Major Projects Need Leaders not Managers

Ready for the Major Projects Association annual dinner (photo: James Kemp)

I was at the Major Projects Association AGM and annual dinner on Monday evening. It was an interesting event and I met several people that gave me different perspectives on running major projects successfully. There was a bit of a thread amongst those I talked to, and that was brought out by the after dinner speaker, Ed Merrow.

Independent Project Analysis

Ed Merrow is a founder of Independent Project Analysis. His company has spent three decades analysing over twenty thousand projects, mainly of the industrial sort. As well as looking at projects they’ve also looked at hundreds of project managers.

The key finding was that up to a point projects run well, over 80% succeed and are often under budget or early. Beyond that point success rates are about a third, and overruns are of legendary proportions. They also analysed the projects to see if there were reasons why they failed. The answer was straightforward, people didn’t follow the processes we know work when delivering projects. There was nothing inherently different from a technical delivery perspective between projects that succeeded and projects that failed.

The need for Project Leadership

Merrow followed up his study by asking the question ‘Why don’t people do what they know works?’ Project Leadership was the answer.

The transition point was about a billion US dollars for the projects Merrow had looked at. However he acknowledged that some key factors were stakeholder interest, external dependencies and social benefits. I recognise a lot of that in the public sector projects I’ve been involved in. The bigger, more controversial, projects need a lot more Project Leadership than the smaller ones, and the role of the senior team is different. This is really only something you learn from direct experience of being involved in a major change project. A dozen small projects can’t prepare you for it.

Merrow’s analysis of the project directors of the major projects showed a marked difference in the psychological make up between the successful and unsuccessful project directors. The unsuccessful ones all had track records with smaller projects, and were indistinguishable from the project manager population.

What makes a successful major project leader?

The successful project leaders were all way more open, collaborative and focused on people. They correctly recognised their role as of top cover, keeping the politics and other distractions away from those delivering the project. They were proper leaders, who went out to find followers and build support for the major project. They often chose their own team based on the needs of the project and making sure they had all the right technical skills.

So what?

It’s an interesting study, but what can we do with it? Does it even translate across sectors?

My own experience in public sector projects, which have included a few in the major projects scale, suggest that this is true for what we do in central government.

I think that there are a few things that we can do, and are doing.

  • The Project Leadership Programme is trying to ensure that there are many people in government that understand this. The Major Projects Leadership Academy is mandatory for senior civil servants leading projects on the Government Major Projects Portfolio.
  • We can manage portfolios and programmes to break projects into smaller more manageable pieces at a scale that keeps them below the tipping point.
  • On larger or more controversial projects we can deliberately create a project leadership team that acknowledges an outward and upward facing project director and an inward facing project manager.
  • The Project Director role needs a different skillset than Project Manager, which is partially acknowledged in the civil service Project Delivery Capability Framework.

There are probably more things we can do, if you can think of any please share via the comments.

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