• Leadership

Leading Major Projects

Introducing the ‘Major Projects Leadership Academy’ – a collaboration between the UK Cabinet Office and Oxford Saïd Business School

Wednesday 01 August 2018


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If you want to build an eco-friendly house, with state-of-the-art thermal properties and a low carbon footprint, it is much easier to do that from a greenfield site than try to convert an old building riddled with out-of-date pipework and Victorian windows.

To an extent the work of government tends to be much more about trying to manage the latter than having the opportunity to do the former. Departments like the Ministry of Health and the Home Office may build new hospitals and prisons from time-to-time, but they along with other government departments are spending much more time on re-configuring existing processes, services and utilities, such as reforming the benefits payment systems or indeed negotiating the country’s departure from the EU. And the major ‘greenfield’ purchases, such commissioning a new aircraft carrier or building a high-speed railway are super-complex projects these days too. All of which means that the expertise required to manage and support these investments takes a special kind of knowledge, skill and experience.

The UK government created the Major Projects Authority to ‘assure, support and report’ on the Government Major Projects Portfolio (GMPP), which covers around 150 major projects with a total whole life cost approaching £500 billion. In January 2016, the MPA was merged with Infrastructure UK to form the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA). A core element of building capability is the MPLA – the Major Projects Leadership Academy, a joint venture between the IPA and Oxford Saïd Business School.

Since 2013 the MPLA has seen over 500 senior public servants, including military personnel, pass through it. While the main pool of participants for the Academy are ‘Senior Responsible Officers’, SROs, (those individuals charged with sponsoring the projects and connecting them to the wider government machine), and Project Directors, (those who have more operational responsibility for the project being successful on the ground), the MPLA also attracts those who work more widely in the area, perhaps creating policy or research that leads to the projects being implemented.

Nick Borwell is Director of the Government Project Delivery Profession at the IPA, with responsibility for the MPLA. A former soldier and graduate of the Oxford’s MSc in Major Programme Management, he has seen the situation from both sides. Borwell describes the attrition rates of senior leaders in these programs as sometimes being “at Western Front levels” before the MPLA program started. The program has introduced clear focus on the importance of organizational design and governance, highlighting that major projects are still ‘temporary ones’ and that this distinguishes them from ‘on-going organizational leadership roles’. The staff churn rate on projects, once they have completed the program has dramatically reduced, says Borwell.­

Most project failures are a mixture of three elements: the sponsorship is not at the right level or sufficiently connected to the right level; leadership is poor or poorly aligned; initial analysis, is the original concept actually viable in its current form? With these fundamental issues managed properly the whole project is already better positioned to succeed. A second program, Orchestrating Major Projects Programme, OMPP, is now also offered with Oxford Saïd to tackle the sponsorship and initiation of projects in general. OMPP is targeted at Directors General and provides them with a greater understanding of how to lead successful programs. It was launched 18 months ago and the third cohort is due to start in June 2018.

The more complex layer of learning participants take on in the MPLA is tackling the concept of the ‘incomplete leader’. This underpins the entire program and connects the three primary units of all leadership programs – knowing yourself, your team and your organization. The ‘incomplete leader’ accepts that they cannot be expert in every element of the project, and so builds a team around them that brings strengths where needed and aligns that team to deliver.

The program from initial selection of participants to post-program certification takes around 18 months, though the three one-week modules themselves are spread over nine months. Cohorts are generally around 35 people in number and draw from across all government Ministries and also the Armed Services and other public-sector organizations. Unusually for an executive education program there is a rigorous formal assessment process, that grades participants as ‘strong pass’, ‘pass’ or ‘referral’, where they need to return to the re-do the final assessment again and show that they have implemented the learning in their work more effectively. This final assessment takes the form of a 90 minute ‘viva’ with a panel of senior IPA and government and MPLA staff, and where they must show how the MPLA Competency Framework content has been brought into their work.

Last year, Cohort 20, was re-configured to allow participants with caring responsibilities to take part. The Oxford Saïd residential weeks were replaced by a more frequent series of two-day sessions in London, scheduled over normal working hours. The program was completed in approximately the same period of time however. Borwell and his Oxford counterpart, Elaine Heslop, director of custom programs at the business school, were very pleased to be able to add this more flexible version of the program to the MPLA format that could accommodate those who were unable to join the standard program due to family or other commitments at home. The content covered was essentially the same, and the differences from the greater frequency of face-to-face participant engagement against the lack of extended residential weeks evened the experience out in terms of those all-important cross-boundary connections and insights such programs can foster. While Borwell sees this format as having been very successful, it will only be offered occasionally for those unable to join the residential version.

Click here to download a Introduction to the MPLA Program 

The Saïd Business School is Europe’s fastest growing business school. An integral part of the University of Oxford, it embodies the academic rigour and forward thinking that has made Oxford a world leader in education.

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