Setting up complex projects and seeing them through can throw up many challenges in all organisations, not just government. In this discussion chaired by Jim Harra, Chief Executive Officer at HM Revenue and Customs, the group covered some of the principles for success when leading projects, as well as challenges, finances, and how to stop your project from turning into a ‘watermelon programme’...
The discussion began with the topic of timelines. “Sometimes you have to go slow to go faster”, said one participant, which was met with agreement from the group. They expanded by saying that your project can turn out more successful in the long run when you take the time to line up all stages of your project before making any announcement. The group agreed that it can be difficult to make this the norm when you are delivering a project in turbulent times with ongoing fiscal challenges.
Having extensive experience of working across government, the group were able to provide valuable advice on working with ministers. Managing timelines with ministers was recognised as something that departments have different levels of success with this. One member of the group suggested adopting a ‘delivery lens’ whereby you view your project in terms of delivery milestones rather than timelines, which can help a team when discussing their project with ministers. It can also provide clarity and assurance to ministers who may be managing competing priorities.
Another tip for working with ministers was being extremely clear on what your issues or trade-offs are. Although it may seem counterintuitive to expose negative elements of your project, it can serve as a constructive starting point which can help you refine further on. As well as working with ministers, the group discussed ways of working with bigger teams and the value of strong relationships when leading a project. One participant mentioned the pandemic as an example of a time when strong relationships were particularly important. They said that viewing their project through a ‘people lens’ was successful in prioritising cooperation and keeping them alert to managing resource effectively.
Another example of working with teams was provided by a participant who led a project in a large government department involving 12 delivery groups. The key, they said, was building relationships - and being a critical friend. They spoke about the importance of empowering your own people even when teams may be large and complex.
The group also discussed challenges commonly faced in delivering projects. They agreed that when a fast pace is established early on in a project, it can be difficult to maintain this while also maintaining confidence in the overall project. They also agreed that it is easier to feel confident in your project when you are leading it.
Another challenge the group acknowledged was handling the pressure of always wanting to improve your project and services when you are completely engrossed in the granular details.
Staying on the topic of challenges, one participant spoke about how they had struggled to reconfigure a project while trying to scope out their next step. The group acknowledged that teams can sometimes struggle to keep going if the person leading their project is focused heavily on planning, but suggested that a potential solution was offering certainty to the team about the direction of the project.
Finances were also touched on during the discussion. Drawing on their experience in the private sector, one participant spoke about the tendency to have optimism bias when calculating how much a project is going to cost and how long it will take. The group agreed that you need to find ways of injecting realism into a project without putting a dampener on the energy and momentum of your team.
A great phrase to come out of the session was ‘the plan is the plan until it isn’t’. The participant who mentioned this explained how this ethos allows you to maintain focus on what’s in front of you when you’re leading a project, and in turn allowing another part of the team to future gaze. It helps teams avoid being too wedded to a long-term plan but instead allows them to visualise the project in smaller bits. This can create a sense of fluidity to what you’re trying to do, which in turn gives you the power to change plans when needed. Perhaps an even better phrase to come out of the session was ‘watermelon programmes’ - those projects that are ‘green’ on the outside and ‘red’ on the inside. In other words, projects which you are assured are running smoothly but are actually underperforming. This phrase came out of a discussion about assurances and assumptions in projects. One participant explained the benefits of deep dives on microassumptions to check what you do and don’t know before starting a piece of work, which led to a discussion about helping your team to understand assumptions going into a project. Part of this is building a culture whereby people can ask for help - the group agreed that it can be positive when your team ask for more time and resource.
Discussing projects which are underperforming led to an interesting thought exchange on the value of terminating or resetting projects. One participant noted that leaders can be reluctant to stop projects if they are going off track, but instead it should be seen as acceptable if you fail for the sake of innovation. One idea which came to the fore was a ‘failure project of the year award’ - in other words, a way of rewarding teams for recognising when something isn’t working and moving in a different direction. The idea was presented somewhat humorously but nevertheless, it was agreed that ‘resetting’ can be a powerful tool in project management. Even giving your project a new name or moving it into a new phase can give it a new lease of life. However, it was noted that it’s essential to support staff who are working on a project that has been reset or terminated.
The group then zoomed out and discussed the challenge of being open and receptive to the world around you when you are leading a complex project. It can be difficult to take stock of continuous change and develop your knowledge on the world around you. This presents a particular risk at the start of the project when you build assumptions - and will likely result in these assumptions not coming to fruition.
Towards the end of the discussion, the theme of leadership emerged. One of the participants made a poignant remark that “it’s not leaders who make projects work, it’s teams”. Strong leaders will build capability in their teams, which in turn will enable them to respond quickly and continuously learn lessons from the past to keep improving their people and projects.