Delivering Complex Projects

Taking the high-profile politics out of the decision made by the UK government to cancel the HS2 High Speed Rail link between Birmingham and Manchester - it is a fact that as with most complex projects around the globe, HS2 is very late, will cost a lot more than budgeted, and will fail to realise the promised benefits. It is this type of outcome that usually leads to high-profile consequences, be they political, environmental, social, or economic.  

External factors such as inflation and supply chain issues due to the war in Ukraine have played a part, but the 2020 National Audit Office report covering several projects in transport, defence and energy, Lessons Learned from Major Programmes, demonstrates a pre-existing problem across major infrastructure developments, not just high speed rail. Of its eight finding insights, there are four that stand out:

  • Ensure that a programme’s scope aligns clearly with its strategic objectives.
  • Critically examine and be realistic about the schedule.
  • Develop plans to achieve anticipated savings.
  • The importance of transparency and honesty.

These learnings can be put into action by following the advice of  Professor Bent Flyvbjerg in his book How Big Things Get Done; think slow, act fast. 

Think Slow, Act Fast

All too often, the pressure to demonstrate visible progress leads to a behavioural bias for action despite incomplete and untested plans, optimism-bias in estimates, and missed opportunities to evaluate alternative options at the outset of the project that could deliver the same or better outcomes within the necessary envelope of cost and duration. 

But thinking slow must not mean hiring consultants to write lots of reports that do not deal with the fundamentals. The thinking must be focussed on scope alignment with strategy, critical evaluation of options and schedules, identifying where savings can be made, and making evidence-based decisions using transparent criteria.

Once a final option is selected and the plan is agreed, you can then implement the plan at pace. The importance of pace during implementation is paramount since this is when the highest costs are incurred and where there can be a loss of control. Innovations using AI-based planning tools, digital twins, and modular-construction can be game changers for both capital projects and whole-life asset management when used at the right time.

Spades In The Ground

The ubiquitous use of the term ‘spades are in the ground’ at the early stages of a project as a measure of progress through action does not help deliver successful outcomes and is in fact a hinderance. This type of bias for action, with insufficient thinking in advance, is what can prove so costly and create so much delay downstream when it comes to execution.

More confidence of early progress might be given by stating ‘the thinking is underway; and the right spades will be ready at the right time in the right place’.  This would emphasise the importance low-cost mobilisation activities such as design, scenario modelling and option evaluation as essential precursors to the high-cost activities of implementation that ramp up once construction is underway. Changes made at the design and planning stage are low cost in comparison to the large sums of money spent once implementation begins.

This approach requires the programme team to have a clear mandate to act in the best interests of the programme, underpinned by robust governance arrangements that resist external or political pressures that lead to unnecessary change, even if limited, driven by short-termism or the pressure to show early on-site progress. 

The Importance of Experience, Learning, and Innovation

One of the problems with experience is that of association with failure. High-profile failures, cost overruns and delays have a significant impact on careers and people’s lives. The paradox is that the highest quality learning is usually gained through experience as people progress along the ‘learning curve’. 

So when it comes to putting a team together to deliver a complex programme, is it better to start with a new team each time or bring together people with experience, even if that is associated with failure. 

Experience, when informed by learning, has been found to be one of the most important factors when it comes to success. If you can find a team that has delivered a similar project and most importantly can show they have learned, hire them again. And again. And again.

Experience plus learning means that delivery will be faster, costs will be reduced, and benefits will be increased. But this recommendation comes with two conditions. 

  • Learning - complex programmes are made up of lots of individual parts. So the accumulation of experience from people working on each individual part will if allowed lead to an accumulation of learning. However, the retention of learning and its embodiment should be part of the next programme plan. Lessons learned must be embedded via processes and new technology whenever possible, reducing the need for an over-reliance on those with often scarce experience.
  • Innovation – complex programmes will run over many years, and the pace of innovation means that what was envisaged at the outset of a programme could be improved if the opportunity is taken to innovate by turning ideas into sustainable value. Experienced people will naturally not usually have experience of using the very latest innovations in processes and technology – planning and simulation being prime examples. So the same approach of thinking slow before acting fast when innovation opportunities are presented must still apply. The rigour of option evaluation (including the do-nothing option), assessment of changes to plans, and addressing bias in estimates, must not be compromised by a bias for action.

By way of example, AI-based planning tools, digital twins, and modular-construction can be game changers for both capital projects and whole-life asset management. But experience using these tools, and those that are yet to become available will at best be limited, or at worst be wholly absent. 

So not only do teams need to have learned from their experience, and embedded that learning where possible, they must have a capability to continue to learn and manage innovation as programmes are implemented.

So What?

When it comes to complex projects, only once the thinking is done, a final option is selected, and the plan is challenged and agreed, should you then implement the plan at pace. The importance thinking slowly before implementation, then acting at pace during implementation is paramount since this implementation is when the highest costs are incurred, and change is at its most expensive. Poor quality or inadequate thinking is a recipe for failure.

And the importance of experience should not be undervalued just because it may have been associated with past failures and the next project is seen as a new opportunity to press the reset button and start anew.

However, the combination of a learned experience plus a capability to continue to learn and innovate will determine whether you can beat the odds and deliver your project ahead of time, below budget, and with increased benefits.