leading complex projects – what the MOD could learn

Listening to the piece about MOD procurement R4 this morning, I felt my usual deep pangs of frustration and despair.  This debate has been running for years – and the lack of progress is so depressing.   The solution, according to both Fox and Hodge, seems to be to ‘try harder’.   They trot out the usual cliches:  ‘people need to get a grip of the project;’ ‘these things wouldn’t be allowed to happen in the private sector.’  And they neglect to mention other government projects (NHS Connecting for Health springs to my mind) where similar patterns arise…

The problem is, these so-called solutions are utterly entrenched in the existing mindset that creates the problem in the first place. (i)

I’ve been interested in this for the last four years, since I worked with the Board of the Defence Procurement Agency.  Good, honourable people, who had excellent track records of leadership and service were genuinely and deeply stuck about how to get out of the messes they were in.  Since I was coming fresh to this world I noticed things that seemed interesting or curious to me, but were taken for granted by them.  And I also noticed several patterns they shared, unbeknownst to them, with other parts of the public sector, with which I was much more familiar.

Several things struck me at the time and I’ve continued to explore in the last four years of action research with folk who have real skin in this game. (ii)

The tyranny of the Project Management mindset.  Conventional project management – Prince2 in the UK – assumes that the world is linear, ordered, predictable  – and constructs management tools on that basis.  Such a mindset is unproblematic for simple projects, such as building a bridge, a railway line – even an Olympic Village, arguably.  But it simply does not hold up in the more complex world of political positioning, contested national interests, fast-moving technologies.  Nonetheless, government remains deeply attached to its Project Management methodologies and is slow in asking the intelligent questions about the extent to which it is, itself, part of the problem.

Acknowledging the complex world (which is different to ‘big’ or ‘complicated’).  The complex world is unpredictable, interconnected, emergent, diverse and contested – there are no simple solutions.   For example, the defence projects that Hodge referred to today are already delivered by powerful private sector corporations with their own complex interests.  Moreover,  MPs themselves collude in the whole shenanigans – perhaps because they have a shipbuilder in their constituency which provides employment; or large scale military accommodation…  This is not a bad thing per se: of course MPs will defend their constituents interests – this is legitimate in a democracy – but to whitewash away this complex balance of interests and choices is disingenuous at best….

Our leadership and change models are stuck in these old mindsets:  We still suffer under outdated notions of leadership.  The ‘One Responsible Owner’ notion is dangerously close to reinforcing the idea of a single heroic leader, who wears his pants on the outside (with a very large pair contained within them…) who will transform the prospects of the project.    This does not work.  At best, dissent goes underground, surfacing only at project failure, accompanied by “I told you so” or, at worst, the project turns into the battle of the X Men, with superheros battling it out on the lawn.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of the advice Government gets on these issues comes from those very organisations who make their money selling simple, scalable solutions.  The ‘Big 4’ professional services firms and the McKinseys of this world are themselves deeply entrenched in this systemic problem.

In fact, this analysis covers pretty much all the ‘wicked issues’ we face today.   And yet we persist in gritting our teeth and rehashing really unhelpful practices that got us there in the first place, trying to apply simplistic, mechanistic solutions from ‘what we’ve always done’  to the new, complex, interconnected, emergent problems we face today.

I’d argue that the opportunities to really shift expectations and outcomes are contained in 1) how we frame the problem and then 2) how we choose to work together to act on it.  The research papers go into rather more detail,  but meantime, a couple of the critical areas seem to me to be:

1.  Engage all those who have a real stake in the project outcome – and its implementation.  This usually means listening a lot more to front-line staff and project ‘customers’ – those who have to make it work, ultimately. It also means listening better to those who might disagree with you or who have very different interests at stake.

2.  Seek to learn from the what goes on elsewhere – sometimes this can be the most unlikely places (our ‘research’ or ‘evidence’ is often as silo’d as our projects!)  For example, we can learn most from how to really resolve disagreement and difference from those places who have had to work through this – South Africa, Nicaragua

3.  Use project management tools in service of the outcomes – not the other way round.  Too often the project plan becomes the end in itself – and ticking the project milestones becomes more important that delivering the project outcome.  This is where good governance can really make a difference.

We are starting a Community of Practice at Ashridge for those who are interested in this – with people from all parts of public and private sector.  Get in touch if you’d like to hear more about this.   sidra.mushtaq@ashridge.org

(i) Einstein’s quote “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

(ii) Leading Complex Projects (in Complex Social Systems) with Ashridge Business School www.ashridge.org

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About suepritchard

I live a portfolio life: researcher, writer, consultant, organic/permaculture farmer, single mother of three grown-ups and social activist..... My main work is running SULEiS, a consulting network for building leadership and change capability, inside and outside traditional organisations, to make practical progress on the difficult issues.
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2 Responses to leading complex projects – what the MOD could learn

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention leading complex projects – what the MOD could learn | Sue Pritchard's Blog -- Topsy.com

  2. Jon Hyde says:

    Fantastic analysis sue. Your take on prince 2 is right on in my humble opinion. I’d love to discuss this with you at http://www.publicsectorpm.com/2011/08/pm-tea-camp-sept-30th-2011-cheltenham-uk/ ? Jon.

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