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

We live in a world where pressure to deliver value for money on high-performing, complex infrastructure projects is relentless and yet there are numerous examples of over budget and over running projects in the UK. According to the Infrastructure and Projects Association, of the major projects identified between 2012-2019, the number of projects classified as “probable of a successful delivery” has fallen from 48% in 2013 to just 17% in 2019. A transformation that delivers faster and more efficient projects is required.

In this context, ensuring that project reviews are effective in keeping projects on track is absolutely critical, but they are often beset by problems which originate at the top. With leadership style identified as the joint-most important success factor for projects in a 2016 TU Delft and Brooke Institute report on project controls, it is clear that getting this right is essential. Good leadership behaviour can drive collaboration, create an open and honest forum where asking for help is the norm, provide the opportunity to give and receive constructive feedback and acknowledge success.

Reviews can be stressful occasions, eliciting exaggerated behaviours, and they are a shared experience which facilitate the transmission of either good or poor behaviours from leaders to others. We are all born with the skills to observe and analyse others’ behaviours, right down to the most subtle. We will do more of the behaviours that get us the consequences we want and less of the behaviours that get us the consequences we don’t want.  Any behaviour that leads directly to a negative experience, such as discipline or embarrassment, is not repeated in the immediate future but may resurge at a later point.

There can often be a fear factor during review meetings, often as a result of the way that leaders have handled team members and their reports in previous meetings.  An aggressive approach by project leaders can have disastrous results and is a major factor in the proliferation of the watermelon effect, where projects show green (healthy) on the outside but red (troubled) on the inside. Unless properly taught, we may also inadvertently or deliberately punish a desired behaviour. Leaders can be prone to handing out reprimands in project reviews, and this can cultivate a culture of trepidation, where others in the meeting are reticent and won’t engage.

Unfortunately, all too often, corporate culture and associated leadership styles end up suppressing positive reviews, synthesis of information and informed decision making: Peter Mills, programme management consultant at Costain, said: “We’ve seen conversations and interactions shut down abruptly, requests for help ignored and programme control data disregarded and devalued by leaders. If leaders display aggressive behaviour and demand ‘bring me solutions not problems’, there’s a fear factor. You have to report everything as rosy and that flows up the organisation and is communicated to stakeholders.”

This atmosphere can also make meetings ineffective in another way. If leaders develop a reputation for aggressive cross examination, there is likely to be a ‘cast of thousands’ attending each meeting. You can end up with a core senior team sitting around the central table and a supporting team around the edge of the room. If the leader asks a difficult question, managers are afraid of not having the answers at their fingertips and so bring half a dozen deputies with them to cover their knowledge gap. The deputies are there for hours waiting for their 30 second input. Not only is this bad practice and poor use of skilled professionals, but the culture of fear and defence is cascaded to the next level of employees.

With under-pressure organisational leaders dominating their project reports back to stakeholders with positive news, there is a strong incentive for optimism bias. A 2002 study of 50 major projects, commissioned by UK HM Treasury, analysed the effect of optimism bias and found that civil engineering experienced cost and schedule overruns of up to 30% more than building projects. In 2013, supplementary Green Book guidance was issued that identified a tendency for project appraisers to be ‘overly optimistic’. It recommended three main strategies for reducing optimism bias: full identification of stakeholder requirements, accurate costing and project and risk management. However, there is no mention of behavioural leadership and direction to cultivate the right culture. A huge opportunity missed.

In addressing this issue its important to understand that a leader’s style is drawn from a range of factors which can also affect their decision making abilities. Their background and life experience are key, what they have seen and achieved in their careers to date and also their profession, whether they are engineers or have other skillsets. The good news is that the behaviours of leaders and their teams can be observed, and advice given on how they can be improved.  There‘s no overnight fix but there is a path to incremental improvements that will deliver benefits to you, your people and the outcomes of your project reviews.

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

Missed part one of the three part series? Read it here.