Major technological, social, and even political changes demand the management of often massive programmes of work, which inevitably have IT components. With this in mind, Robert Hughes looks at the ‘ins and outs’ of complex programme management, using a recent BCS ELITE group event as a starting point.

Large-scale programmes have consequences for considerable numbers of people - if only if it is paying for failures. Yet successful programmes have immeasurable benefits. Just think of the transport infrastructure, for example.

The concepts of programme management were the focus of a joint meeting last November between the BCS ELITE (short for Effective Leadership in IT) Group and the BCS PROMS-G (Project Management Specialist Group).

Programmes: projects working together

Chris Davies, Founder of Condor PM, provided a useful historical background to programme management and John Taylor (a graduate of the Defense Systems Management College (DSMC)) gave an interesting overview of the US approach, but it was inevitable that Sir Jeremy Blackham was the star attraction.

During a long career, the retired Vice Admiral had, among other activities, commanded the Ark Royal, (when he also commanded the first Royal Navy Task Group in the Adriatic during the Bosnian Crisis, setting up enduring maritime operational arrangements).

Before leaving the Royal Navy in 2002, he was appointed the first Deputy Chief of Defense Staff (Equipment Capability), when he had responsibility for ensuring the Royal Navy’s equipment capability, which involved the implementation of many complex development programmes. On retirement, he was UK President of the major technology player EADS, better known these days as Airbus. This was clearly someone worth listening to about leadership and programme management.

Programmes are not just big projects. Like projects they aim to achieve some important objective. However, this objective can only be reached via the successful completion of a number of projects, each making a distinct contribution to the common end.

The individual projects will require differing areas of expertise and will call upon a range of organisations. Thus the Trident missile system, that is currently the subject of heated political debates, required the building of the submarines, the development of nuclear warheads, the training of crews and the construction of maintenance and support facilities.

People implement programmes

It is a sobering thought that these large and complex undertakings are carried out by teams of human beings with not just the ingenuity, but also the frailties of humans. By definition, programmes break new ground where there is much uncertainty. So goals can be over-ambitious. Planned budgets are often over-optimistic: perhaps through natural over-enthusiasm, but sometimes to bolster the chances of getting initial approval.

The combination of novelty and complexity means there will almost certainly be hidden risks to be confronted. New systems need new ways of working so training is required. Those involved in the programme will be looking for guidance in coordinating their efforts, but often this leadership is weak.

The particular case of government programmes

Programmes are carried out in both the private and public sector, but often the most challenging are government projects. The nature of government is that it works nationally and internationally and its ‘customer’ is the population as a whole, so this is no surprise. However, there is no escaping the poor record of government projects - as graphically described in Anthony King’s and Ivor Crewe’s 2013 book, The Blunders of our Governments.

Many of the causes of failure are similar to those that can beset the private sector, but government projects are particularly affected by the lack of continuity of senior staff and by ‘silo thinking’ where staff are concerned primarily with defending the perceived interests of their department at the possible expense of the broader public good. The ideal of the versatile generalist can mean that those at the top may not appreciate the practical challenges of implementing the programmes for which they are nominally responsible.

Two government actions to tackle this have been the creation of the Major Projects Authority (MPA) to provide on-going independent assessment of the health of programmes, and the establishment of the Major Projects Leadership Academy (MPLA) - based at the Saïd Business School of the University of Oxford - which provides leadership training for government project sponsors (Senior Responsible Officers or SROs as they are known). As John Taylor pointed out, MPLA, in part, follows the model in the United States where a Defense Systems Management College was established by the federal government.

Project sponsors

Programmes require someone to take on the role of programme director, tasked with technical coordination and oversight. They will report to a project sponsor, the Senior Responsible Officer or SRO (mentioned above). The sponsor acts as the client concerned with the successful achievement of the programme’s purpose.

It is unlikely that project sponsors will have expertise in specialist implementation techniques. They will almost certainly have other organisational responsibilities in addition to the oversight of the programme. Not surprisingly, many PROMS-G members have reported sponsors appearing to be detached from the concerns of programme implementation.

It was, therefore, refreshing to hear Sir Jeremy Blackham emphasise that the primary responsibility for programme success was on the shoulders of the project sponsor. Sponsors must take steps to understand thoroughly what the programme is about. They need to provide the programme director with guidance, particularly about the practical aspects of the required programme outcomes, and where there are organisational bottlenecks they should tackle these.

It is only natural that those working hard on an individual project contributing to the programme objective will focus on fulfilling the requirements demanded of their own project. Sometimes this may be at the expense of the programme as a whole. If things go wrong, it is often easier to find someone else to blame, rather than work painstakingly towards solutions that will support overall programme success.

For a programme to be successful, the project sponsor has to work to ensure all those in the contributing projects are constantly aware of the purpose of the overall programme. They have to create common understanding. They need the programme to have an organisation and culture that fosters collaboration between contractors and not buck-passing.

Communication is key

Clearly communication is key. If participants conceal bad news - for whatever reason - the programme will falter. Transparency and honesty are paramount. An example of this emphasis was Sir Jeremy’s insistence, in one situation, on having a single progress meeting for all major programme participants, rather than separate ones for different contractors. The message was ‘your problems are our problems’ - and vice-versa.

All of us have been in meetings where our presence was needed for just a few moments, but we had to remain for the whole afternoon. So we might not be so keen on this ‘all in this together’ approach. But the point is that leaders need to convey their message not just through exhortation but through practical example. Perhaps you can learn something if you listen carefully in that meeting.

Information flows between different programme participants are important to make all the bits to fit together and for everyone to work towards the same end, but they can also help the spread of good practices. But good ideas can come from outside as well.

All projects are different, but they are rarely without precedent. Advice should be sought from those who have dealt with similar challenges to yours in the past. Another aspect of this is mentoring - having a trusted adviser with whom you can discuss your work problems - which was advocated at all levels.

Programmes - particularly those in the public sector - are inevitably political. As well as conflicts between contractors, those affected by the changes that the programme will deliver can also be resistant. ‘Change is always about shifts in power and influence’ said Sir Jeremy. ‘Everyone wants the benefits of your change, provided they do not have to change themselves.’ The effective leaders must, therefore, continually demonstrate their personal commitment to the changes. In extreme circumstances it may even mean replacing recalcitrant staff.

Sir Jeremy left two commandments:

  1. Change management is almost entirely about changing the culture; everything else will follow.
  2. Only the top person can make this happen.

Effective leadership of large and complex programmes comes down to personal behaviour: ‘people do not listen to what you say; they watch what you do.’