Smart executives learn priceless lessons from program setbacks

An extract from “Getting with the Program” – a special report commissioned by Mentor. 

Billions of pounds at risk.

Sadly, there are thousands of examples of programs that lacked clarity, direction, responsibility and clear channels of communication. The biggest failures from the public sector cost the taxpayer several billion pounds without delivering any stated goals.

The NHS super computer, a scheme set up to connect doctors in England with patient data from hundreds of hospitals across the country, is one of the most glaring and costly case studies of how a rudderless program can cause eye-watering losses.

After successive teams wrestled with the creation of the IT system, the price tag swelled from a couple of billion pounds to a reported £20 billion. It was formally shut down in 2011 but continued to leak money in legacy payments for years after.

When things are badly briefed and badly programmed, surprises always happen.

Derek McManus, chief operating officer of O2 UK, is ultimately responsible for around 300 business-critical programs for the company each year. Throughout his career – which includes direct experience as a program manager – he has seen the good, bad and the ugly.

“When things are badly briefed and badly programmed, surprises always happen,” he explains. “Usually these start to bite near launch date; problems come out of the woodwork that you didn’t expect which can escalate costs and push deadlines way back.”

“The most common mistake is that work gets bogged down and weeks go by – with no one acting to address the root causes of failure. Every business leader in a fast-moving high-end business will recognise the agony caused by things taking longer and costing more than they should.”

Public sector spending is scrutinised by the National Accounts Committee, a body with a remit to hold purse-holders to account, so the financial impact of overruns is clear for all to see. In the private sector the exact figures are less explicit, but the damage is no less severe.


Read more about what battle-tested CEOs share on program failure in “Getting with the Program”.