Unhealthy levels of ‘Great Leap Forward syndrome’

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Private sector managers are not immune to Great Leap Forward Syndrome. They rant about organisational transformation, believing they can move mountains by the strength of their will and the extravagance of their vision.

If you have received medical treatment in Britain, you will know that you cannot be confident that the doctor has your medical records or that the medical records he or she does have accurately describe your case. Although the National Health Service has spent heavily on computer systems, the management of information remains poor.

In 2002, the government announced an ambitious remedy. England and Wales would have the world’s most advanced patient record scheme. If you had a heart attack anywhere in the country, the medical team would be able quickly to access your medical history. With a budget currently estimated at £12bn (€13.4bn, $17.2bn), this information technology project is widely described as the largest ever.

The phrase “Great Leap Forward” was first used to describe what would become one of history’s greatest man-made disasters. In 1958 Mao Zedong launched a plan to elevate China into the first rank of world economic powers within 15 years. The initial focus would be on increasing production and exports in agriculture and steel. The agricultural plans ended in tragedy, the steel plans in farce. The forced collectivisation of farming led to famine in which 40m people may have died. The goal of increased production of steel from backyard furnaces was achieved by peasants melting down their kitchen utensils and agricultural tools. The pig iron produced was valueless.

Great Leap Forward syndrome begins with an aspiration to remedy serious past failure with unprecedented future success. The plan is not to imitate those who have managed things better, but to implement what they have not yet been able to accomplish. The goal is never achieved, or is partly reached after extended delays and far more expenditure than initially envisaged. The problems are aggravated by falsely optimistic reports of progress until, and perhaps even after, the scale of the disaster is evident.

The west is also susceptible to Great Leap Forward syndrome. Perhaps the most costly instance was Britain’s 1965 plan to build seven advanced gas-cooled reactors. The hope was to obtain a large fraction of Britain’s electricity needs from nuclear power and to build an export industry around a new and unproven technology. Despite expenditure of billions, these plants have never worked economically and for long periods not at all.

Deception of the public about costs and progress ended only at electricity privatisation. Ministers and executives discovered that they would be personally liable if the lies they had told to parliament were repeated in a stock exchange prospectus.

In a Great Leap Forward, the wish is father to the thought. There is no recognition that past failure means that future success will be hard to achieve. Careful acknowledgment of what has gone wrong in the past and rapid, honest feedback on progress are essential, but usually missing. Organisations properly want to present a narrative of success. But under weak, vain leadership that narrative smothers reality and people who tell the truth are sidelined or fired (or executed, as in Mao’s China).

Politicians, more interested in rhetoric than detail, are particularly susceptible to Great Leap Forward syndrome. But so are many private sector managers. They rant about organisational transformation, believing they can move mountains by the strength of their will and the extravagance of their vision.

The failure of the first Great Leap Forward was, of course, blamed on the people. It was followed by the still more absurd, though less catastrophic, Cultural Revolution. Only Mao’s death would permit China to begin to realise its economic potential. Trial and error and the incremental adjustment of frequently adapted provisional goals is the means through which successful economic and organisational development normally occurs.

Completion of the NHS computerisation programme, due in 2010, is now scheduled for 2014-15. You will learn much about Great Leap Forward syndrome if you consult the website of the agency, Connecting for Health, charged with its delivery.

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