At EVA20, London’s alternative project management conference which was held earlier this year, Sir Tim Laurence, Chair of the Major Projects Association, talked about the initiatives that are in place for improving major projects.
The MPA was set up 30 years ago to share experiences, knowledge and ideas about major projects – both things that were successful and ideas that had failed – with the objective of helping other project leaders to initiate and deliver better projects, avoiding the mistakes of the past.
Sir Tim talked about the four initiatives underway with the MPA at the moment.
A Procurement Routemap
The procurement routemap includes capability management and it’s aimed at setting up projects to succeed from the beginning. “No one sets out to fail on a major project,” said Sir Tim. He didn’t share the details of this but it’s a way of making sure contracts are effective and realistic enough to support major projects from the start.
Green Book Plus
The Treasury’s Green Book is the definitive guide for deciding which major projects should move forward but Sir Tim explained that it struggles with the largest initiatives. Planning and business cases need to be more realistic, more rounded and more honest. Green Book Plus is going to try to provide that framework.
This initiative supports the process of choosing which projects to do at a national level. It aims to make sure that politicians are better placed to judge which initiatives to do. Deciding on a major project, said Sir Tim, is not something that we are good at in the UK.
To give an example, there is currently an open decision on how best to extend the airport capability within London. Both Heathrow and Gatwick airports have expressed an interest at being the one that ‘wins’ the investment for expansion. In something I’ve never seen before, both airports are campaigning to the public with posters on public transport and in other ways too. This isn’t Britain’s Got Talent: the public don’t get to vote on which airport gets the extra runway. But savvy airport operators know that dangling the carrot of good jobs, infrastructure and expansion can influence the local community who in turn influence their elected representatives, who in turn… The information coming from the decision makers is not good enough, so a whole additional level of media and information has been put out there.
The Knowledge Hub
Third, there is an initiative underway to capture key lessons. Lessons learned is something that major projects are not set up to do and the learnings are often not followed through, Sir Tim explained, citing Crossrail as an example.
We’ve tried this as a nation before. The APM’s involvement in creating the learning legacy from the 2012 Olympics was huge and hugely successful. I don’t know why that major investment in changing the culture of large projects to include the discipline of lessons learned and sharing best practice wasn’t continued after that event. If something like the good work and significant outpouring of lessons wasn’t enough to kick start a change in how we approach this area of project management, then I’m not sure that another initiative is going to have much success either.
But good luck to them, it’s certainly something that project management overall does not do well at and anything that keeps it at the forefront of people’s minds has to be a good thing.
A mentoring programme for senior leaders is important because often mentoring initiatives are offered at entry and mid-career points, without much support for the people at the top. Those individuals still benefit from an impartial, external point of view and the opportunity to bounce ideas around in a safe environment, which is essentially what mentoring is.
“Good judgement, good decision making, good strong, clear leadership,” summarised Sir Tim, going on to add that you can learn these skills. They are not innate and can improve with time. The benefit of developing skills like these is that we build more competent, successful leaders and share good practice. “When people are put in difficult situations the can trust their instincts and get things done,” he said.
The common theme amongst all these initiatives is that project initiation is important. Getting projects right from the start, whether that’s at the point of project selection, business case, choosing the leader or creating an environment for success based on the lessons from the past – it all makes a huge difference to the outcome. Let’s influence eventual project success by setting up projects correctly at the beginning. We can all do that, regardless of the size and scale of your project.