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Adapting to a changing environment - flexibility in programmes and projects

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Andrew is an experienced project and programme manager with a proven blend of practical and theoretical knowledge of the management of engineering activities across the product development cycle. He draws upon his experience in leading teams in multi-discipline and multi-site environments in order to define and implement processes and controls that enable projects and programmes to deliver results in challenging environments. Andrew has worked for BMT Hi-Q Sigma as a Principal Consultant since 2009 supporting major UK defence acquisition programmes and previously worked for 20 years in the civil aerospace engineering design sector.

The theme for this year’s conference, held on the 13th June, was ‘What now for project management?’ It’s title - Adapt! - reflected on how the profession could adapt its thinking to the growing expectations of society. It consisted of three streams looking at different aspects of how this adaptability could be built-in: flexibility, resilience and evolution. Along with my colleagues on the ProgM SIG, I attended with the aim of learning where the skills and ethos of Programme Management could square up to this challenge. Sharing out the work between us, I took up the Flexibility stream.

The Flexibility stream kicked off with Tim Banfield of the National Audit Office (NAO) discussing success in projects and how this can or has been achieved.




Tim's presentation covered a number of useful aspects, including key elements for initiating successful projects from the NAO Guide to Initiating Successful Projects, ten traits of successful projects and a key focus on up-front recognition of the needs (why?) and anticipated outcomes (how?) Coupled with a review of the findings of various analyses of Norwegian major projects by the Concept Research Programme, Tim provided some good food for thought. I was struck, however, by the consideration that a lot of what he was advocating was extremely familiar to the programme management world, especially the emphasis on engaging stakeholders and the Norwegian focus on first understanding what to achieve and how to do it (a “blueprint” anyone?) before going on to define the details. Thus flexibility in the projects was achieved through well-defined programmes providing a firm framework for the projects to adapt within accordingly.

This ‘fixed programme-flexible project’ theme was also explored in the afternoon by Col. Martin Sturgeon


in his comparison between programme management and the military ‘operational art’ (the means by which commanders use a collection of tactical activities to achieve strategic objectives). This fascinating topic was well covered by Martin and drew on his experience in Afghanistan and other sources to provide a good parallel for programme managers out there as they assimilate and develop the ‘art’ of programme management as well as learning and applying the ‘science.’ Good governance is needed for flexibility – not constraining or controlling, but a clear framework within which projects can manoeuvre and still deliver successfully.

The second morning presentation was delivered by Barbara Chomicka:


of EC Harris drawing on her experiences in setting up the baggage operations at Heathrow during the Olympics.  This enormous time-constrained challenge - particularly the exodus at the end - was successfully delivered even though it was clearly a complex and wicked project (wicked in this sense means something where executing solutions to problems causes new problems). Barbara’s response to the uncertainty and complexity was primarily one of collaboration - an authoritative approach was difficult as the complexity meant that no one person could envisage the whole problem. She described how the human collaboration was central to the project success, drawing upon the ‘wisdom of many’ and giving people their own opportunity to work. She herself went round the team saying ‘what can I do for you today?’ I note that it did help that the team had a keen focus and a shared goal.

The final presentation of the afternoon in the flexibility stream was delivered by Rob Leslie-Carter


of Arup and entitled ‘Embracing creativity design and chaos.’ Rob used a number of examples from past Arup projects, including the Water Cube from the Beijing Olympics, to demonstrate how project - and programme - managers need to use a strong vision to focus a team, especially where room and flexibility is needed to be creative. A message was that creativity should be embraced and used, and is not something that is untidy and ill-disciplined. This ability to be open-minded and engaged with multiple perspectives, decoupling where appropriate, but still maintaining the inter-relationships, is I feel a strong message for programmes dealing with large uncertainties and needing novelty or creative thinking.

The group of four presentations managed to cover a number of different dimensions in achieving flexibility and why it is needed. Many messages would be familiar to those dealing with change and uncertainty in the programme management world (especially as illustrated by Col. Sturgeon) and I certainly came away with new insights and knowledge from the speakers, as well as audience questions. It also served to reinforce personal learning and professional practice for my own ‘day job.’

Following the APM Conference, I will explore new perspectives of how Programme Management can deliver cost-effective transformational change within the challenging constraints of the UK defence sector at the ProgM SIG Annual conference on 26th November. The Defence Strategy for Acquisition (2009) identified, amongst other things, the need to improve programme delivery in defence acquisition. Since that time the MOD has faced a financial crisis, manpower reductions, a Defence Transformation Programme and three Major Project Reports from the NAO. In the Ministry of Defence – Major Projects Report 2012 the NAO states “if it is to make the most of the money available, the Department has more to do to address its longstanding issues on project performance." By incorporating learning from the Flexibility work-stream and the defence sector with other ingredients (such as case studies from the public sector) and blending them using a series of cross-cutting themes, we are confident that we will be delivering on our own ProgM mission, namely; ‘To provide a forum for effective learning and development, that promotes the science, discipline, tools and techniques of programme management.’


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