“Scrap white elephant projects” Liz Truss the Chief Secretary to the Treasury stated to the press in January this year. She is leading on a controversial review of government spending which happens to include major infrastructure projects.
The term white elephant is used to describe something overly expensive, difficult to maintain and overall wasteful. What makes this subject so critical for the UK is the size of these projects. Over the next ten years, it is forecast that there will be over £600bn of public and private investment in UK infrastructure2.
The Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) has recently conducted a review of the confidence of such investments delivering benefits 3. Of the 133 major projects assessed, 35 (that is 26%) have a rating of major doubt of delivery, with urgent actions required and cost overruns. 26% is high, but what is more worrying in our view – and overlooked in the report – is that it concludes 75% of all infrastructure projects require management attention. We believe tackling this challenge requires courage. Specifically it needs the courage to learn and change personally, to be transparent with stakeholders and to confront issues.
Courage starts at the top
Leaders of infrastructure projects are typically experts in their field having amassed many years of relevant experience. There is no debating that, but there is a paradox to overcome in that being an expert also requires leaders to be open to develop, learn new ways of working and gain new experiences. This can mean appearing to sacrifice some form of creditability in order to become better.
One leader could not possibly have all the answers. Allowing yourself to show vulnerability is likely to be uncomfortable for many, but in essence it is a powerful display of courage. Displaying courage at leadership level promotes a culture where project teams across all levels of the organisation are free to speak up, have frank conversations and confront the challenges they are facing. So, what does this mean in practice? Using management reports as an example, this could be the difference between a dashboard that communicates true performance as opposed to one that pays lip service.
Be transparent with your stakeholders
Large infrastructure programmes are complex in nature, typically with numerous stakeholders. Despite the politicians’ desire to have simple answers, the reality is that Infrastructure Programmes are multifaceted through the vast scale technology challenges and major impacts that they have on society.
Stakeholder management is fraught with challenges but to build trusted relationships, project teams need to be transparent with their key stakeholders. This takes courage, particularly when the stakeholder response to this approach is unpredictable. In our experience, transparency builds trust. Where there is trust, decisions are made faster, with less resistance and with less need to respond to ad-hoc and time-consuming requests, and challenges from stakeholders that distract project teams from core activities.
Confront issues instead of ‘parking’ them
It is common for there to be scope creep on infrastructure projects and this is perceived negatively in many cases, but this doesn’t always have to be so. It is important to have a considered conversation at the time and work together to find a joint solution, rather than ‘parking’ issues for later. These can be difficult conversations for sure, but it is much better to tackle such issues transparently before the project starts to approach white elephant territory.
So, could we be more courageous in Infrastructure project delivery? We believe that if project leaders can be comfortable showing their areas of vulnerability, and project teams can be fully transparent with their stakeholders when issues arise, an environment and culture will be promoted where courage can really thrive.
Moorhouse is a management consultancy that works with major corporate and public sector organisations. We support our clients in turning their strategy into action, through exceptional delivery, and establishing a culture of change.
If you would like to know more please contact Dominic Clark-Abdullah.
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