Over the three months of November, December and January, the Association ran a constellation of events on the common theme of project pace, including ‘the main event’, a 90 minute webinar (Project Pace: Accelerating Major Projects) delivered in collaboration with the Infrastructure and Projects Authority and a set of five satellite round tables on consents and planning, early delivery of benefits, project productivity, governance and methodology.
The outputs from this activity are impossible to curate in a single blog post so we have picked a handful of highlights to help guide your reflection.
Slow Food envisions a world in which all people can access and enjoy food that is good for them, good for those who grow it and good for the planet. www.slowfood.com
I think there’s a useful analogy to be made between the lessons from the slow food movement and those from major projects. In both cases, the emphasis on speed and convenience over all other attributes, has driven out true value – citizen benefits and project maturity (in the case of major projects) and flavour and nutrition (in the case of food). Speed and convenience have also been at the cost of sustainability and negative environmental impacts on the planet.
A fundamental shift
It’s no coincidence that we are not seeing a shift in pace or productivity because there is no shift either in the fundamental management or leadership of major projects. Project Pace Webinar
So, based on the webinar and the notes from our round tables, what are some of the things that might contribute towards a fundamental shift in the management of major projects?
- Focus on a whole life approach
In major project terms, this means that the finish line isn’t represented by completion or handover of the asset or the piece of infrastructure. The success of the endeavour is just as much about what comes after and how far use of the asset enriches or empoverishes the life of the citizen. In whole food terms, the success of the meal is not defined by the moment you harvest your ingredients but how their subsequent delivery to the consumer and their preparation contributes to the flavour and the nourishment of the meal. And how the cycle of growing and harvesting impacts the soil or the wider environment for the next year’s harvest.
- Turn governance on its head
If your governance process works effectively for everyone, you will remove the fear associated with decision-making and the focus on compliance over value. In slow food terms, the supply chain needs to work for the consumer but it also needs to work for the grower, and the distributor and the processor. Any imbalance in favour of one group over another will produce defensive behaviours.
- Beware the loss of diversity in decision-making. Accelerating decisions should not be made at the expense of losing diverse voices in the decision process
The Covid 19 pandemic has seen existing governance processes sidelined in deference to the need to deliver as fast as possible. This isn’t a sustainable or desirable state of affairs, when we return to some semblance of project normality. Similarly, whilst selective breeding of plants and animals can speed up and boost harvests in the short term, over the long term, the damage to our ecological systems and often, the associated, loss of flavour leave us immeasurably poorer.
- Social value is now seen as part of quality and effectiveness
Rather than as something to be introduced into the project as part of the delivery strategy, social value is now a fundamental requirement of the business case and integral to any major project’s design. Exactly the same argument holds true for the slow food movement, where the value of the harvest is inextricably linked to the contribution that growing, harvesting, distributing, processing and cooking bring in terms of the quality of work and volume of employment they provide.
- Delivery of value is much harder than delivery of specification
Whilst its much easier to focus on the scope and specification of an asset than on the outcome of that asset for the citizen, taking the easy option ‘because it’s faster and cheaper’ is no longer an option. In the production of fruit and vegetables, growing products that look neat and uniform is easy, compared to the challenge of creating highly nutritional products that deliver complex flavour.
Projects that are more people-centric
I don’t think we are putting people sufficiently at the heart of what we are doing. Custom and practice build up over time, like layers of sediment. Project Pace Webinar
People-centricity in major projects is about the design of the outputs, the benefits and the value as it is about the management of the teams that deliver. In the same way that slow food is as much about flavour, ecology, employment as it is about the economics of food production.
- Teach planners about project delivery and teach project delivery professionals about planning
Major projects are whole complex systems and unless those involved understand how the system works and how they (and everyone else) influence that system, they will continue to define success purely in terms of their immediate context. We know that one of the downsides of the fast food revolution has been to distance millions of citizens from how food is produced and by extension, the biology, ecology and geography of the plant.
- Work out who is accountable for what in project board meetings
Any project board will involve genuine decision-makers but it will also involve lots of people whose role is to provide technical expertise and advice. Don’t confuse the two or you will reduce the speed and the quality of your decisions. In food production, it’s important you don’t let manufacturers make decisions about farming or farmers make decisions about restaurant management. Being inclusive with your stakeholders in either system doesn’t imply everyone is involved with everything.
- What is coded and written down is not what drives project practitioners
Defining processes and standards are an important part of project management but practitioners tend to think about their work in terms of with whom they will be working and how they will communicate. It’s only human after all! In the same ways, farmers are often motivated by their relationship to nature, the husbandry of their animals or the look, feel and taste of their wine producing grapes.
- Make sure the decision-making process is accessible to everyone – bring clarity to the murkiness
No one from the project sponsor to the cost-control specialist or the business architect can work effectively if they don’t understand the basis for the decisions that drive the projects on which they are working. Put another way, the chef cannot understand their menu if they don’t understand how the cost of raw materials or the price to the diner relate to the flavour and quality of what they are producing.
- Project teams are constrained by inflexible methodology
No one methodology (nor indeed the combination of any mix of methodologies) fits exactly with the work that is needed to delver a complex project. Project delivery professionals need to space, the understanding and the safe environment to adapt or ignore elements of methodology in favour of outcome. If cooking were simply a matter of methodology, we’d never find ourselves delighted by flavour combinations that break the rules; sweet and sour would be banned and everything would probably be microwaved.
- Don’t assume you’ve solved collaboration
Collaboration involves project partners with different views on how projects should be run and managed. It’s a mistake to assume because you agreed a way of working that this is all there is to it. You need to continue to invest time and effort in dialogue around the collaboration to tackle the threats and the tensions within the collaboration, as they emerge. The slow food movement understands this and continues to invest time and energy in talking about the movement, despite the fact that they have effectively defined it.
Choosing the right project to start with
Often programmes can become divorced from the consumers of the outcome – the customers and citizens Project Pace Webinar
Our appetite for getting things done still leaves us to have eyes that are too large for our stomach; to compromise the speed and effectiveness of our delivery by overloading the function with far too many projects requiring far to many deliverables.
- Listen to your stakeholders
What are issues the funders, sponsors, clients and consumers really want addressed? People who follow the slow food movement never lose sight of the need for flavour! If something just doesn’t excite the taste-buds then, regardless of how sustainably or locally it is produced, it won’t make it to the menu.
- Start with the end in mind
If you design your project around the ultimate outcome you will be able to generate a level of motivation and productivity that you can sustain later in the project. Vegetables, grains, sources of protein are all just ingredients unless and until you have worked out how you will combine them to make great food.
- Understand the dependencies at a portfolio level
Major projects are littered with the casualties of projects that have never realised their potential because they may have delivered but have missed a key ingredient (which may often be an ingredient generated through change) or because they have been derailed by the unintended consequence of something from elsewhere in our portfolio. Food supply is all about interconnected dependencies, the food chain is a complex mess of crops and animals that are interdependent on each other. Bees that pollinate and provide honey. Microscopic bacteria that break down decaying matter and, in turn, are food for other tiny invertebrates. These dependencies enable and facilitate change or can equally disable and destroy change.
- Identify which benefits underpin the business case and which ‘happen along the way’
Stakeholders will be interested in all benefits but it’s only the former (the underpinning benefits) that you should prioritize in your delivery strategy because if you try to tackle them all, you’ll overstretch your resources, bend of break your schedule. These ‘hygiene factor’ benefits are there in food too. Eat a balanced diet and you are unlikely to suffer from vitamin deficiencies! If you focus too much on the vitamins, you’re likely to spend a fortune on supplements you really don’t need.
- Measure the right things
It’s easy to focus simply on inputs, or displacement measures to try and assure the health of your major projects, But how do you measure the health of your project relationships? Almost certainly something to which you cannot establish an exact, quantified metric but definitely something you can benchmark to see whether they are strengthening or weakening. In slow food terms, the measures you want to follow are equally complex: your health and well-being; the health of the natural environment rather than the number of calories you are consuming.
For every project there is an optimum solution that defines, what you are going to create; how and with whom. The pace of the project is defined by this solution. Producing something faster may compromise the outcome but it may also compromise the process. Maybe if, instead of focusing on the pace of delivery, we spent more time working on the eco-system of the project: the business case, the design, the governance, the make-up of the project organization and so on. Anyone can deliver a fast project but only few can deliver the benefits associated with a movement like the slow food movement.
Further viewing and reading
We’ve only been able to give you a flavour of the ideas that emerged from Project Pace and the discussions that accompanied it. I hope you will now take the time to watch the Project Pace recording and study the Miro Boards associated with Round Table.