The NAO/Cabinet Office issued a list of common causes of project failure in 2004, and reissued it, unchanged, in 2012. The first item on the list is alignment, or “lack of clear links between the project and the organisation’s key strategic priorities, including agreed measures of success”. This article considers some alignment factors which can affect the likelihood of positive outcomes for construction projects.
Traditionally, the client’s requirements for a construction project were spelt out to the project team in suites of tender documents, which eventually became the contracts between the client and the team members. Since the 1990’s, the industry has taken forward the ideas in the Latham and Egan reports, notably the need to move away from adversarial contracts and conduct, and the need for all project team members to place the client’s needs at the forefront of their minds.
The CDM Regulations 2015 rightly emphasise the duties of clients in arranging projects from the outset in such a way as to ensure that risks to health and safety are properly controlled. In that vein, a frequent cause of accidents has been found to be a lack of a clear and common understanding between members of a work group. Not only do the people involved need a clear understanding of what is required, they each need the same understanding. This principle should apply to all areas where alignment is a key to success, but in what areas is alignment needed?
Three of Kipling’s six honest serving-men, What, Where and When, could be thought of as representing “hard”, task-centred issues, such as “build a bridge to current standards over the Thames at Gravesend by the end of 2030”. The other three, Who, How and Why, could be taken to represent “soft”, or people-centred ones, such as “using the cheapest, best engineers in the world, working collaboratively, in order to improve traffic flows around east London”. In practice, of course, the issues may not be so clear cut. Traditionally, requirements for hard construction issues were spelt out in contract specifications, whereas those for soft ones could sometimes only be inferred. Since projects are delivered by teams of people, at least as much effort needs to be put into the alignment of project teams on soft issues as on hard ones.
Business imperatives can lead clients to drive project teams to start detailed design and construction sooner than might, with the benefit of hindsight, be found to have given the best outcome. Small projects can be prone to concerns about proportionality, but can face many of the same issues as major programmes. Thus, outline project appraisals should allow for adequate development to take place before significant resources are committed. Various tools, such as the OGC Gateway Review process, BS 11000 2010 (Collaborative Business Relationships) and the RIBA Plan of Work 2013, have been developed to help to identify and manage hard and soft issues, including those which arise during the development phase.
One starting point could be for the client to set out its mission statement and its requirements, numerately but without too much detail, in a Client Brief for a project or construction manager (“the PM”). The client should not only set key outputs for hard deliverables, but should also consider soft issues, such as how to align the interests of the team members (including the client), whilst using behaviours which support the client’s overall goals. A Client Brief could call for the preparation of a number of strategies whereby the PM reflects to the client, for its approval, the way the PM proposes to fulfil the requirements of the brief, giving more detail and perhaps some subsidiary targets. The Client Brief and the strategies might be revised from time to time, and input from other team members, when appointed, should be sought in turn, as part of their alignment.
Such strategies should respond not only to the means of achieving the hard targets, but they should also address the hard and soft questions about how the project will be procured and delivered. For example, how would the project team be incentivised to manage risks and make the best of opportunities? The targets should relate to the whole life of the assets to be created or altered by the project. If everyone is to understand what success looks like, then targets should include performance criteria and high-level quality and environmental requirements. Not least, provision should be made for assurance that the success criteria in the client’s business case will be achieved and demonstrated, balancing the needs for commercial confidentiality and alignment.
Stakeholder confidence and the management of expectations can often be key issues, and giving people reasons why requirements are necessary can enhance the understanding of the bigger picture, thereby improving performance. One of the strategies should consider how the project team (including the client) are to work and communicate with each other, and how and to what extent they will communicate with other stakeholders and not least, with the corporate management of each team member’s firm. Following the dictum of Plan – Do – Review, forecasting, review and governance arrangements should be established for both hard and soft issues so that the project can be demonstrably kept on track. To that end, the team should understand the levels of delegated authority required to sanction change, the processes to be used and the time required for decisions, all of which should support the project’s needs to be agile as events unfold.
This is not intended to be a comprehensive list of matters to consider, as every project has its own characteristics, challenges and opportunities. Nonetheless, projects are delivered by teams of people, and therefore soft issues are at least as important as hard ones. Furthermore, the cost and time spent in the early development of a construction project should be balanced against the risk that it will go awry due to lack of alignment.
Bob Crease MSc CEng FICE FCIArb FPWI
Bob Crease was employed by the client organisation on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Project (now called High Speed 1) from 1998 to 2007. When he left at the end of construction on time and within the budget of £5.4bn, he was Executive Director of CTRL (UK) Ltd. He now practises as a construction adjudicator and independent consultant, and is a member of the Resolex RADAR Panel.