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Project Speed: does it need a pace-maker?

Group Planning Hands

Shortly before the new Tier 4 restrictions, the Major Projects Association hosted an online seminar on getting back up to speed after a tumultuous 2020. The main lesson? If you want major projects to go faster, take your time…

When the UK government launched Project Speed in summer 2020, it couldn’t have known just how bumpy the road out of the COVID-19 pandemic was going to be. But despite fresh lockdowns, a new variant of the virus and the end of the Brexit transition period, enthusiasm for major infrastructure projects remains undimmed.

There is already evidence the strategy is accelerating some major building projects – such as the A66 trans-Pennine road upgrade. But that example is instructive: while the scheduled project duration has been halved following a Project Speed review, work will still take five years – and Highways England isn’t planning to start construction until 2025, according to New Civil Engineer.

The secret to injecting more pace into major projects is to focus on people and mission, said Kerry Bangle MAPM, Project Speed programme lead at the Department for Transport, speaking at a Major Projects Association (MPA) panel entitled Project Pace: Accelerating major projects.

Bad projects can’t be saved by good engineering

“The one thing that’s been a consistent thread throughout all the workstreams is the importance of people,” she said. “We can write processes, and produce metrics, databases and even legislation – but it’s all reliant on people.”

A clear mission helps break down decision-making paralysis, which still plagues major projects. Give a team a clear remit, with a deadline, unambiguous data to work from, and clear deliverables – and they can work wonders, as the Nightingale hospital projects proved.

For Nick Smallwood, CEO of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA), that means project management training and education need to be firmly on the agenda. “Bad projects can’t be saved by good engineering,” he warned.

That’s why, alongside the National Infrastructure Strategy, the IPA has also launched workstreams on best practice in cost estimation; and benchmarking platforms, to allow project professionals to see just how well their own projects’ cost and time estimates stack up.

Smallwood has spoken out before on the value of project preparation – and made a compelling case for project managers taking their time in the early phases in order to deliver much faster overall. “To be quicker, you need to spend time at the front end, understanding the design in detail and doing the technical work to support your estimates,” he stressed.

That means when contractors are on-site, they’ll have total clarity on what needs to happen, as well as the resources and materials to keep up their own pace. Smallwood cited a petrochemical plant he’d worked on where a slow-and-steady approach saw client handover in 18 months, compared to three years for an almost identical plant that was rushed to break ground.

The whys and wherefores

Bangle agreed that running ‘at pace’ not only depends on meticulous preparation, but also needs to be justified. Why are you pushing the deadline? “It’s no good shouting at people to be faster; that’s usually just counter-productive,” she said.

Andy Murray, executive director of the MPA, agreed: “We have to understand the pay-offs and trade-offs; we have to know exactly what we’re trying to speed up.” There’s a big difference between getting projects started faster to create activity, for example, and securing deliverables that underpin future economic activity.

And as the government pushes to ‘build back better’ – and greener – post-pandemic, it’s the choice of projects as much as their planning that will justify that need for speed.

“We need more courage to kill projects even when there are significant sunk costs or strong personal associations with key stakeholders,” Bangle said. She cited AirTrack, linking Heathrow to London Waterloo, as a good example. It was heavily developed for years, but after analysis the business case couldn’t be established, and it was abandoned.

Clare Mortimer, cognitive and analytics leader at IBM, flagged another form of preparation that can help deliver projects at pace. “A watertight business case and detailed design are important, but also ask the supplier community: ‘Does this feel right?’” she said. While high numbers of stakeholders can heavily complicate project approvals, suppliers will often sense-check plans and settle arguments between them conclusively.

An invitation for smart people to ask clever questions

Other major barriers to Project Speed include planning, governance and accountability. And the panel was agreed: even with the application of better technology (to improve communications and coordination) and analysis, there is a lot of scope to streamline approvals and oversight to boost pace without risking quality or accountability.

“We understand minimum viable product as a way of focusing on the value you create,” said Mortimer. “We can ask the same about each element of governance or decision-making.” Bangle added: “No decision-maker thinks they’re the one who’s not adding value to the process. But you have to look at what difference each governance gatekeeper made. Was it meaningful? Or just an invitation for smart people to ask clever questions?”

Within projects, said Smallwood, keeping a high pace requires us to think again about lessons learned – it can’t just be project management fundamentals re-hashed. “Creating a culture of ownership is the key,” he said. On complex projects, picking out the meaningful individual lessons is particularly tough, added Bangle. And Murray suggested breaking them down into individual, team, enterprise and community lessons – which would help ensure they’re shared appropriately, too.

Does that apply to project methodologies too? “In a small-scale tech project, agile works well,” said Mortimer. “On a more complex project, the cost of point failures is just so much higher.” Pace, then, is all about taking the time to understand risks, outcomes, design and meaningful accountability – and aligning project management professionals behind the task.

Projects at pace: the takeaways

Nick Smallwood:
Major projects take too long right now, and they’re too expensive. We can go faster, better and greener – but we need to be clear about what we’re going to change as a project profession to deliver that promise.

Kerry Bangle:
Pace is valuable, but not at all costs, and never as the sole driver. Snappier decision-making is the big win – and sometimes that means cancelling projects.

Clare Mortimer:
‘Pace to value’ should be the focus, not ‘pace to delivery’.

Andy Murray:
Take a whole life-cycle view. You can make fast decisions early on that you’ll regret. Think about the project, but then look into operations and even into decommissioning. Like a racing driver, reduce speed going into a corner so you can accelerate quicker out of it.

Image: Jirapong Manustrong/Shutterstock.com

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