The Truth Shall Set You Free

John Halamka offers five tips for managing events when things go wrong.

As information technology leaders, we're held accountable for infrastructure uptime, project deadlines and budgets. Sometimes bad things happen. Network outages, project delays or cancellations, and budget missteps have to be explained to boards, senior managers and stakeholders.

Sometimes these events are completely out of our control. Tight capital budgets require us to extend infrastructure beyond its useful life. External events or changes in corporate strategy cause timelines to be revised. Unanticipated scope creep can derail the best budget planning.

When bad things happen, does it help to point fingers at the external world, customers or senior management? Is any crisis alleviated by getting angry with staff or stakeholders? How about making excuses? In my years of experience, I've found that blame, emotions and excuses do not work.

Here's my advice for crisis management when things go wrong and resolving the problem becomes your responsibility.

1. When a crisis occurs, encourage openness and transparency in your staff. Don't shoot the messenger. By empowering everyone to communicate the events objectively, you'll get to the root cause more rapidly. Your actions will set the tone. Being calm and encouraging with your staff will reduce tensions between staff and stakeholders.

2. When the root cause is found, determine what can be done to improve the organization rather than blaming anyone. Instead of firing people, expend your energy figuring out which systems and processes should be improved. For example, if an unannounced change was made that caused serious downtime, what controls can be put in place to prevent such ad hoc changes in the future?

3. Broadly communicate the issue in terms of the lessons learned and continuous quality improvement. Many IT projects are cutting-edge and require incremental fine-tuning. We try, we evaluate, we revise, and we try again. Boards and senior management understand that perfection is a journey. If you have a sound plan that is broadly communicated, and a bad outcome occurs that teaches the organization how to do better in the future, all will be forgiven.

4. Do not hide information or sugarcoat the events. It is far better to be open from the beginning than it is to deny the truth and then have to backtrack later. In a world of instant communication via e-mail, IM, blogs and Twitter, assume that everyone knows the facts as soon as they happen. When CareGroup suffered a network outage in 2002, I learned not to be overly optimistic about restoration of service. It's better to apologize for the disruption and say that you don't know when the problem will be fixed but that you have all resources focused on the effort.

5. Openly discuss the events, their cause, the immediate corrective action taken and the long-term changes made to prevent the problem from happening again. Declare that you've made a mistake and apologize for it. This may be painful and could result in a great deal of short-term publicity, but it's better than a long-term investigation. Imagine how things would have been different had Bill Clinton had said early on, "I did have an affair with that woman, and that was wrong. I will seek counseling from religious mentors and mental health experts to ensure that my future behavior is exemplary." The issue would have disappeared in a few weeks.

In my many years of leading change and making mistakes along the way, I've found that great communication, openness, candor and admission of mistakes, followed by a sincere apology, result in healing the organization and bringing rapid closure to the situation.

John D. Halamka is CIO at CareGroup Healthcare System, CIO and associate dean for educational technology at Harvard Medical School, chairman of the New England Health Electronic Data Interchange Network, chairman of the national Healthcare Information Technology Standards Panel and a practicing emergency physician. You can contact him at

This story, "The Truth Shall Set You Free" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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