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Rethinking capabilities in projects

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Conversation 01

Fostering the right balance of capabilities is becoming more complicated as we enter a period of pandemic recovery and growth. The recently published paper, Transforming Infrastructure Performance: Roadmap to 2030, from the government outlines a need to balance societal outcomes with new delivery models and capabilities focused on sustainable and balanced growth. So how can we as project professionals do this? It requires approaches that are explored in APM’s latest report Rethinking Capabilities: Lesson for Policy, Scholarship and Practice available to download now.

Motivated by the question ‘Why do some projects perform poorly, while others perform well?’, the team at Project X set out to examine how capabilities are developed to improve project performance.  Project X is an ESRC‑funded research collaboration between government, academia and industry representatives, aiming to generate unique insights into the performance of major projects and programmes in government. 

Three central findings emerge from our Rethinking Capabilities research:

  • In complex projects, plurality, temporality and shifting ground affect project performance.
  • Reflexive learning techniques and engaged scholarship can help to navigate these three facets of project complexity
  • Diverse thought and reflexive learning require an operational culture and core strategic values that embrace collective problem solving and experimentation

This leads to a new capability model that moves to a more proactive and collective form of learning where experience is used to question everyday routines and practices. It introduces the concept of ‘reflexive learning’, which is the thoughtful questioning of habitual action where experience is used to challenge and question assumptions in order to better understand the parameters of decision‑making.

This report recommends refocusing capability development towards a baseline of core values that balance strategic objectives with social, economic and environmental values to achieve  ‘better, faster and greener’ outcomes. For example, it is important to not overlook emerging opportunities for learning during the execution of a project and capture diverse perspective of how to achieve ‘better’ outcomes. Although there is often pressure to deliver projects ‘faster’ it is also important to not crowd-out new ideas or miss blind spots by oversimplifying problems.

A series of case studies focused on examining the key capabilities that underpin project success are illustrated within the Rethinking Capabilities report including the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster, Heathrow Terminal 2 and Hinkley Point C. Download the research here.

The concepts of ‘reflexive learning’ was explored at the Project X Conference – Sustainable Future for Project Delivery on 6 October 2021. The authors and government experts explored how to rethink capabilities and develop a more reflexive approach.


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