News, Thought Leadership

The reality of the world: anticipating failures to achieve success


Emil is a former British Army officer who now specialises in change and transformation in complex environments, including the NHS. He is currently Head of Transformational Programmes and Projects at NHS Shared Business Services.

I recently walked into my local high street bookshop. I counted dozens of books telling me how to succeed at project delivery. There was no shortage of people offering their tips for success. I couldn’t find any books about how to avoid failure.

This is odd but not surprising. From childhood, we’re conditioned to be uncomfortable with the thought of things going wrong. No-one likes making mistakes. Our education system is built on telling us ‘how to do things’, and punishes us for getting things wrong. The world is filled with motivational speakers talking about the sunny uplands. Can you think of a single modern motivational speaker who talks about avoiding the dark abyss?

Emil Bernal, Head of Transformational Programmes and Projects, NHS Shared Business Services

Programmes and projects are no different. We start with optimism and marvel at the promise of a brighter tomorrow. And, for sure, optimism is needed to motivate a team to take on challenging goal. But excessive optimism in our ability to shape and influence the future has led to spectacular failures.

Things can and do go wrong. The NHS has the dubious honour of hosting one of the most expensive failures – the world’s largest civil IT programme, the £12.4 billion National Programme for IT.

In their book, “How big things get done”, Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner researched the outcomes of over 16,000 projects in 136 countries. Their data shows that 92 per cent of projects overrun on time, cost or both. And cost overruns can be dramatic.

The average cost over-run for every Olympic Games since 1960 is 157 per cent. NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope was 450 per cent over budget. Scotland’s Parliament building was 978 per cent over budget.

The private sector doesn’t do any better. In 2000, Kmart launched two IT projects. Costs exploded, contributing to the company going bankrupt in 2002. Even families get it wrong: you only have to watch Grand Designs to see people’s home renovations go over budget and run late.

We need to learn what went well with previous projects. And we need to understand what went wrong – “how not to” repeat the same mistakes. So, when wide-ranging reports are published – like Patricia Hewitt’s recent review of Integrated Care Systems – I start, as many people do, by thinking “how are we going to get this done”? The next thought is perhaps less common. How do we avoid things going wrong?

Here, then, are five ways to stop things going wrong:

1. Go to the cinema. Or, rather, think about projects in the same way as the film industry: get the balance right between planning and delivery. There’s often a push to start “doing something”. This misses the point that planning is doing something. The film industry understands this, and gives film producers time to plan. During planning, costs are relatively low while film producers explore ideas, produce storyboards, and redraft scripts. Costs explode when production starts and Hollywood stars and crews are working. The work that producers put in upfront means that filming follows a well thought-through plan and avoids costly delays.

2. Find experience and expertise. Very few projects are genuinely unique. There will always be something that makes a project different from others. But, in many ways, your project will be “another one of those”. People who worked on “one of those” will have valuable experience and expertise. Find those people.

3. Listen to that experience. Having found your experts, listen to them even if – especially if – it’s something you don’t want to hear. Listen when they tell you that the project will cost more than the figure you have in mind. Listen when they tell you the project is likely to be more complex and take longer that you ideally wanted. Listen when they tell you about the issues and risks you’re likely to face. It’s better to be told a painful truth early, rather than push ahead in comfortable ignorance.

4. Ask four questions. There is a cultural tendency to shy away from disagreement. So, be explicit and ask for alternative views. As we start to form an outline solution to a problem, I’ll often ask four interrelated questions: what’s good about our solution that we should keep? What needs to be changed? What’s not needed? And – probably the hardest question to answer – what’s missing?

5. Get hindsight in advance. Lessons learnt – or after-action reviews – are standard practice. Flipping this on its head is a useful way of identifying where things could wrong. This approach was popularised by psychologist Gary Klein and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and is often called a ‘pre-mortem’. It’s simple but powerful. Get the team to imagine that their project has already failed. What caused the failure? Work backwards to figure out the causes. Run through a few scenarios. The time spent visualising different outcomes will bring to life the future for the team. And, after the pre-mortem session, make sure that you re-energise the team’s belief in the project.

By taking these steps, you can give yourself the best chances for success. But even the best planning won’t stop issues from cropping up. A supplier lets you down. A team member falls ill. A pandemic. A ship getting stuck in the Suez canal. You’ll have to be ready to manage issues and find practical solutions. But, by getting the planning right, the window of time when risks can come crashing into your world will be smaller – like the film industry which spends time in planning so that the costly production phase can zip along from start to finish.

Learning from your mistakes is called experience. Learning from other people’s mistakes is called wisdom. I wonder how long it will be before I start to see the shelves of my local bookshop filling up with stories about things that went wrong and how to avoid making the same mistakes?