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Can benefits management improve programme predictability and build stakeholders’ confidence in the nuclear industries?

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David Whitmore and the Nuclear Project Management Specific Interest Group (Nuclear PM SIG) identified investor confidence in the predictability of project delivery as a key challenge in the UK. On time and on budget projects are of concern to ministers, regulators, and investors alike.

The SIG, a joint initiative between APM and the Nuclear Institute, recently published a blog that points to some unique-to-nuclear-and-the-UK issues that contribute to this problem, namely – many stakeholders and complex operating models makes collaboration and decision-making difficult, ditto complicated engineering design solutions. They posit that “complex nuclear projects need timely decision making to be successful but slow governance inherent in western nuclear projects makes this challenging.” 

We agree. ‘Slow governance’ and its impact on timely decision making needs to be resolved. Investigating benchmarks and methods used on projects (nuclear or otherwise) around the world will help the nuclear industry find new solutions.

We’d like to explore if a change in the focus of the programme board to objectives and benefits, rather than the current focus on the outputs and outcomes, would resolve this.  

What gets measured, gets done

Outside stakeholders (government, regulators, investors) apply a risk premium to nuclear projects, and we believe it’s in part because they don’t have confidence in programme reports where the targets keep shifting as tranches and sub-programmes are added or removed. We believe confidence is low because the reports are too low-level and don’t report on what stakeholders really want to see.

In our hypothetical future, the programme management team report to the programme board on the achievement of objectives and realisation of benefits for every period end and every tranche. The board no longer focus on the project specifications (the outputs); these should be the domain of the project and programme teams.

To illustrate from decommissioning, a programme objective of reviewing paper records:

  • Ensures compliance with the law and regulations concerning the retention and destruction of records.
  • Reduces costs of the storage space for paper that is no longer needed.
  • Once the records are catalogued, and even more so when they are digitised, speeds up retrieval. This reduces the cost of waste management and means that activities complete faster, ultimately bringing forward the day when a particular hectare of site land can be restored to green field.
  • The data management skills are tradeable – staff can obtain other high-paying work in data management outside of the nuclear industry, boosting the economy and creating jobs.
  • Rapid access to records during an emergency (or an exercise to simulate an emergency) improves safety and reassures the public and watchdogs that the site is managed well.

This could be delivered in many ways: as long as the objective is achieved, the programme should be seen as a success. Previously, a change in direction at project level would cause delay and cost overruns, and this is the scenario we would like to change.

Empowering the right people to make the right decisions

The programme board gets out of the detail and focuses on the big picture. Objectives and benefits change much more slowly – may even remain constant throughout the lifetime of the programme. Period end reports show progressive realisation of benefits, and this year’s reports can be compared with last year’s reports because the targets haven’t moved – even if the projects and tranches have changed, which they do frequently in nuclear industries.

Workstream, tranche and project decisions are no longer escalated to the programme board - these decisions have been delegated to the programme management team. The logic for this was they are on the project full time and have access to peer professionals in specialist areas. Every decision is seen through the lens of whether it will realise more benefits, or not.

The programme management team is empowered to flex delivery as understanding of the problem and solution improves. They build up knowledge and capacity to respond to both expected and unexpected events. They share objectives with other programmes so learn from their solutions too. Learning from experience happens much earlier in the programme life cycle, and there’s less need to reinvent the wheel.

The delays caused by submitting options to a programme board, and waiting for the next infrequent meeting, are over. The resulting delays and additional costs associated with paying people during dead time, as well as implementing expensive interim solutions that incur a double-handling cost when they have to be dismantled, are over. The programme board can get on with what it does best – setting direction, freeing up obstacles, providing experience, and committing resources (or allocating to other programmes, if that would be best for the achievement of objectives).

How can this happen?

Reports at all levels, from individual SLCs (Site License Companies, the companies licensed to run decommissioning sites on behalf of Nuclear Decommissioning Authority) to Parliament and the Public Accounts Committee, have affirmed the need to focus on objectives and benefits. So why hasn’t it happened?

We believe that project management professionals, decision makers, and the way we establish programmes, are the obstacle. Many senior decision makers worked their way up through civil and nuclear engineering roles. They recognise the need to speak the language of the board, the regulator, the minister, but it doesn’t sit comfortably. In reality, they feel comfortable in the detail of project and programme activities, not consequences.

Project managers want to be measured on things that they can control, like how many cubes of waste they have repackaged. Benefits are outside of their control, because other stakeholders (people, the environment, the finance department) realise benefits, so they don’t like them.

Change is going to require some soul searching. Teams, whether programme management teams or programme boards, are going to have to go through this together, as teams. We’re going to have to be a bit vulnerable, we’re going to need to trust our colleagues, but the benefits make it worthwhile.

What upsides and pitfalls do you see in the vision outlined above? Could the P3M community bring about this change? Will it improve both predictability and investor confidence? What have we missed? What other views do you have?

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Image: Hugo Minney


This blog was co-written by Hugo Minney and Roger Martin.

Roger Martin is a co-founder of The Mindset Difference, specialists in developing collaborative team cultures in construction and engineering projects that often struggle when process change doesn’t deliver the answers they need.

The recently established Nuclear PM SIG is a collaborative venture between the Nuclear institute and the Association for Project Management, that is aiming to enhance the competitiveness of the nuclear industry and restore confidence amongst public and government stakeholders. It aims to do this by enhancing the capability of project professionals and their organisations by seeking, channelling and sharing innovation and better ways of working.

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  1. Martin Samphire
    Martin Samphire 03 November 2020, 12:24 PM

    Interesting Hugo – well done for setting the challenge. I worry about the idea that Benefits Management, or indeed any single topic, is the silver bullet. Of course, I would suggest that more appropriate and effective governance and role definition is the answer!!! Transforming delivery to build confidence in outcomes will take several things to happen in unison. But let’s break down your hypothetical future and ask questions of today. Programme objectives should always be expressed in outcome terms – the ultimate answer to the “why” question. I agree that far too many programmes get expressed in output terms and this often pervades the whole team unless actions are taken to prevent it. If a programme board is made up of experienced project delivery people then there might be (not always) a tendency to concentrate on what their experience has taught them – with a delivery focus. So where is the programme sponsor or SRO in all this – and how is s/he being held accountable by the main organisational Board (see the recent blog on holding sponsors to account)? It should be the leadership and focus of the sponsor to ensure that the end outcomes (and benefits) are being focused upon – and ensure that the programme board gets out of the delivery details and constantly reviews progress toward the outcomes, not just the key outputs. The sponsor has a key leadership role here. Workstream, tranche and project decisions are no longer escalated to the programme board - these decisions have been delegated to the programme management team that is empowered to flex delivery as understanding of the problem and solution improves – agreed. It is well recognised that issues that threaten ultimate programme or project success often raise their head at the outset or early in the lifecycle. As programmes and projects are unique, the strategy for delivery should be a conscious decision at the outset, not “this is the way we did the last project”. Establishing where and whether to use waterfall or Agile approaches, develop in-house versus bought in, etc, are key decisions that need to be made based upon the specific characteristics of the endeavour. Because programmes in the nuclear world can be multi-year (or even multi-decade), they must be broken down into shorter, discrete projects such that delivery of outputs can happen rapidly and incrementally – and where possible, separate out straightforward components of delivery (painting by numbers as Eddie Obeng calls them) from projects / work packages of higher uncertainty. Timeboxing with shorter timescales and adopting the discipline of not allowing changes in-flight will also make changes more transparent. The programme board can then review the regular and frequent outputs, assess how well they are delivering toward the required outcome and initiate appropriate “next” projects. The programme board then concentrates on being the ‘guiding mind’ to provide the vison and oversee and integrate the whole, in support of the sponsor. Removing time delays for approvals can be minimised by: • Only looking for programme board approvals at beginning and end of each (short) project • Scheduling programme board meetings for approvals to suit the drum beat of the projects not the monthly calendar. Could the P3M community bring about this change? Of course – and it has to. The tools, processes, good practices and role definitions all exist already. What we need to do is to recognise that success is measured by outcomes (or benefits) not outputs. So, we need both strong sponsorship (where the focus is outcomes) as well as effective delivery professionals (focused on delivery of outputs). My experience is that the sponsor role needs to be strengthened to bring about this change along with other good governance practices. See the recent webinar series on strengthening the sponsor role.

  2. David Dunning
    David Dunning 04 November 2020, 11:59 AM

    This is VERY interesting. So many points to make: “many stakeholders and complex operating models makes collaboration and decision-making difficult” - is accountability clearly mapped and governance clear and integrated? I guess not. ‘Slow governance’ - is it defined operated, integral - or an adjunct to delivery? Programme board to focus on objectives and benefits - absolutely!!! Why not now? "don’t report on what stakeholders really want to see.” - have you asked them and built around what is needed for business integrated governance or built bottom up out of the weeds? Programme management and board - this is analogous to portfolio progress and direction group from MoP - like it :-) Is the Nuclear industry using PgM when it is really doing Product / Asset Management and need business plans, not business cases?? Perhaps Nuclear needs to look at Business Integrated Governance which reaches OUT of the P3 domain more than just looking within it? Watch this space: https://www.linkedin.com/groups/13651399/ Club outputs (free) here: https://www.chasemanagementservices.co.uk/444303415