Establishing The Context For Project Sucess. A Directors Guide

Paul Naybour

Over recent years it has become increasingly clear that the formula for delivering successful projects is not complicated. In fact, success is linked to doing the basics of project management and doing them well. Whilst “doing the basics well” is a good catchy title what does this mean in practice? It’s not easy to do the basics well, teams either neglect critical steps or get diverted by commercial or internal politics. In this session, we use the lessons learned from the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) approach to London 2012 Olympic and Para-Olympics to explore what are the ingredients of successful projects and the relevance of these, to less high profile and complex projects.


There are a couple of reasons to use the London 2012 Olympic and Para-Olympics as a reference project. First and most importantly, it was judged overall as a success. This does not mean that beneath the surface it didn’t face challenges, and somethings could have been done better, but it certainly went much better than some cynics expected at the start. The second reason is that the project made a commitment to creating a legacy. As part of this legacy, they published much of their lessons learned. As with any lessons learned in the public domain we need to take these with a pinch of salt. However, there are very few write ups of successful projects. There are many audit reports explaining what goes wrong with projects but very few that set out approaches that are successful. Finally, the London Olympic brought together some of the best project management professionals from across the world, so the guidance is based on many year of experience deliver successful projects. One criticism of using this case study is that the principles applied may not be relevant to smaller and less complex projects. But as we will see many of the lessons learned are universal and topic of this workshop is how to apply these principles in different contexts.


The main reference source for this session is “Delivering London 2012: organisation and programme” (Hone, Higgins, Galloway and Kintrea, may 2011)
This identifies the key components of project success as being:

  • Get the right people on board, fast.
  • Set a realistic budget.
  • Nail down the scope, programme, budget early and sticking to it.
  • Early and prompt decision making.
  • Allow the delivery team to deliver.
  • Active risk management from start to finish.
  • Transparency and pro-activity in internal and external communications.
  • Maintaining a collaborative approach with client and partners.

In this workshop we will take each of these concepts and explore them in more detail, evaluate how they can be applied to more typical projects.

Get the right people on board, fast.

Many projects suffer from poor mobilisation during the initial phases. This can be fatal because the early phases are when all the critical decisions are taken and the most value can be added. The ODA addressed by appointing CLM (a consortium CH2M, Lang O’Rourke and Mace) as an early delivery partner and this is a early appointment model is becoming more common. How can this flexible resourcing model be applied to quickly mobilise smaller scale projects?

Set a realistic budget.

Underfunding is almost an inevitable consequence of the conflict between estimating uncertainty, optioneering and competitive bidding. We all know that trying to deliver an underfunded project is likely to lead to more cost in the long run. “That’s the budget and you just have to work within it” is the first sign of a doomed project. This does not mean that the project “costs what it costs and takes and long as it takes” but rather that the project manager should undertake a detailed review of the budget and identify what can realistically be achieved. The outcome of the comprehensive analysis is just as likely at identify savings as well as areas of underfunding. However to have a realistic chance of delivering the PM needs a realistic budget. To achieve this, they may need to reset the expectations of the customer or the profit from the contract. It’s much better to do this early when the Directors can take the necessary project or business actions, than for the overspend to be hidden only to emerge a bit at a time. But how can we strike a balance between the realistic assessment of costs by the project and the expectations of prices established by a competitive bidding process?

Nail down the scope, programme, budget early and sticking to it.

Experience tells us that agreeing the scope is vitally important. Of the three factors on the triangle of balance (time, cost and scope) it is the most difficult to define and measure. Frequent and uncontrolled changes to scope and programme are extremely disorienting and confusing the project team and momentum. This does not mean that we have to define every deliverable in detail at the start. We need to establish islands of stability. The ODA did this by having a plan for each 12 months, with clearly published milestones. Once these are completed, we can move on to the next year. You could think of this as agile on a large scale (or more traditional rolling wave planning). However, having a very clear definition of the high-level scope and then controlling it in stages comes across as a crucial factor in project success. On a smaller scale, how is the baseline scope, programme and budget established? How can we bottom out areas of scope uncertainty early in the project? Does everyone in the team understand where these boundaries lie? What action do team members take if some work is outside of scope, programme or budget?

Early and prompt decision making.

Slow decision taking can cripple a project. If the client, contractor, and designer are unable to agree on a change, this has real impacts on progress. So how can organisations “design processes and lines of accountability with rapid decision taking in mind, in which decision makers are keenly aware of the potential cost effects of delays”. And how can contracting organisations and designers influence the clients to make prompt and effective decisions? These are easy words to say but much more difficult to apply in practice?

Allow the delivery team to deliver.

The Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) employed CLM to deliver on its behalf. During the delivery phase, a deliberate distance was created between the ODA and CLM so that CLM would be protected from potential changes and political interference. The ODA strategy was to enable CLM to focus on delivery, whilst the ODA managed the inevitable politics associated with the project. Again, we can see this as creating an island of stability for CLM. We have all worked on projects where the client gets too involved in the day-to-day management of the project to the detriment of the overall performance. How can an organisation protect the delivery teams from the “noise” generated by external pressures whilst also maintaining the confidence of the clients and other stakeholders?

Active risk management from start to finish.

Risk management is often an afterthought or a bolt on too many projects. For the ODA, senior management were engaged in risk management from the start. Risks were considered from both a top-down strategic level but also from a bottom detailed reviews. For many organisation, risk management is either a reactive process or over-bureaucratic. How can organisation design risk management approaches that fit the risk exposure of the projects they manage but also maximise opportunities as well as minimising threats?

Transparency and pro-activity in internal and external communications.

Clearly in case of the ODA case, proactive communications were vital. Not all large infrastructure projects have taken such a positive approach to external communications and we can all cite examples of projects that get on the back foot with the press. But what are the lessons learned here? For each year the ODA set out 10 clear and simple milestones, which were communicated internally and externally. These had the benefit of focusing the organisation around common objectives. They also establish clear and consistent reporting structures against these and a limited number of other measures. These are straightforward principles, but we have all seen projects get lost in very complex reporting systems and over complex planning.

Maintaining a collaborative approach with client and partners.

Collaborative and early contractor engagement seem to be the lesson learned that has had the most adoption. In practice, this continues a trend seen within the industry for many years. The initial signs are good, with several projects developing more integrated long-term alliances. However, collaboration is not an easy option; it required flexibility and a willingness to listen and adapt on be part of all parties. The ODA has the advantage of being a big new organisation with a blank sheet of paper on which to develop the organisation culture, systems and processes. Often we see that alliance have competing approaches, systems and cultures, which can take several years for the differences to resolve themselves. How can organisation approach alliances and collaborative working in a systematic way?

Next Steps

Having completed the workshop, the next step is to consider any changes in approach. These can be local, departmental or across the organisation.


Delivering London 2012: organisation and programme, Hone, Dennis. Higgins, David. Galloway, Ian. Kintrea, Kenn, 2011/05/01, Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers – Civil Engineering

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