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Major programmes – unscrambling complex puzzles

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When faced with a messed-up Rubik’s Cube, it can be easy to give up when it seems just too complex to unscramble. But this perception could result from various things. It could be harder trying to solve it in a dark or noisy room where you can’t see or concentrate. Or it could be easier if you’ve done it before.

When we look at government programmes, we often get told a programme is ‘complex’ or just ‘really difficult to do’. But describing a programme in this way can seem lazy and sounds like an excuse for problems. Simply labelling something as ‘complex’ doesn’t unscramble why the programme is complex and so hard to do.

Understanding the ‘why’ is critical to being able to fix issues, make improvements and learn lessons. A programme’s complexities will impact its risks and therefore decisions on how it should be managed or whether it should even go ahead in the first place. We previously described Crossrail as complex given the length of railway and tunnels being constructed; the chosen contractual model; bespoke designs; a lack of standardisation and separate systems and assets needing to be brought together.

What can ‘complexity’ mean?

Is complexity the prospect of innovative, groundbreaking technology? Lots of interdependent projects needing to come together? Various people being brought along? From what we see, a programme’s complexity can result from differing combinations of factors that create an intricate puzzle to crack.

Late last year, we republished our Delivery Environment Complexity Analytic (DECA) to help organisations understand the risks arising from the environment in which they deliver programmes. It sets out questions against 12 factors to get underneath risks and complexities. The Infrastructure and Projects Authority uses this tool in its Project Routemap to help government set up projects and understand the complexities upfront.

Recent events have reiterated the complexity of the environment, both within and outside government. With escalating prices, continuing recruitment challenges and shifting political priorities creating a complex delivery landscape, realistically understanding risk is more important than ever.

How to use the DECA

The DECA isn’t prescriptive good-practice guidance to slavishly work through. Instead, it is designed to help you ask questions of yourself and others to really understand the programme challenges. You may want to:

  • use it to compare the complexities across two potential options or delivery environments to help determine the best approach
  • feed into identifying risks by holding a team session to work through each factor and build a collective understanding of the complexities and risks to be managed
  • hold two sessions – one with senior leaders and the other with team members – to get a diversity of opinion
  • revisit the DECA throughout a programme to help reflect on lessons learned and unearth the challenges faced (but not necessarily expected)

Questions to ask yourself

The DECA is broken down into 12 factors. You may want to ask yourself…

1. Strategic importance

How significant is the project to the strategic vision of the organisation and government more widely? What is the level of ministerial and wider public interest?

2. Stakeholders

Which groups or individuals have an interest or influence in a project or are impacted by it? What is their level of influence?

3. Requirements and benefits

Is the organisation clear about its requirements and what benefits or outcomes delivering the requirements will bring?

4. Stability of overall context

How likely is it that the external environment, such as climate change, may change and impact a project? Is the project robust to changing situations?

5. Financial impact

How significant is the financial impact of a project to the organisation or partners involved in delivery?

6. Implementation complexity

Is the project being delivered at speed? Are the methods or technologies untested?

7. Relations with delivery partners

Which, and how many, different bodies are involved in delivering the project internally and externally? How well are these relationships understood? How mature are they?

8. Range of disciplines and skills

Are specialist skills necessary to achieve objectives, and are these easily accessible?

9. Interdependencies

Is the project critical for the success of others? Likewise, is it also dependent on others for its own success?

10. Extent of change

Does the project involve a significant change to achieve its outcomes?

11. Organisational capability

What experience does the organisation have in delivering similar objectives or work? Has it learned lessons from the past?

12. Interconnectedness (to be considered alongside each factor)

What work has been done to understand the connections between factors affecting the client or project?

Not all of these factors will be relevant for every programme and they are not exhaustive. Feel free to focus on the most pertinent questions and build on them with questions of your own. Our main aim is for this framework to help structure those critical, forward-facing conversations essential to all programmes. Happy unscrambling!


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