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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.


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  1. Richard Renshaw
    Richard Renshaw 19 August 2012, 11:15 PM

    @ James, such I thought a good post. Potentially the candidates I suggest would gain benefit for undertaking a self assessment health check using the APM Competence Framework with respect to depth of knowledge and experience. Building upon Pat's post and using the APM behavioural competence domain with respect to leadership. Such is defined within the APM Competence framework as;Leadership is the ability to establish vision and direction, to influence and align others towards a common purpose, and toempower and inspire people to achieve project success. It enables the project to proceed in an environment of change and uncertainty. Indicators:1. Promotes and upholds the project vision, reinforces positive relationships, builds an environment that supports effective teamwork, raises morale and empowers and inspires others to follow throughout the life cycle of the project.2. Determines what leadership style is appropriate for the particular situation, individual or group and adapts style as appropriate.3. Creates an environment which encourages high performance and enables team members to reach their full potential.4. Gains the trust, confidence and commitment of others and utilises collaboration throughout the life cycle to ensure the continued momentum of the project.5. Builds and maintains the motivation of the team throught the project.6. Agrees S.M.A.R.T. performance objectives for the team and individuals which are regularly reviewed and monitored to provide prompt and constructive feedback.7. Identifies and addresses development needs of the team and self. Hopefully in the future APM shall offer up qualifications for all of the IPMA levels inclusive level A i.e. currently APM stops at level B. Entry level being at level D.Scoring for APM levels (on leadership):Level D: Has the knowledge required and may execute some of the indicators in supporting a project manager and/or project team.Level C: Has successfully executed at least some of the indicators by management of a project with limited complexity.Level B: Has successfully executed most of the indicators by managing a complex project. What may prove helpful are consideration of a number of case studies and testimonials i.e. lessons learnt from others; I would assume that for major Government projects the Cabinet Office shall determine and influence requirements with respect to their priorities. The cabinet office with time shall have ownership of best practice to be followed.  

  2. Patrick Weaver
    Patrick Weaver 02 March 2012, 10:24 AM

    The thing that kills most projects is indecision wrong decisions are usually better then no decision at all.  Many project decisions are dilemmas there is no simple right answer! Others are puzzles where there is simply never enough time to gather all of the information needed to solve them.  The art of making the best decision in a timely way is the core skill of most effective leaders and both projects and programs need effective leadership. The second core skill is recognising when the decision is off target and adjusting accordingly (Ready, Fire, Aim is a good book!) understanding what is being decided and the nature of the decision is a good first step, for more on this see: Unfortunately making courageous decisions without all of the facts is contrary to the training and culture of 99.99% of the public service.