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Rethinking capabilities: lessons for policy, scholarship and practiceRethinking capabilities: lessons for policy, scholarship and practice

About the research and why is it important?

Traditionally, major projects perform poorly, with the majority experiencing cost overruns, delays and shortfalls in intended benefits. However, in recent years, the UK has also witnessed several high‑performing projects, such as Heathrow Terminal 5 and the 2012 London Olympics. Why do some projects perform poorly, while others perform well?

Motivated by this question, Project X set out to examine how capabilities are developed to improve project performance. A suite of cases was developed investigating leadership capabilities, front-end strategic capabilities, supply chain engagement and the dynamics of collaborative delivery. These cases also consider knowledge transfer and learning, the challenge of sustaining gender equality and control capabilities to mitigate failure and learn from emergent risks.

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Intended audience

The study should be of interest to project professionals in both the public and private sector, policy makers, academics and anyone with an interest in the governance of major projects.

What did we discover?

Three central findings emerged from this investigation:

  • In complex projects, plurality, temporality and shifting ground affect project performance.
  • Rather than simplifying capability development into a standardised set of competencies, multiple lenses, reflexive learning techniques and engaged scholarship can help to navigate these three facets of project complexity.
  • Diverse thought and reflexive practice [questioning assumptions and habitual action to better understand the parameters of decision‑making in a complex setting] require an operational culture and core strategic values that embrace reflexive thinking, collective problem‑solving and experimentation.

This report proposes a new capability model that moves to a more proactive and collective form of learning where experience is used to question everyday routines and practices. It introduces the concept of ‘reflexive learning’ as the thoughtful questioning of habitual action where experience is used to challenge and question assumptions.

This type of learning requires an organisational culture that makes space for collective deliberation and inquiry. It recommends refocusing capability development towards a baseline of core values that balance strategic objectives with social, economic and environmental values to achieve ‘better, faster and greener’ outcomes.


APM and the authors would like to acknowledge the support of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA), along with colleagues within the Project X research initiative. They are also grateful for the important contributions of the participating organisations, individuals and access to data to enable this research to take place. For more information on Project X, please visit