Will new leaders learn to say no?

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News that the government is spending 6.2m to set up a leadership academy for senior project leaders is a largely positive step.

The academy run in partnership with Oxfords Said Business School will focus on developing experienced and courageous project leaders or Senior Responsible Officers to take charge of major government projects, thought to be worth in the region of 408bn.

The aim is to develop a cadre of world-class major project leaders within the Civil Service to direct major government projects of high complexity and cost, such as the Olympics and High Speed Two (HS2).

This new breed of leader will better understand the technicalities of project management and learn how to better manage teams and contracts.

The hope is that this in turn will boost in-house capability and lift the current success rate for major projects from around 45 per cent to 80 per cent and beyond over the next five years.

But questions remain. Will they have the power, courage even, to challenge policy decisions and kick back against ministers pet projects?

Would the leaders learn the art of saying no? I asked the head of the Major Projects Authority, David Pitchford.

His response was typically forthright and honest. There will always be political machinations, he said, but with the right measures in place we can at least test the feasibility of each policy decision.

All too often major projects come unstuck not because of the complexity of the task but changes to the scope halfway through.

In the next issue of Project magazine Geoff Searle, programme director of the Aircraft Carrier Alliance (ACA), talks candidly about his frustrations over changes to the design of the navys flagship carriers HMS Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales.

He says: Its not because the programmes running late that the original timescale has moved its because the government requested changes to the requirements.
Before adding its a bit of a political football to be honest.

The hope is that the newly equipped project leaders will avoid such kick-abouts and insist on five key tests before the project starts.

The tests or starting gate for each project will focus on five key elements: the robustness of the business case and budget to deliver it, integrated assurance and approvals plans, effective risk management and importantly, if the project team chosen by the relevant department is capable of delivering those four elements.

Its a much more rounded approach, said Mr Pitchford. Thats why we want to train people whove got the leadership skills to understand what the best practices are.

We will get better and better at that and hopefully get to a day when, under normal circumstances, this process will be rolled out before the big projects are.


Posted by James Simons on 2nd Mar 2012

About the Author

James Simons is publishing manager at APM. He has previously edited APM’s Project magazine for 3+ years and has a background in trade journalism. He has worked in communications and managed both print and digital publications.

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