It was a high-profile undertaking that could make history. Known as the “Crossrail,” the proposed £15 billion east-west, 118-kilometer fully digital rail system was one of the most complex infrastructure projects in the world. Upon completion, it would speed 250 million passengers a year through the heart of London, slashing journey times while transforming travel and life in the city. 

Crossrail Ltd was formed in 2001 to take on the immense civil engineering challenge. After years of planning, public debate, and government approvals, the company and its network of partners broke ground in 2008. Constructing the mixed railway above and below ground involved serious challenges and risks as crews worked 10 stories beneath London to install advanced digital infrastructure and build 21 kilometers of tunnel and 20 major vertical structures. The first years of construction work brought Crossrail much acclaim, as the tunneling and civil engineering efforts produced unprecedented, extraordinary outcomes.  

Crossrail started to run into difficulties after 2016, as it moved into the integration of the railway, a phase that required stitching together the railway’s 37 independent but interconnected sub-projects—each with its own team of contractor organizations. As those efforts became increasingly challenged, Crossrail’s leadership announced in August 2018 that its opening— scheduled for the end of that year—would be delayed. The news caught most stakeholders off guard and by surprise, including elected leaders and the media. Soon after, the government sponsors replaced most of Crossrail’s Board and Executive Team, looking for new leadership and governance to take this critical program from being stuck to being delivered.

Amid newly realized internal issues and heightened external scrutiny, Mark Wild, Crossrail’s new CEO, called JMW.

JMW was brought in to support the Crossrail Leadership Team and its broader network of contractor partners in getting the program back on the path to delivery. JMW’s first order of business was a candid assessment of the mindsets with which various teams were approaching the project and one another. Their findings would be the foundation for Crossrail leadership’s work moving forward. 

The assessment revealed the ways in which external pressures and inevitable barriers to success had taken their toll on the leadership mindset and management of the project. With up to 10,000 employees and contractors involved at a time throughout the supply chain, accountabilities across interfaces were unclear, coordination was poor, and progress slow. In the lead up to the 2018 failure, the remaining construction time had been significantly underestimated—“drift” attributed to an over-compressed schedule that had become disconnected from reality. The intricacies of system integration had likewise been miscalculated. While there had been a strong collective focus on the 2018 completion date, immense deadline pressures had clouded the transparency needed for sound project decisions. 

With coaching support from JMW, Mark Wild and the new Executive Team put a few fundamental “stakes in the ground” for how the program would operate differently going forward—principles that would determine the ultimate success of this turnaround story:

  • Transparency:  For a program which had become far too opaque between its many constituent parts and to its external partners and stakeholders, Mark and the team committed to rigorous transparency between all those key parties. This led to a whole new regime of sharing the good news and the bad news early and often with players who previously could only guess regarding key aspects of progress.
  • “Owning the Whole”:  In its original design, Crossrail was divided into 37 sub-projects to move the massive program into manageable work packages while “sharing the wealth” across many contractors and the UK construction industry as a whole which had suffered through the impacts of the Global Financial Crisis in 2008. The well-intended design had also produced the unintended outcome of the “parts” not having a vision of the “whole” program—each of the sub-projects tended to focus on its own patch without sufficient regard for the downstream integration requirements between the sub-projects. Introducing the principle of “Owning the Whole” transformed that leadership paradigm and led to extensive interventions and course corrections in the years to come.

JMW introduced key principles of transformational leadership to help Crossrail’s executives and partners turn around the situation and complete the railway. To deliver on their commitment, critical shifts in approach and implementation would be required consistent with the two fundamental principles already declared.

The JMW team designed an intervention to help Crossrail’s leadership address the gaps identified and execute actions to address them. Over the course of the engagement, five central elements of the effort began to take hold and help produce the results needed for the project to succeed.

    1. Aligning executive teams. Two executive teams led the project’s completion, one that restarted the work in 2019 and one that navigated from mid-pandemic to the line’s opening. Both relied on JMW leadership principles as a common language for setting goals and assessing progress.
    2. Engaging next-level leaders. To help embed an integrated mindset of “owning the whole,” JMW coached Crossrail senior executives on fully engaging—and holding accountable—project leads for all aspects of the sprawling venture, including the multitude of supply chain contributions.
    3. Integrating the supply chain. JMW helped Crossrail generate more effective supplier coordination through a series of integration activities. Lead partners later described the work as a breakthrough that significantly improved their connection to project goals and objectives.
    4. Launching collaborative platforms. In a highly integrated endeavor, issues and obstacles deter progress throughout a project and its supply chain. Crossrail worked with JMW to establish a more integrated approach to recognizing and responding to challenges without delay.
    5. Intervening in key performance gaps. As a result of their engagement with JMW, Crossrail’s leaders adopted a “performance house” (versus “risk house”) mindset, as noted above, to begin immediately intervening in consequential performance gaps before negative impacts cascaded to other parts of the project.

The new railway officially opened in May 2022 as the “Elizabeth Line,” renamed in 2016 in honor of Queen Elizabeth II. More than a million journeys were made in the line’s first five days of operation as London’s mayor deemed the railway a “roaring success.”

It took significant human and leadership effort, as well as more time and financial investment than originally planned, to reach this meaningful milestone. What may be its greatest achievement was that a cast of thousands of highly committed people aligned on a whole new way of working together that turned a tide which had become severely flawed and rose to the occasion of extraordinary challenges of overcoming those flaws while navigating through the impacts of an unprecedented global pandemic.

Data points on project results to date include:

  • 118 kilometers of new and fully digital railway, including 21 kilometers of twin-bore tunnels and 20 vertical structures nine stories deep
  • State-of-the-art, high-speed trains moving 250 million passengers across London every year at up to 145 kilometers every 2 ½ minutes
  • Regeneration impacts along the length of the route, including an estimated 90,000+ new homes throughout the metropolitan area
  • A minimum 10% boost in central London rail capacity, the largest single increase in more than 70 years
  • For the first time, 19 boroughs across central London connected by state-of-the-art infrastructure
  • As a result of increased traffic to the city, an estimated additional £42 billion flowing into the UK economy

From Breakdown to Breakthrough: High-Level Shifts Required

From: To:
Scheduling based on drive, uninformed confidence from past successes, and external expectations Scheduling based on the current facts, including significant risks and potential barriers—balancing aspirational goals with a firm read on reality
Getting caught in the “drift” about what is possible under the circumstances Constant measuring and checking progress to stay connected with the “on the ground” reality
External pressures in the supplier community resulting in optimistic updates to leadership and ultimately breakdowns due to performance falling short  In the face of external pressures, suppliers and other partners offering unfiltered reports of issues and shortcomings in order to collaborate on solutions
Well-intended, intense leadership focus on the project’s dozens of individual operations Leaders collectively owning the whole, with a stronger focus on the extensive integration required for a highly complex undertaking
Planning to the future with best-case projections based on current trends and expectations Planning from the future with clarity about what success looks like, then promptly dealing with circumstances that threaten progress
Working from a mindset of identifying and mitigating risks, often through postponing dealing with the tougher issues and challenges Working from a mindset of identifying “gaps” between what was committed and what was currently likely to happen and creating interventions to provide course correction