| Major programmes and grand challenges
Social benefits of projects
The power of projects is in their ability to drive change that improves people’s lives. But the profession itself must face challenges and seize opportunities to meet society’s needs.
The conversation opened with a point about global expenditure, which underpins the importance of effective delivery that drives positive change. The most recent data from the International Monetary Fund shows that government expenditure accounts for an average of 31.5% of GDP among all nations2.
Harvey Maylor elaborated: “Grand challenges is about how the world could change if it decides to do so. If you’re going to achieve change, you have to actually be able to deliver.”
Harvey added that only 0.5% of projects achieve their desired change.
“That means one of two things,” he explained:
- “As a profession, we’re not actually very good at delivering.
- “Or, if you look at the other side of this, there is an argument that the measures aren’t correct and the iron triangle condemns us to fail because we do see great delivery with some projects.
“As project leaders, we need to look at what we’re working on and ask ourselves, ‘what good could it do?’ It’s not enough to ask, ‘is it in the business case?’”
The issue of projects as drivers of social benefits is explored in APM’s Future Lives and Landscapes campaign, which looks at the opportunities and challenges for our profession when it comes to delivering the projects, programmes and portfolios that will improve people’s lives. A challenge was issued to attendees at the Fellows’ Forum to do more to incorporate social benefit into projects they’re involved with.
Jaspal Kaur-Griffin shared her views, stating: “Does that triangle have to be made of iron? Can we use a more malleable material?
“Is it worth sacrificing quality just to be able to deliver on time? And why must we define all the benefits we want to achieve right at the start?
Harvey Maylor shared his views, commenting: “We have to do better. But how do we build better into major projects? First of all, your performance shouldn’t be measured on how close you are to your plan. It’s only recently that we’re seeing people talk about benefits realisation. And almost no one is talking about legacy.
“If you look at our host city, Oxford, it’s a wonderful place to contemplate legacy. Most people who founded the city’s colleges didn’t see them completed. That needs to be our thinking. What will be our legacy?
“Secondly, we must accept there is no such thing as the perfect, no-harm programme. If we do anything, we will have challenges. We must therefore determine to whom are we going to do bad, as well as to whom we’re going to do good. Someone’s new road is someone else’s divided community. Someone’s new railway is someone else’s destroyed nature reserve.”
Questions and challenges from the audience
During the discussion, an audience member posed this question:
- “For major programmes that may span decades, there can be tension between the iron triangle and long-term benefits; especially when there’s organisational pressure to quantify what those long-term benefits will look like. Are long-term benefits realistic?
Responding to these points, Jaspal Kaur-Griffin said: “We must start thinking about social benefits. What are the equality, diversity and inclusion benefits of a project, for example? Trying to work that into a business case is a challenge. But ultimately, if we can do that, it will get us to a place where all stakeholders know what we’re trying to achieve and there is shared consensus.”
Akshay Mangla added: “With business cases, there’s a tendency to focus on measures that will be meaningful to leaders but less meaningful to the people who are actually tasked with delivering the project and enabling the proposed benefits. I don’t want to disparage business cases because there is value in having them. But one has to be careful about how actors are incentivised.
Climate change and net zero
The climate crisis raises important considerations for the project profession. Whereas projects historically aimed to build better, thought must now be given to how to build ‘greener’.
In light of the large carbon footprints often produced by major projects and programmes, the panel discussed renewable energy, carbon caps and other proposed means of reducing climate impact.
On climate caps, Harvey Maylor said: “They can become counterproductive. Wherever you have complex systems, when you put in place a barrier, someone will work around it in a way that’s to the detriment of the intended goal.
“I would like to see a much bigger system of cooperation and coordination between countries. We need a far more systemic view of how the work we’re doing fits into the bigger system of global benefit. There’s no point in just having random acts of legislation.”
On renewables, the panel discussed the need to clarify the direct impact of climate change on people delivering projects to catalyse a change in mindset across teams that will ultimately drive a greater appetite for the use of renewables.
Jaspal Kaur-Griffin said: “Glaciers are melting and coral reefs are dying, but there’s a sense that it doesn’t affect many of us on a project delivery basis. “Until the world runs out of coal, we’re not going to start talking seriously about renewables.
“It’s important to stop working in silos. As project professionals, we’re in a perfect position to bring together the technology team, finance team and others to drive the conversations that need to be had.”
Equality, diversity and inclusion
APM research has identified diversity as a fundamental condition for project success. Equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) creates an empowered workforce that is able to take advantage of different ways of thinking.
The discussion also gave rise to the point that EDI is worthwhile for its own sake, as Akshay Mangla explained: “Diversity is a good thing in and of itself, so we need to avoid falling into that trap of having to justify EDI from a business perspective.
“Senior leaders need to absolutely commit to inclusion. Change can’t happen without senior leadership, but in terms of day-to-day processes, that requires support at different levels. Establishing trust is really important.”
Expanding on the role of leadership on EDI issues, Jaspal Kaur-Griffin said: “Senior leaders at the top need to be the drivers of change. Leaders have realised that they need to have diverse ways of thinking around them, as well as all the other types of diversity.
“EDI can be quite scary as a topic. We need to have a safe space where we can talk about it openly and not worry about being judged. It isn’t just about creating safe spaces, but that is a starting point.”
- Consider how a project’s success will be measured. In particular, try to incorporate benefits realisation as a measure of success. This should include short-term benefits if applicable, but also a long-term legacy.
- Incorporate social benefits (impact on wellbeing, social equality or living standards) into the business case for a project or programme.
- For benefits that are difficult to quantify, include indicators or means of demonstrating that the processes are in place that will deliver and recognise these benefits over time.
- Project teams have a strategically important position within organisations when it comes to driving change. This can be leveraged by bringing other teams together to define problems and mutual goals jointly.
- Any processes that support change must be driven from the top, with commitment from senior leaders. But everyone involved must understand their role in the process. Leaders must ‘walk the talk’ by demonstrating the change they’re calling for. This will build trust throughout the organisation.
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