The latest annual report from the Major Projects Authority (MPA) explains how UK government projects are showing a steady increase in successful delivery. Tony Meggs Interim CEO, Major Projects Authority, puts this down to three things.
1. Transparency Matters
“Problems cannot be confronted unless they are fully acknowledged,” he says in the report. Part of the role of the MPA is to provide independent assurance to all government departments. That gives project leaders an objective and high quality assessment of the issues and challenges facing the project – something that you can’t always get if you are working in the detail.
This review is not optional, and the outcome is made public. A summary of what was found (which they call the delivery confidence assessment) is published annually for each project.
Apply it to your projects: Ask a colleague to review your project. Someone in the Project Management Office with a good grasp of best practice would be ideal, especially if they also carry out peer reviews or informal audits on other projects too.
You don’t have to publicly share the outcome of your review but if the PMO is prepared to carry out assessments across all the projects you would have some interesting high level data to share between the teams: learning from your peers is one of the easiest ways to drastically improve the performance of a whole division.
2. Improve Project Delivery Skills
“Leadership is the key factor in delivering successful projects,” continues Meggs. “Simply put, great project leaders deliver great projects.”
The UK government has been relentless at driving up standards of project leadership and the skills required to deliver. They are keen, and continue to be keen, to build capability at all levels, including the most senior. This is really good news – hopefully this form of sponsor training will filter down to private sector major projects and other smaller public sector projects as an engaged and useful sponsor is a well-known driver for project success.
It feels to me as this is where the government has made the most progress. The Major Projects Leadership Academy was set up three years ago and is run from the Saïd Business School in the University of Oxford. It offers intensive training and by the end of last year over 120 project leaders had completed the programme and graduated. There are another 200 or so going through it at the moment.
Most importantly, they keep the curriculum up-to-date. Everything moves on – a bit more slowly in project management than we see in other areas of business – but change is inevitable. Last year the course was reviewed to cover what project leaders need to know about the digital aspects of project delivery. I’d love to know more about that module!
In addition to that training programme there are a couple of other career development strands that the MPA is championing:
First, they are bringing together the wide and diverse group of civil servants who work in project delivery under a single ‘project delivery profession’. In other words, there is a defined career path for these people. That has to help with retention and personal career recognition, plus it is great for internal networking.
Second, they are dealing with the talent gap by investing in home-grown talent. They are launching a fast track for project delivery experts this year and are going to start taking project delivery apprentices next year.
Third, they are rolling out training to people at the next level down. The Saïd Business School programme sounds fantastic, but it’s only for the people at the very top. If you want leadership to be truly effective, it has to cascade down the organisation and become embedded in the culture. The MPA are leading that too through the Project Leadership Programme. This is for people who don’t lead the major government projects but are still working on significant (and expensive) public sector projects. It’s another way of providing a talent pipeline: if you invest in the next generation of major project leaders then they are there for you when your top cadre of people move on or retire.
Apply it to your projects: Build project delivery capability by investing in your people at all levels. If you can offer leadership training across the board, do so. I would say that for many businesses the most important group in your talent pool are the ‘leaders-in-waiting’. The top leaders have got there through doing a reasonable-to-excellent job, but the next level down, the leaders in the wings, are the ones to invest in. That will encourage them to stay and also give them the skills they need to step up.
3. Make People Accountable
Finally, the MPA have worked hard to clarify the roles of the people doing the delivery. These people are clearly accountable for the work. “We have made considerable progress in the last year with respect to accountability,” says Meggs. “Senior Responsible Owners for all of our major projects have been identified.” (That does beg the question: who was responsible for these projects last year?)
Each SRO has received a letter outlining their responsibilities and their accountability to Parliament, and these are published online (see a list here). There is a high level of personal, public accountability which has “certainly focused the minds,” according to Meggs.
Apply it to your projects: Take your project roles and responsibilities document further by including more detail and making it crystal clear about what the individuals are accountable for. Copy the MPA and link project delivery into the personal objectives for each person in the team. This only works if you are able to call out people who aren’t pulling their weight. Read about how to get people to take responsibility at work if you are having difficulty seeing how this could be implemented in your project team.