Barriers, success, and Infrastructure and Projects Authority’s principles in digital projects

The crucial steps to set up complex projects, as discussed by digital project leaders at a roundtable supported by Mastek at CS Live 2023
Photo by Tom Hampson

Complex digital projects are a marathon, not a sprint. It pays to have access to guidelines that offer a blueprint for success, so that you can keep up with methods of delivery that map to future advancements in technology and policy.

When it comes to the civil service, those guidelines are down to the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA), which embeds policies that drive both government and industry to prioritise the social outcomes we need using improved delivery models.

To that end, a group of like-minded project leaders gathered at Civil Service Live to discuss the processes they were following to set up complex projects, including the principles for success, challenges, financial constraints, and timeframes. The roundtable was chaired by Jim Harra, HMRC’s First Permanent Secretary and Chief Executive, and this is a summary of the discussion, shining a light on the best practice to make a lasting impact.

Delivering projects against deadlines

When it comes to timeframes and using innovation to save time, it is important to strive for best practice — and this includes slowing down to go faster. Project can be more successful in the long term when you take the time to line up all stages of your project before making any announcement on progress.

However, this is challenging. Panellists agreed that this can be difficult, especially when you are delivering a project against a background of economic disruption and fiscal challenges and ministers need clear timeframes. 

But, if you're experiencing different levels of success working with ministers, then you can try adopting a ‘delivery lens’ to view your project in terms of delivery milestones rather than timelines. This can help a team when discussing their project with ministers. It can also provide clarity and assurance to ministers who may be managing competing priorities.

Another tip for working with ministers was being extremely clear on what your issues or trade-offs are. Although it may seem counterintuitive to expose negative elements of your project, it can serve as a constructive starting point which can help you refine further on.

Driving alignment in large teams

The group of digital leaders asserted that to drive success, there needs to be robust ways of working and strong relationships to enable larger teams. But aligning teams is hard, especially during a pandemic. One opportunity the panellists identified was to view their project through a 'people lens', which priorities co-operation and keeps leaders alert to managing resource effectively. They said that viewing their project through a ‘people lens’ was successful in prioritising cooperation and keeping them alert to managing resource effectively.

There’s something else that leaders are doing to drive alignment. One digital project leader was spearheading a project in a government department with 12 delivery groups. To take advantage of the combined power of the teams, this leader built relationships and acted as a critical friend of both the programme and business. The result was an independent view of progress and empowered both teams when the delivery capability is large and complex.

Overcoming common delivery challenges

Panellists also discussed challenges commonly faced in delivering projects. They agreed that when a fast pace is established early on in a project, it can be difficult to maintain this while also maintaining confidence in the overall project. They also agreed that it is easier to feel confident in your project when you are leading it.

Another challenge the group acknowledged was handling the pressure of always wanting to improve your project and services when you are pulled away by the granular details.

To reconfigure a project whilst trying to scope out their next step, one leader hit on a helpful tactic: share objectives. The participants agreed that this shifts the focus from planning to outcomes and milestones.

Fundamentally, this is underpinned by what one participant called ‘the plan is the plan until it isn’t’. The idea here is simple: this ethos allows leaders to maintain focus on what’s in front of them while another part of the team looks to the future. It also prevents you from being too strongly bound to a long-term plan when what you need to do is adapt and change direction as needed.

Top tips to avoid underperformance and control costs

The group of digital leaders asserted that there are many financial challenges around project delivery. For example, one leader described their experience in the private sector, where there is a tendency to be optimistic when calculating how much a project is going to cost and how long it will take. The participants agreed that you need to find ways of injecting realism into a project without putting a dampener on the energy and momentum of your team. 

To realise budgets and control costs, you need to be realistic about team performance. One leader described how some projects appear to be performing well, yet they’re actually underperforming. These are called ‘watermelon programmes’ because they are green on the outside and red on the inside.

This leader used deep dives on micro-assumptions to check what you do and don’t know before starting a piece of work. The team built a culture where members can ask for help or assign a ‘critical friend’ who can advise objectively. This approach can yield a lot of benefits because it provides the necessary space to discuss the value of terminating or resetting projects that are going off track. One of the panellists noted that leaders can be reluctant to stop projects if they are going off track, but instead it should be seen as acceptable if you fail for the sake of innovation.

The group landed on the idea of a ‘failure project of the year award’, rewarding teams for recognising when something isn’t working and moving in a different direction. This idea was presented with a touch of humour, but ‘resetting’ can be a powerful tool in project management. For example, even giving your project a new name or moving it into a new phase can give it a renewed sense of purpose.

The point is this: it’s essential to recognise when a project is failing and to support staff who are working on a project that has been reset or terminated.

Digital project leaders need to build trust and community

Running digital projects is hard work, and the panellists agreed that leaders don't make projects work — teams do. Leaders need to build capability in their teams to enable them to respond quickly to challenges and learn lessons to keep improving their people and projects. 

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