The BBC’s failed Digital Media Initiative (DMI) featured yet again in the media recently month when former BBC director general Mark Thomson publically apologised for the colossal failure. It was said a total £125.9m was spent on the project, £98.4m of which was paid for by the licence fee payer.

According to a National Audit Office report the BBC expected to save £98m from the system, but the final estimate of the benefits of the system was zero. As project failures of this magnitude continue to happen you have to wonder whether we ever learn from mistakes?

The report blamed the project’s failure on a fundamental ‘lack of planning’. For those of us involved in helping companies to plan and manage large-scale transformational programmes, this doesn’t come as a big surprise.

In my experience far too many companies fail to spend enough time adequately planning large scale programmes of this kind. It’s an old adage – but time invested up front is time well spent. One wouldn’t dream of building a skyscraper by quickly buying a patch of land and throwing a building on it.

You line up your team of experts, you draw plans, investigate soil, drainage and building codes, get the appropriate planning permissions, and go through all the processes that ensure the building is built on strong foundations. Yet somehow, even with many millions of pounds on the line, organisations all too often compromise the critical, early stages of a programme in their haste to realise the benefits of transformational change.

‘Confusion’ and ‘insufficient scrutiny’ were also cited as reasons for failure of DMI. According to a BBC article the report criticised the governance of the project, pointing out that, astonishingly, the BBC had not appointed a senior person to act as a single point of accountability and bring all the strands of the initiative together.

DMI’s sacked chief technician was also quoted as saying that there was a “lack of engagement” from management in the project. This too is common. Success ultimately comes down to strong leadership and commitment from stakeholders for the duration of the project. The ability to drive, lead, effectively communicate and be strong in the management of multiple and, often, very complex stakeholder relationships is what really makes a difference when it comes to successful programme delivery.

The truth is no large-scale programme ever goes completely to plan, but if you get your approach right from the outset, you stand a fighting chance of avoiding the man-made mistakes that so often derail large-scale programmes.

Here are my six golden rules to ensure success:

  1.  Be Realistic About Timescales

Once a programme is signed off it’s not unusual for business stakeholders to expect more rapid progress than is possible, or even desirable. Unrealistic expectations of what needs to happen in the early stages of a programme can undermine its long term integrity. It’s only when you start to engage with the ‘live’ programme that many issues, risks and dependencies crystallise. These must be fully worked through and integrated into a realistic and workable plan. Taking time to do this properly will almost certainly mean a faster and infinitely less painful programme in longer term.

  1.  Allocate The Right People

If a business commits to transformational change they also have to commit the right resource to support the programme. Key people from your organisation will need to dedicate significant time to the project. And if it’s not painful to release them to the programme, they’re not the right people. Plan for this and backfill if necessary.

  1.  Get Your Requirements Nailed

Getting your requirements right from the outset is crucial for projects to remain on track. If you don’t, you’ll be in serious trouble along the way – leading to delays or even failure to realise the benefits.

  1.  Set A Proper Budget

Budgets are often built around unrepresentative estimates and generally don’t factor in sufficient management and resource costs. Inevitably the programme doesn’t fit the original estimates and the business is often reluctant to increase the budget. In this scenario, sooner or later you will hit a costly brick wall. Do your homework, work out the budget from the ground up and build in contingency. That way you’ll have a properly funded programme, equipped to do its job.

  1.  Get People In To Manage The Programme

It’s important that you have people on your team that have proven experience in planning and delivering transformational change. Don’t rely on the supplier because they’ll run the programme to their own agenda. Don’t bring in a one man band because he or she will have limited bandwidth. Beware of bringing in the big consultancies because they typically look for a big return from the programme. Instead, find experts in programme management with a strong track record of success who will sit on your side of the table, look after your best interests and provide great value for money.

  1.  Maintain Sponsor Commitment

Sponsors must remain engaged at all points. They need to provide leadership, act as an escalation point, and they need to be present and willing to make decisions. Without active sponsor engagement, projects will inevitably falter or fail completely.

The BBC’s failed DMI initiative is set to go down as another spectacular example of how not to run a large-scale transformational programme. Organisations have to learn from their mistakes. Success isn’t down to luck – it’s largely about doing the basics well. It’s planning, preparation, laying secure foundations and bringing on board the right skills and experience from the start, to significantly increase the chances of delivering the outcomes and benefits that the business expects. So we say make haste slowly – it will pay dividends in the end.