforts, was destined to start off very badly, because of the single most powerful dynamic that affects change initiatives--the Athena Trap.

We've written often about the Athena Trap or Syndrome. Athena, you may recall, is the Greek goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration, just war, mathematics--lots of really good, powerful stuff.  Most of our readers probably already suspect that being a Rebel at Work has a lot of similarities with Greek tragedy--although the reason why Lois and I maintain this blog is to make that less so. But we think Athena, in an indirect way, offers the most important lesson for rebels and individuals seeking to make humongous change.

According to her legend, Athena arose fully formed from the forehead of Zeus. Fully armored, fully functioning, and just about perfect. And that's where the trap part comes in. The status quo almost always reacts to a change idea by demanding that its architect, the mastermind of the new idea, know exactly how it will work from Day One.  Like a good architect, the change agent, the rebel at work is supposed to know where every nail will fit. More often than not, the advocates of change accept that challenge, and to be fair they usually have little choice. Unless they exude oodles of confidence that they know exactly what they are doing, they are unlikely to get beyond the visioning stage. The new program is launched with great hoopla and, with almost tedious predictability, fails to meet expectations. Healthcare.gov appears to have followed this plot almost to the paragraph.

The opponents of change of course are delighted when the Athena trap is sprung. They rarely ponder the origin legends of their own status quo, which of course did not arise fully formed from the foreheads of congressional committees. Or even from the foreheads of our founding fathers. As we wrote almost two years ago, the status quo also started off as "half-baked ideas and almost always took turns and detours unanticipated by their originators and early supporters."

"And, this is the important point, we shouldn't want it any other way. For only through a process that allows a “thing” to react to the environment around it, change and adapt, can we hope to produce organizations, processes, customs, and institutions that actually work, that deliver most of their promise, that are organically one with their environments."

I have no hope that government will be able to avoid the Athena trap at any point in my lifetime. Our ideology-based political process doesn't seem to want to deal with the reality of uncertainty. (Although it should be obvious to all of us that writing a piece of legislation is probably a crazy way to try to do something new and complex.) But rebels should take heed. Don't pretend you know what you're doing when you really don't.

But the people in the best position to avoid the Athena Trap are in fact the managers of organizations who approve change initiatives. As we said last year:

Don’t be the senior executive whose expectations for neat and orderly change are so…well..delusionary that you force your enthusiastic future-thinkers to become hypocrites and to package their proposals in Power-pointless slide decks. Because if you demand certainty, you not only will buy into intellectual fraud, you will also eventually tear the heart out of your change champions.