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Improving major project performance through the right culture and leadership behaviour – PART ONE OF THREE

Author: Claire Fryer, director of behavioural management

At a national level, project reviews play a fundamental role in ensuring the nation’s critical infrastructure gets delivered on time and on budget. When properly run they enable the teams involved, and their leadership, to see through the fog, evaluate a project’s underlying health and make effective decisions on future activity. This all centres on the encouragement of desired behaviours and the discouragement of undesired behaviours through different consequences.

To date, very little focus has been given to the role of leadership behaviour in conducting effective major project reviews. This is clearly a missed opportunity to improve project performance. But what are project reviews exactly and why are they so important?

Reviews are the cornerstone of any major project, allowing regular, structured and formal analysis of performance reporting and decision-making and play a pivotal role in project success. Typical project reviews follow a monthly cycle and provide clear and independently validated information to project stakeholders, facilitating understanding and early identification of risks and issues. They are specific to project needs, but there are usually some constant factors under consideration, such as: objectives status (vs baseline and forecast schedule, budget and deliverables), risk position, product quality and process adherence/maturity.

Project reviews are critical to the continued progress and achievement of milestones – a chance for the project family to come together. The project team including the client needs to have a clear view of project performance, senior stakeholders and the executive will need to see impacts and interdependencies across a portfolio and the discipline leads can learn immediate lessons for future stages of work. However, how they are conducted and led can have significant impacts on onward reporting, actual progress of the project and ultimately performance to meet set outcomes.

Behaviour is a function of that environment and is an observable action i.e. an action that can be seen and measured. Culture on the other hand is more difficult to define and includes the behaviours, values and beliefs of a group of people. Leaders at project reviews are therefore responsible for shaping the project culture and creating the right environment where behaviour is an enabler of good practice; some get it right and others don’t. The most effective leadership style focusses on positive reinforcement which, if done correctly, leads to discretionary effort which creates value for the immediate project team as well as the client and senior stakeholders.

So what makes a good leader? Leaders set clear expectations so there is no ambiguity and they actively ask if support or help is needed. Leaders do what they say they are going to do and create the white space needed in their diaries for strategic thinking time. Leaders acknowledge performance improvement (no matter how small), they provide positive and constructive feedback and always use fact rather than assumptions and opinion. A project, programme or portfolio leader all need to be self-aware and understand the environment they create – your team(s) are all working towards to same end goal so thanking and acknowledging effort is key.

Well-run reviews should always drive positive progress and action, but frequently they do not deliver their potential because of leadership and participant behaviour. The ‘watermelon effect’, where projects show green (healthy) on the outside but red (troubled) on the inside, is an all too common phenomenon and an output of poor leadership behaviours.

Costain took a closer look at the issue at a roundtable where attendees from academia and industry debated the impact behavioural science and behavioural economics can have on changing the way people act to improve project culture and ultimately achieve value for money outcomes. If cultural and behavioural change can make a positive difference at an organisational level, are we making enough of that connection in the area of leadership explicitly in relation to project reviews and the way they are chaired, managed and executed? Next week we’ll look at the common challenges we all experience in project review, the barriers and hurdles in relation to the environment and ambiguity of certain situations as well as the potential for change and improvement. We all want the right result but sometimes we don’t know how to enable it. Behavioural leadership is the key to unlocking that potential.

Click here to read the full thought leadership paper: Improving major project performance through establishing the right culture and leadership behaviour.

For help with addressing potential cultural and behavioural issues in your project reviews, speak to one of our experts, Claire Fryer.

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