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

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

The urgency to build better resilience for our economy, the environment and communities is stronger than ever before. But realising this imperative requires transformation at pace across the lifecycle of infrastructure and one way to encourage this, to date overlooked, is by improving the behaviours of those leading project review meetings.

Reviews are the cornerstone of any major project or programme for the regular and formal appraisal of performance reporting and decision-making. But negative behaviours, such as an aggressive approach by project leaders, can have disastrous results, leading to the proliferation of the watermelon effect, where projects show green (healthy) on the outside but red (troubled) on the inside. This phenomenon is all too common but Costain, working with its clients and academia, is helping to address it and ensure project reviews are conducted in a structured and effective manner.

The Association for Project Management cited in its 2018 report ‘Project leadership: skills, behaviours, knowledge and values’, the development of eight project leadership survival skills :

  1. Anticipating – being prepared for what could knock the project off course next
  2. Judgement and decision-making – making timely decisions with incomplete information
  3. Seeing it all – feeling the totality of what is going on inside and outside the project 
  4. Building credibility and confidence – belief in the leadership and the team 
  5. Being organisationally intelligent – knowing when and how to engage with the organisation
  6. Learning – being open-minded and reflecting on and developing personal and team performance
  7. Resolving conflicts and collaborating – building a common purpose, despite the rules
  8. Creating the project culture and environment – deliberately defining and creating the culture and environment to succeed.


Great advice but these factors all require the right culture and behaviours to be established and this can be a complex, long term process. It often involves changing the way both companies and individuals have operated for long periods of time. Ultimately, the performance of a project team and the project review is a direct reflection of the leader and the environment he or she has created for it. Gordon Masterton, Chair of Future Infrastructure at the University of Edinburgh: “Reviews should be a place where everything is revealed and there are no surprises, nothing held back because of fear of impact on career progression. On the contrary, participants should be rewarded for identifying early warning signs so corrective action can be taken.”

The use of data during project reviews presents a huge, yet critical challenge. When used well, data can inform effective decision making but when ignored or twisted the results can be damaging. Data needs to be up to date to be meaningful and access to real-time data presented in a consistent manner helps prevent misinterpretation, ambiguity and confusion.


“Good leadership means respecting the data. This in turn requires good reporting and data sets. Once leaders and their teams have good data, it’s about being clear on meeting objectives and making decisions, while being open to challenge.”

Peter Mill, programme management consultant at Costain
  • Where undesired leadership traits have developed they can be deeply ingrained and this requires a personal approach. Gary Jackson, key account director, who helps Costain’s clients to improve their performance in complex projects: “The only way to make it effective at the leadership level is through confidential coaching. That’s where we’re really seeing it have an impact. It’s a personal thing how you behave toward and appear to others. The private nature of our training builds confidence with clients.”

Costain’s approach to improving leadership behaviour requires clear interventions to be made. First the behaviours you want to increase or decrease need to be identified.

“We use a systematic, data-based approach to specifically pinpoint behaviour. Once changes have been made and implemented, they need to be measured for impact over time. Successes should be reinforced, and help given where required. Finally give positive feedback and make the positive behaviours stick.”

Claire Fryer, a practitioner of applied behavioural sciences and executive coach

In any environment we want people to do the right things because they want to, not because they have to. In a project family, the leader is key to setting the desired behaviours and expectations so there is no room for ambiguity and interpretation. In the context of the chair or leader of a project review, these behaviours are even more important to 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 successes, however small, towards achievement of the end goal.

Over the last 14 years Costain has been developing, refining and delivering cultural and behavioural leadership training internally and to clients. A bespoke approach is always taken depending on the individual problems faced by leaders and their teams. This is the beginning of a journey which Costain believes can have a transformative impact on the delivery of major projects.

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 or Part Two of our three part series? Read them here