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Evolving skillsets are vital to major project success

For infrastructure investors, few things are more central to the business than the ability to deliver predictable returns over the medium and long term. As a result, the owners and operators of infrastructure assets tend to prize reliability, predictability, operational efficiency and cost effective asset management.

Yet this heavy focus on excellent operation of the assets can often come to define the character of an infrastructure company and its staff.

Such specialisation can be a problem if the company decides to embark on a new major programme as its core team may lack the skills needed to create something radically new.

Setting up a major programme is in many ways akin to setting up a new company. It must begin with a vision – and those commissioning it must define right at the start what performance they want it to achieve, and what capabilities will be needed to deliver it.

There are two principle stages in the creation of a major programme. The first is the battle to secure the required investment – in effect the building of the business case.

The second comes after that joyful moment when the board turns round and says “yes”. Funding is approved and the business case needs to morph seamlessly into a large and complex construction programme.

The most successful major programmes adapt their approach to meet the distinct challenges of each stage, bringing expertise in or out as required.

Many of the best pre-investment decision campaigns that I have seen have tended to be led by small, lean and agile teams of technical people.

Often their skillset was very different to that of the existing business, but the unifying factor was that they and the programme leaders all defined early on what needed to be delivered, how much it would cost and how long it would take.

But the minute the green light is received – and approval is given for the programme – the focus needs to shift very quickly to delivery. This needs a different set of skills again, and this stage tends to be led by project specialists who understand the dynamics of a major programme, and how to set it up for success.

It’s essential that this change be made swiftly and smoothly. Time wasted bringing in the “project people” can lead to things falling behind schedule even before work starts in earnest.

But you also need to get it right first time. Once a programme is up and running, it may be impossible to go back and re-shape the organisation and approach.

You need what I call “whole systems” thinking. The smart leader of a major programme builds the right team at the start, but adjusts the skills mix as required during the long road from idea to construction.

In practice this means defining the culture, leadership, skills, capabilities, contract strategy, delivery strategy, performance measurement, management controls and assurance framework – and ensuring that they all work together as the programme progresses.

I have worked on major programmes in all sectors – and while each was complex and challenging in its own way, in all cases successful delivery required the negotiation of a string of hurdles – expected and unexpected.

Experience shows that with the right team and the right planning, the most predictable challenge – that of moving from business plan writing to putting shovels in the ground – is not just foreseeable, but highly manageable.

  • Ashley Prail is director of the Tuner & Townsend major programmes advisory group


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