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Acorn’s Top Tips for Successful Projects

Acorn have worked in project-related businesses for over 18 years, gathering cross-sector knowledge from nuclear to construction and infrastructure. Supplementing our knowledge with research, we have summarised the key issues occurring within major projects, offering possible solutions.

1. Creating Clarity and Commonality of Purpose

Situation:
A project team can lose, or fail to establish, its common identity and unified focus of action. Consequently, people work to their own company agenda or narrow technical focus; particularly damaging in long duration, complex projects made up of alliances or consortia.

Solution:
It is critical to establish a clear unifying project vision. Investing time with key stakeholders to determine commonality of purpose, expectation and clearly defined goals which can then be articulated to all groups, revisited and reviewed to 'refresh' engagement at key stages of the project and in particular as new staff join.

The project goal should never be overtaken by the drivers of a single parent company – which must be demonstrated by senior managers, supported by stakeholders, acting for the benefit of the project.

2. Realism in Planning and Projection

Situation:
Over-optimistic or simplistic planning (which can be driven by stakeholder pressure) at the outset of a project can create an impression of a failing project when reality does not match the plan. Similarly, when unanticipated difficulties arise, there can be a tendency to attempt to ‘limit’ the impact on the plan even if this is unlikely to be minimal in reality. This can lead to heightened anxiety, scrutiny and unhelpful interference from stakeholders.

Solution:
These situations are best prevented by creating honest relationships and an open, challenging culture - avoiding groupthink and wishful thinking becoming ‘official’. Planners need to bear in mind that the first time a task is carried out it will take longer, but that a learning process needs to occur to promote a slicker delivery at later repetitions of that task.

3. Pro-actively Transfer Key Information Between Project Stages

Situation:
Information of key areas of importance eg stakeholder requirements are frequently lost at key transitions eg. Bidding, concept, design, procurement, commissioning. Very often technical specification is transferred yet seldom do the essential spirit and features of the project that will make it a success in the eyes of the client get transferred – failure to achieve this is costly in terms of reputation and potentially financially.

Solution:
Success in this area requires project leadership; maintaining an overview of the project vision and purpose (avoiding a blinkered technical focus), active management of the client relationship (continuous testing that the project meets expectations). A key tool is to pro-actively plan communication and engagement activity between project phases.

4. Avoid Stop-Start!

Situation:
Project complexity, client demands or even political influences can all lead to a situation where some parts of the project get under way before other parts are finalised or can be delivered. This can lead to the need for changes with costly impact upon budget and schedule as the detailed requirements of other components are realised. Sometimes project activity just grinds to a halt. These nightmare scenarios also take a heavy toll on the morale and commitment of project personnel.

Solution:
While some of this may be inevitable or beyond the control of the immediate project leadership, the negative impacts can all be minimised by investing in developing the right culture, quality relationships and early contractor involvement to get the best possible conditions for project start. Stakeholder and steering group effectiveness, coupled with consistency and clarity of vision, are key to minimising the negative impact.

5. Leaders who are Fully ‘Rounded’

Situation:
Project leaders need to be capable of leading/influencing a variety of ‘audiences’ and must be capable of ‘adaptation’; stakeholders wanting clarity of project performance against cost schedule will not be impressed by qualitative reporting, whilst a project team losing it’s way and uncertain of its focus will not be helped by a rigorous focus on past financial performance.

Solution:
Key to the success of complex projects is the selection of leaders who have the capability to lead/influence key groups; to create and inspire a team around them to take responsibility for the project and the critical relationships, and to proactively manage key stakeholders.

6. Pragmatic Roles and Responsibilities

Situation:
Some project set-ups simply ‘cut and paste’ generic RRAA (roles, responsibilities, authorities and accountabilities); not taking account of the interdependencies of the project results in silo thinking and weakened delivery, which gets worse if unchallenged by leadership.

Solution:
While there will always be a need for clear RRAA, it can never be as simple as a box-ticking exercise; project leaders must go that step further - defining expectations of each other and recognising the interdependencies in the project, which change at key points within the project. No discussion of RRAAs is complete without also defining the behavioural expectation for shared ownership for; project goals, collaboration and coordination between functions/areas - not just what to do but how people will work together to achieve it.

7. Contractor Education

Situation:
Complex projects are typically delivered by alliances and contracting tiers with differing levels of experience of the task, client and sector requirements. A lower-level contractor, for example, does share in the financial risk should things go wrong, however any issues that occur will have greatest impact on the main contractor: reputational/brand damage, adverse effects on client confidence and relationship and risk to winning future business.

Solution:
Whilst contractors take on the risks associated with taking on the project, new contractors are seldom fully aware of the key differences that need to be managed. The main contractor needs to assist the other contractors by transferring their learning, assisting them to get up to speed in order that they can suitably perform.

8. Culture of Joint Accountability and Ownership

Situation:
Delivery of highly complex projects seldom runs perfectly. Irrespective of the project’s carefully crafted contracts and investment in thorough planning, challenges will always occur. These could create problems for the project as recrimination and finger-pointing can set in, further delaying resolution of the issues.

Solution:
Ideally, participants in the project will have been selected, not just on grounds of technical competence, but on behavioural capability to manage such situations. Even when things are going well, project leadership should build on this to foster a culture of joint ownership. In the event of problems, this culture can be driven by the selection and set-up of multi-party problem-solving groups to resolve issues.

9. Co-located Team

Situation:
Dispersed and virtual teams are at far greater risk of silo-working, impaired unity and cohesion, and poor conflict resolution. Development of relationships, communication and a unifying project identity are far more problematic when a team is not co-located.

Solution:
Co-location is not an end in itself. It is a means to achieving a team where parent company origin is blurred or indistinguishable, and people’s greatest loyalty is to the project. Co-location facilitates the other initiatives necessary to support unity, collaboration and the necessary sharing of information for the team to be effective.

10. Agreeing Project-Wide Standards

Situation:
Being wedded to parent company systems and procedures creates unnecessary difficulty and complexity in obtaining and managing information. It can also create divisive scenarios and injustices for staff with different terms and conditions. The challenge of establishing a project culture and collaborative behaviour is made even harder through use of a range of different appraisal processes, for example.

Solution:
Open and honest conversations need to occur early on to identify the most appropriate systems and procedures required to meet the needs of the client and the challenges of the project. Ideally, parent company systems and procedures should adapt to support project performance rather than vice versa.

11. Identifying and Managing Key Points

Situation:
Failure of all parties involved in project delivery to be aware of potential issues can adversely impact a critical delivery pathway.

Solution:
Planning should identify the key risk points to the overall pathway, highlighting the interdependencies and critical coordination points. These points should be widely communicated and understood. Ownership of the risks should be shared and resource allocated from the project to help mange them.

12. Stakeholder Management

Situation:
Complex projects inevitably have a large number of 'stakeholders' with an interest in the delivery and end-use of the project. Devoting energy to keeping an arms-length relationship will erode trust and control of the project as stakeholders feel driven to intervene to protect their interests.

Solution:
Managed differently, stakeholders can become a support to project performance through their high-level influence and positive requirement for project accountability. An open culture of proactive engagement and communication is key to ensuring the desired relationship, ensuring that stakeholders work in alignment to the project rather than against it.

Article References:

Managing Large Infrastructure Projects in Europe” Research on Best Practices and Lessons Learnt in Large Infrastructure Projects in Europe (Hertogh, Baker, Staal-Ong & Westerveld 2008). A download of this book is available online at http://www.netlipse.eu/media/18750/NETLIPSE book.pdf

Nuclear Lessons Learned” Nuclear Power Station Construction Lessons Learned Relevant to New Nuclear Build in the UK. (The Royal Academy of Engineering 2010). A download of this report is available online at http://www.raeng.org.uk/nll

Learning Legacy” Lessons learned from the London 2012 Games construction project. (Jo Carris (MustRD), Dan Epstein (Useful Simple Projects), Jane Thornback (Construction Products Association), Simon Storer (Construction Products Association), Peter Bonfield (BRE) 2012). Available online at http://www.constructionproducts.org.uk/textonly/publications/industry-affairs/display/view/olympics-legacy-at-ecobuild-2/