James Dowle, Global Head of Rail at PA Consulting, looks at the future for programme delivery

Major programmes have hit the headlines over the last few years for being significantly over budget and behind schedule. This is nothing new; major programmes have often performed poorly. The transport sector is tormented with examples, such as the Channel Tunnel and Jubilee Line extension in the UK or the Shinkansen Joetsu high-speed rail line in Japan. However, the issues facing programmes such as Crossrail and HS2 are thrown into sharp relief by our current societal and economic challenges. If this is nothing new, and there is a trend of poor performance in our major undertakings, then what can we learn from this and how do we stop it from happening again, and ultimately reverse the trend of failure?

A legacy of poor performance

Bent Flyvbjerg, BT Professor and founding Chair of Major Programme Management at Oxford University, is one of the world’s leading authorities on major programmes and his analysis shows that ninety per cent of major programmes are over budget, and this has been consistent for the last 70 years. The underlying cause of this poor performance is still being debated, with views ranging from strategic misrepresentation, to secure programme approval and optimism bias, to unforeseen conditions and the effects of the dreaded ‘rework cycle’. One thing is certain, regardless of the cause: programme performance hasn’t changed in decades, and this highlights that we are failing to learn the lessons from our poor performance as an industry and profession.

The changing nature of programmes

The cry of every project professional has, in my experience, always been that of ‘my project is unique because …’ or the closely aligned ‘that wouldn’t work here because…’, to, the final ‘this is more complex because…’.

These attitudes, whilst prevalent, are incredibly dangerous for the performance of any programme because they immediately put up barriers against learning from the experience of other people and projects. While it is often true that every project or programme has elements that make it different, there are always commonalities, and it is these we need to focus and learn from.

The dichotomy to this ‘lack of uniqueness’ is that the nature of programmes is changing around us. We are currently experiencing a generational shift in technology as the data revolution continues to gather momentum. The consequence of this is that major infrastructure programmes are now major technology programmes which also contain infrastructure. A case in point is the Crossrail programme, which is currently behind schedule and over budget, caused, at least in part, by ‘the poor integration of complex IT and operational Systems’, according to the findings of the House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts.

It is undeniable that when you combine the rapidly changing nature of technology, the increasingly frenetic pace of delivery and the wider socio-political impacts that now face programmes, these undertakings are becoming ever more complex. That there is no obvious end to this rate of change and increasing complexity has led some to refer to it as the complexity crisis. This means that we need to change our approach if we are to buck the trend of poor performance and enable us to go further and faster in our endeavours.

Lessons to seize the opportunity

The first step to seizing this opportunity and learning from our mistakes is to accept that the world has changed and that we must change too. Infrastructure programme delivery has a reputation for being an old-fashioned endeavour, and in many cases, this reputation is unfortunately deserved. We need to accept that our programmes are now digital in nature and we must embrace the new thinking and tools that have emerged from other sectors where complex digital programmes are prevalent.

The second step is to acknowledge that the increasingly complex nature of these projects requires a diverse range of solutions. Complexity is subjective, and there is, no ‘one size fits all’ approach. This highlights the need for the industry to embrace diverse views and teams with different skills and experiences. By doing this, we can unlock new opportunities in the way we deliver these projects and modernise our approach to programme delivery, and ultimately, deliver value faster.

Finding opportunity in complexity

Major programmes are by their very nature complex, and this is often cited as a reason for project failure, yet rarely is it objectively articulated and managed. We need to recognise this complexity and manage the risk it presents as we would any other major programme element. We think nothing of formalising stakeholder or resource management but tend not to think of complexity management in the same way.

A central element to this is the concept of uncertainty, both the truly unknown and the rapidly changing pieces of a programme and its environment. There are numerous studies on the management of complexity in projects and one central premise in a few them is the ability to make rapid decisions as more information becomes available, thereby minimising the impact of uncertainty.

One of the most obvious examples of this thinking is that of the Agile approach, which is either, depending on your position, heralded as the saviour of programmes or debunked as new age fallacy. I believe both arguments can have merit but rather than enter that debate. I want to focus on what we can learn if we dissect the methodology and apply its core elements to infrastructure.

I don’t suggest that the Agile approach is a panacea for programme delivery, but it does provide some valuable techniques which we can learn from: tools for rapid decision making, enhanced communication methods and the user-centric approach to requirements to name a few. Undoubtedly traditional project professionals will start to cry ‘it wouldn’t work here because…’. There are numerous real-world examples where PA Consulting have deployed Agile PMOs and Portfolio Management with great success, resulting in average cost savings of 61 per cent and programme savings of 24 per cent.

An example of this approach can be seen in the work PA is doing with parts of Network Rail, where we are embedding a framework centred on agility. Guided by clear strategic objectives, cross-functional teams are empowered to make decisions in short ‘sprints’, enabling the people with the right skills, to make the right decisions, at the right time. This approach allows teams to respond more quickly to changing situations, pivoting focus where required to still drive business value.

The historical performance of programmes has been poor and has been recognised as such. For several reasons, the challenges facing major programmes are increasing, and we need to do something different if we are to change this paradigm. By learning from other industries and digital programmes, and applying agile principles, we can provide ourselves with a foundation to deliver future programmes. More importantly, this needs to be centred around diversity in our approach, skills and experiences to unlock ingenuity and deliver value faster.

Let’s learn our lessons and do things differently. It’s the only way to seize a positive future for major programmes.

James Dowle is Global Head of Rail at PA Consulting