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Transforming project leadership capability

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Civil Service Reform, Visits
Meeting attendees of the Major Projects Leadership Academy
Meeting attendees of the Major Projects Leadership Academy

Be it Crossrail, the Olympics, or the Green Investment Bank, departments across government oversee  some of the country’s largest projects from launch to completion – projects that are not only big in scale, but which have a far-reaching impact on economic growth and the quality of the our public services and infrastructure.

The big challenge in recent years, however, has been maintaining an exceptional standard of project delivery at the same time as implementing significant reform as an organisation – the need to become more efficient while also becoming smaller means that it has never been more important to make sure that all civil servants have the skills that they need to carry out their jobs effectively.

Visiting the Major Projects Leadership Academy

The Major Projects Leadership Academy in Oxford, which I visited on Friday, is a fantastic example of how we are meeting this challenge. It is a real success story – originally contracted for 150 delegates over three years, it has already reached 200 in under two years and is still growing. Countries such as Ireland and India have already signalled a desire to replicate the model.

The Academy is now into its 8th ‘Cohort’, and offers civil servants leading on the delivery of major projects the chance to undertake sessions which challenge them to approach problems more effectively and improve their problem-solving skills, whilst continuing to work on their major projects full-time.

It’s about transforming project leadership capability across Whitehall, and making sure that the leaders driving forward our major projects feel that they have the skills they need to do their job to the best of their ability.

When I visited the MPLA on Friday I spent the morning with the Academy’s ‘Cohort 5’, who were taking part in their second residential week on the Academy programme. I wanted to share a couple of the key messages I took away from the visit and to talk about what we are doing to help civil servants across the organisation to improve their skills.

Knowledge sharing

Speaking to MPLA participants over lunch about all that they had learnt so far, the thing that really struck me was the potential for the lessons learnt to be filtered throughout departments following their completion of the course. In other words graduating from the Academy, far from being the end of the experience, is just the beginning.

The programme is designed to improve the professional development of project leaders, but the skills that it builds are of value to civil servants across the board – from building effective relationships to improving dispute resolutions skills, the potential benefits of the programme don’t stop with those who undertake it directly.

I want to take this opportunity to encourage all of those who participate in, and graduate from, the Academy to share what you have learnt – to cascade this learning within your teams and help others to benefit from your experiences.

Your time at the MPLA is invaluable and whenever you have the opportunity to share the benefits more widely, please do. As we continue to become more efficient and effective, to build our commercial capability and project management skills, we mustn’t stop at the top.

The place of project leadership

My time at the MPLA also led me to think about the role of project managers – how we can make sure that they have the opportunity to make full use of their skills.

Hearing participants use real business situations to think about how they can improve their decision-making through presentations to the group not only reinforced for me the talent that exists in leadership positions across all departments, but also the potential that the Academy programme has to help develop the sorts of skills that allow participants to move between departments and apply their knowledge.

In time I hope that the MPLA creates a pool of flexible and highly skilled project leaders who are able to step in and make a difference where it is needed most – to create the kind of environment in which SROs and project managers seek out opportunities across departments to apply their project leadership skills.

Skills across the Civil Service

There’s still a long way to go, but my visit to the MPLA left me full of optimism. Under the new leadership of John Manzoni, more thinking will be done to address capability- including how to develop the project delivery profession across government.

But the need to make sure we are as skilled as possible is broader than this. In addition to project management the Capabilities Plan, published last year, sets out how skills will be improved where digital and commercial capability as well as leading change are concerned too. Making sure that all civil servants have the skills they need to excel is good for individuals and it’s good for the organisation – which is why I cannot encourage you enough to visit the Civil Service Learning website and begin to plan how you’re going to use your minimum of five days’ learning and development.

Please do use the comments section below to share your thoughts on the learning and development you’ve undertaken – what you have enjoyed and what you think is missing.

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  1. Comment by Andrew Tolfree posted on

    This is the single most significant improvement to the civil service I have known (fully digital services will be the next).
    I am not one of the newly qualified project managers - it's not my skillset, but what is clear that the process of implementation of ideas to reality has been far more open with time scales detailed in advance.

    I sincerely hope this continues and we can implement far more expansive changes of process and efficient delivery of services with effective project managers overseeing activity.
    Success can then be measured not just on any success, but on how efficient work is conducted.

    Perhaps this is an end of activity for activity's sake.

    Best wishes to all new prject managers and I look forward to being your lackey.

  2. Comment by Peter posted on

    Good to see some real time and effort going into change leadership with something more tangible as an outcome.

    As a Project Manager "on the ground", I am still encountering some real challenges which prevent me from delivering projects in the most efficient and effective way.

    - Well-intentioned input from OGDs adds weeks, (sometimes months), to the delivery timescale as we have to consider a wide range of strategic drivers and agendas. For example, we are being pressed to find SME suppliers, (which I'm all for), but on large-scale, infrastructure-heavy projects this isn't always something that the SME market can support. Significant time has been lost in pursuing routes to market that appeared infeasible from the outset.
    - Not all projects can be delivered using Agile methodologies. Most of us recognise this yet there seems to be a push from those in positions of influence to try to shoehorn all projects into this approach. We are working with large legacy systems, impacting thousands of stakeholders and oftentimes this means we need to adopt a more "old fashioned" waterfall approach. It would be good to be allowed to get on and deliver in what we, as PPM professionals, deem to be the most efective way.
    - There is very little churn in our Project Manager pool due to lack of promotion and progression opportunity and the skills we've acquired not being attractive to the private sector, (we're still seen as operating in a "civil service bubble" with little understanding of good financial management). This results in a pool of demotivated and demoralised PMs. You can cut the ennuis with a knife!
    - The rigourous approvals process for funding etc, (there for good reason), could be improved. Again, "jumping through the hoops" can add months on to a project before the development work can actually begin.

    I'm sure others could go on with lists like this ad infinitum, and we are trying to take steps to address many of these issues, but it is good to see a real focus on improving the profession.

    In terms of learning, I have found the formal courses, (Prince2, MSP, MoR), really useful. It would be great to see something tailored towards understanding projects in the public sector - as I mentioned above, there are challenges unique to the public sector, (in terms of range of stakeholders, governance arrangements, funding approvals etc) and it would be good to see something specific to this on top of the generic PM qualifications.

  3. Comment by James posted on

    Dear Sir Bob - it would be nice if you would answer the 450+ comments on PMR before going on to a new topic.

    • Replies to James>

      Comment by Gareth posted on

      James - I wonder if it's worth the candle? He gives us the same spiel, we put in several hundred comments vehemently disagreeing and telling him how things really work, nothing changes, same ridiculous discredited PMR system goes ahead, general panning of management in the next Your Say survey, management say they'll communicate better and take on board our comments (ha ha), they will tinker with the system again (saying how much they've listened to us) and say how much better the "new" system will be, and on the cycle goes.

    • Replies to James>

      Comment by Matt posted on

      The PMR topic has garnered over 500 comments in less than 2 weeks, this one has managed 5 (including this one) in a little over a week with 3 of those (also including this one) seeking comment on the PMR topic.

      All the leadership capability in the world won't count for squat if we lose what is left of our capable front liners due to ignorance of their demoralisation on the part of said leadership.

    • Replies to James>

      Comment by getting completely hacked off posted on

      Sir Bob

      It would be a good idea to et some of the newly trained project managers to look to the role out of the PMR system.
      They at least could tell you when implimentation has gone wrong - see the blog on PMR.
      Then once that is sorted look to the content of the PMR system and have some SMEs look to put that right.

      Show some leadership on this please

  4. Comment by Paul Harcombe posted on

    502, and counting

  5. Comment by Jane posted on

    Sir Bob,

    You encourage greater use of Civil Service Learning in your post re project leadership and are right to do so, however as a regular user of CSL and responsible for raising PPM capability in my organisation I am really concerned about the decline in service since the change in contracts last year. I have experienced serious problems with getting courses organised with much of the admin burden falling to my team where it shouldn't. Course upon course upon course cancelled at the last minute (I am now on my third attempt at getting on an MoP course and nearly a year down the line from when I first booked), course availability is sketchy and often very infrequent for some of the newer courses (for example Agile) and overall total confusion between CSL and the contract providers around process and roles and responsibilities, and the quality of the training itself seems to have declined.

    How are these major contracts monitored in terms of performance and customer satisfaction? I know other departments are experiencing all of the same problems.