Defining major projects - a round table

John Mason, Aurecon

John Mason, Aurecon

In this round table discussion, we feature four of Aurecon’s major project leaders: John Mason, John Callaghan, Peter Blersch and Ross Parslow in a debate on defining a major project, key success factors and culture.

What is a major project?

John Mason
What do we mean by a major project?

To me, major projects are typically recognised by a number of attributes. The complexity of delivery and the number of components that have to fit together to make sure the project works effectively are significant factors. As are the number of stakeholders, either directly in the delivery of the project, or who will be influenced by the delivery outcomes
of that project.

Financially, it could also be the type of funding. Geographically and logistically, it may be the environment in which that project is delivered. Complex projects can also involve a significant number of supply chain partners. I think complexity is probably an overarching attribute from my perspective.

John Callaghan
It really depends on who the stakeholder is. Was it completed on time and budget, did it deliver a legacy, is it a piece of infrastructure for generations to come? It is very much an individual thing.

Ross Parslow
While the scale of cost helps define a major project, for many of our clients, time is more critical than cost, as is the delivery of what was asked. If the project takes 18 months to ramp up, because the process doesn’t work, then the budget won’t be met. Successful projects are driven by ramping up quickly to achieve the planned functionality straight away.

John Mason
A critical factor is the operation of the asset. The project success may actually be determined long after the project has been physically completed by how well it operates. 

Peter Blersch
In my part of the world (South Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa), being fit for purpose and applying appropriate technology is particularly important. How the completed project performs during its operational life is what we are judged on, rather than just the portion of the project we were involved in during its planning and implementation phase.

Ross Parslow
I don’t think we can skirt away from reaching a scale. There is an old truism in project management that up to a certain size of project, which these days might be in the tens or low hundreds of millions of dollars in capital value, a project manager can get away with a great deal because they can keep the project in their head. When a project gets really large, they cannot keep the project in their head and, if the right systems and processes are not in place to keep control of the material, the staff and the data, then the project will go awry. So, I think scale is an important criterion and complexity tends to follow it.

John Mason
I’d endorse that: I think there is a scale factor once you go from the $1 million to $10 million, to the $100 million to a billion or more, the level of complexity increases hugely. On smaller jobs, there is a much greater focus on individual skill sets which might be done by a few individuals. By the time you get up to $100 million, you may have people who are dedicated and focused on those particular aspects and, by the time you get up to a $1 billion plus, it could be a whole team of people. 

John Callaghan
If you look at key words that might define major projects, scale is certainly one of them, significance is another, and then there is importance and consequence.

John Mason
A project becomes major through the number of interfaces that the project has. Having come off the Crossrail project in the United Kingdom recently, one of the major dynamics on that job was the number of stakeholders. People who want to influence the scope or who are affected by the project, either directly or indirectly, can make the job extremely challenging to deliver. It is the number of stakeholders that takes it to a completely different level.

 

John Mason, Peter Blersch, Ross Parslow and John Callaghan, AureconKey success factors

John Mason
Let’s look at some core practices that highly successful organisations typically identify and which must be understood in order to drive major project success.

Ross Parslow
If we are involved in delivery of capital works, it is essential to have a deep understanding of the management of safety. This has to be the number one priority in the construction phase of a major job: the practices and the culture of attendance to safety and risk is critical to success. Generally, it has been found that, rather than distracting from the effort being put into achieving success in other aspects of the project, there is a direct correlation between the safety achieved on a major project and its success on other project criteria.

John Callaghan
Resource identification and management is critical to success. In the current resource constrained environment, the organisations that understand and crack the resources puzzle will come out on top and drive successful projects.

Peter Blersch
Before we launch into a project, it is critical that we have a deep understanding of the client’s needs and expectations. This must be a properly determined understanding of what the client’s needs are, rather than our perception of what he thinks he needs and expects.

John Mason
I think successful projects generally involve very good communication and alignment of objectives. It is critical for project success that people involved with the delivery of the project are aligned, both those within the project and other key stakeholders.

John Callaghan
The core practice is one of good governance. There are two aspects of governance that need to be considered when we are driving major projects. One is good project governance and with this goes good business governance. Understanding the difference allows an organisation to deliver a successful project.

John Mason
Having a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities, who does what, is crucial for me as is having a clear and visible base line against which change can be measured. This means clear and well communicated objectives, a robust delivery strategy and a well-defined process for how the project team are going to achieve the client’s objectives.

 

Ross Parslow and Peter Blersch, AureconCulture is critical

John Mason
Why don’t we move on to how critical culture is to delivering a successful project?

Ross Parslow
I think culture is critical. There are many layers to culture in an organisation: one of the foundation layers is what people actually believe, and therefore what guides their behaviour is what matters and what works. There is a phrase often used in project delivery that we say we will do things on a “best for project basis”.

John Mason
I would agree with that. I have worked on a number of projects where there is a good project culture and it makes a huge difference to the performance levels and the ability of the team to overcome all the challenges that are thrown at it. If you have a good, strong team culture, which is project orientated and client and delivery focused, then the team can achieve a great deal and should pull together under the pressures they’ll face.

John Callaghan
I agree that project culture is critical. If you look at the alliance delivery methodologies, culture is addressed very early in the project set up. Usually, there is a large team involved and the challenge is not only creating the right culture but also converting it into actual behaviours. For example, even if you talk about safety cultures, converting them into behaviours can be a challenge. Culture should not be underestimated: it needs to be addressed through the whole life cycle of the project and continually revisited.

Peter Blersch
I believe that we could all think of project examples where a strong team culture has overcome obstacles that otherwise might have been, or perceived to have been, insurmountable. Even when it comes to having to work with systems that may not be quite up to speed, I think the “project comes first attitude” will pull you through most challenges.

John Mason
And what are the positive attributes of a major project culture and delivery team?

Ross Parslow
It is a culture where people understand what they are personally accountable for and they accept that working together to achieve the outcome is what matters. If there is a problem that has to be solved and you can solve it, then you would do that, whether or not it happens to be your particular responsibility.

John Callaghan, AureconJohn Callaghan
Often, there is an initial response to put the best people from our team and the more senior people onto the project. However, in a number of instances major projects actually lack good vertical integration across their teams. It is all about getting the right skills, leaders, managers and “doers” into the team.

John Mason
That’s a very good point, John.  Something that we have not touched on is the importance of strong leadership. In a good leadership environment, there is a clear vision of where the team is going, what it is trying to achieve and a dynamic, positive and proactive delivery culture.

Peter Blersch
Bring the leaders in with their teams. When we bring a number of disparate individual professionals in, we find that they potentially have a narrow focus and have difficulty integrating externally sourced individuals. It is important to plan at the start, then maintain team structures and strongly integrate and lead these teams through the life cycle of the project.

John Mason
This can be greatly assisted by co-location. Where you are in the fortunate position of being able to co-locate, you can create a strong project culture, can facilitate communications and create a dynamic delivery environment where you can more easily establish processes, procedures and the sharing of best practice. However, where the dynamics of the project suggest that you “off-shore” certain work or you work elsewhere, more time and effort has to be spent making sure that the elements that are remote from the project site are within the project culture, feel part of it, and are driven by the same objectives.

Peter Blersch
In my experience, the single biggest issue on major projects has been the availability of suitable resources – from senior leadership right down to project teams. In the South African environment there is the issue of the imperative to develop emerging businesses, both consulting engineers and contractors, which comes with its own particular challenges on major projects. We need to embrace this imperative and recognise that our clients require significant assistance in managing these players and adapting their documentation and contractual arrangements to facilitate the development of these smaller contractors.

Read the full 360º magazine on Major Projects.