Precariously stacked blocks that represent a risky move in the game Jenga.

Lessons from the wreckage of program design gone wrong

My hometown newspaper has been rife with stories lately about social service programs that had launched with lofty goals only to crash and burn a year or two later.

What’s saddest about that news is the number of vulnerable people who were – and still are –relying on the providers to deliver on promises for housing, mental health services, and addiction treatment.

The programs had some things in common, including that they were:

  • Hastily announced amid public pressure for action
  • Based on seemingly promising ideas, if not evidence-based research
  • Experimental in their design
  • High risk in their delivery

One more trait they shared was the attributes of their leaders: smart, mission-driven, well-meaning, high-achievers in other contexts.

While there should be official assessments of where these programs went wrong, the rest of us can draw three lessons from the news of the programs’ misfires.

Lesson 1

If your organization makes time for planning, your chances of successfully executing a program in a pressure situation are increased. For one thing, you’ll know if the program fits within your mission, capacity to deliver, budget, and which of your other strategic priorities may be affected. If it doesn’t seem to fit, you are positioned to negotiate for the elements you need to succeed.

Lesson 2

Make time for risk assessments despite the pressure to go fast. Implementing complex programs on the fly means the fundamentals for success often get overlooked or ignored. Their omissions turn into recriminations when things don’t go as expected.

Lesson 3

Manage expectations. It takes time to properly design and implement innovative programs. Organizational leaders must temper their promises with realistic timelines and milestones. There are no silver bullets for problems decades in the making, especially when the solutions involve millions of dollars and rely on a workforce or key partners that may not be readily available to implement them. Over-promising and under-delivering undermines your credibility with the public and hurts the very people you are supposed to serve.

If you want to increase your chances of organizational success by planning, assessing risks, and managing expectations, let’s chat. If you’ve already got trouble, ManageWise is here for you, too. Drop us a line to schedule a free consultation.

Mary Hull Caballero signature
Mary Hull Callabero

Mary Hull Callabero is the Founder + CEO of ManageWise, a consulting firm that equips executives and managers of public-serving organizations to overcome the perils and pitfalls that hinder their progress toward achieving their goals.

Learn more about Mary and ManageWise ›

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