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Understanding project performance is key to driving economic, environmental and social value

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Like all major global economies, the UK has felt the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, the country’s GDP declined by 9.8 per cent. Along with COVID-19, Brexit has posed another threat to the economy, with reports suggesting that manufacturing output is being severely impacted. This combined impact of Brexit and COVID, if managed poorly, is expected to cause a £700bn loss to the UK economy.

At the same time, a climate emergency has been declared, requiring immediate action. The UK government’s Build Back Better, Levelling Up and Net Zero agendas respond to these challenges through investment in infrastructure, driving economic growth, prosperity of local communities and decarbonisation.

Projects are the engine through which these ambitions are delivered

The National Infrastructure Strategy points out that the government’s ambitions require the construction and infrastructure industry to think about project performance in terms that are beyond the iron triangle of cost, quality and time.

This is not to say that these traditional performance measures are no longer important, but rather that projects will also have to produce better, faster and greener outcomes.

To deliver infrastructure that not only drives economic recovery, but is also fair and sustainable, it is important to understand why some projects perform poorly, while others perform well.

Our recently published research, Rethinking Capabilities: Lessons for policy, scholarship and practice, published by APM, suggests that good performance requires a shift from focusing on capabilities to optimise delivery to a more value-based approach. This value-based approach is developed through the adoption of a reflexive practice mindset – actively questioning existing assumptions based on past and present experiences and envisioning alternative futures.

Reflexive practice requires embracing the complexity inherent in major projects

Complexity on major projects cannot be fully removed. Our research points to three key facets of complexity:

  • Plurality: diversity of stakeholders means that there are likely to be different expectations about project outcomes and unanticipated user responses, as well as a need to navigate complex contracts.
  • Temporality: major projects typically encounter pressures associated with publicly visible deadlines, and tensions in preserving the past while breaking away from habits that can give rise to inertia in responding to emerging opportunities and challenges.
  • Shifting ground: there are likely to be changes in the environment, including a change in the political landscape, and emerging technologies or issues.

These facets of complexity present important challenges in delivering fairer, faster and greener outcomes. For example:

  • what is ‘better’ for one stakeholder may not be for another;
  • delivering outcomes faster may result in privileging short-term outcomes; and
  • often, trade-offs must be made between creating environmental, economic and social outcomes.

A core task of reflexive practice is to surface and carefully consider these challenges

Our value-driven capability model is based on the idea that this proactive form of learning cannot be developed solely through individuals learning from past experiences. It requires structures and routines for collective inquiry. In this respect, organisational culture is very important. For example, a siloed and rigid organisational culture that leaves little room for collective deliberation and experimentation would constrain reflexive practices.

In contrast, a collaborative and adaptive organisational culture would empower reflexive thinking in terms of being open to a shift in behaviours, routines and structures within and across projects.

It is also important to note that an engaged scholarship approach has an important role to play. Engaged scholarship refers to a proactive process of learning in which academics and practitioners work together to critically review taken-for-granted assumptions in the delivery of projects and the broader organisational culture and define a pragmatic way forward.

This approach produces a deeper understanding of ‘what works’ because the researcher is not immersed in practice and brings in cutting-edge knowledge from academic research.

This is a new approach to policymaking, scholarship and practice

Scholars and practitioners need to bring together their expertise during the design and delivery of complex projects to develop stronger policy interventions and novel solutions. This requires policymakers and organisations to encourage relationships with scholars from multiple disciplines (eg management, economics, engineering) and open their systems to scholarly analyses and discussions.

There is also a need for universities to encourage engaged scholarship through appropriate alignment of incentives, investment in training of doctoral and postdoctoral researchers in engaged scholarship, and ‘opening up’ their teaching and research curricula to critique from practitioners. This would also help in addressing the skills gap in the industry by the introduction of the contemporary challenges faced by the practitioners in the academic curricula.

It is important to note that engaged scholarship is time-consuming and resource intensive. Nevertheless, societal grand challenges such as the recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and climate emergency justify this extra effort.   

Read the paper Rethinking Capabilities: Lessons for policy, scholarship and practice, by Dr Dicle Kortantamer, Dr Jas Kalra and Dr Rebecca Vine, here.

This blog was co-written by Dr Dicle Kortantamer and Dr Jas Kalra MCIPS 

Dr Jas Kalra MCIPS is an assistant professor in supply chain management at Newcastle University Business School. His research, teaching and consulting work broadly focuses on the issue of the procurement and management of complex performance. He is specifically interested in how the interactions and relationships between individuals and organisations influence the performance of complex, inter-organisational operations and projects.


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