Secrets of an Outstanding Project

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to interview a couple of my clients from the British Antarctic Survey: Linda Capper, who is the Head of Communications, and Andy Jeffries, the Programme Manager for the new polar research vessel, the RRS Sir David Attenborough. I was honoured to be invited to the launch of the new boat last month in Birkenhead

Following that launch, Linda and Andy agreed to be interviewed by me about this intriguing project. You can watch the full interview here:

Since recording this interview two things stand out for me:

  1. This project is already very successful. At 30:35, Andy talks about how the project is not only successful but is one of the highest-rated in the UK Government’s top 200 major projects; and
  2. A lot of what was said is contrary to common thinking, both about our planet and about how to manage substantial marine engineering projects like this one. In fact, Linda and Andy knock a lot of conventional wisdom on its head.

Let’s look at some of the conventional beliefs that Linda and Andy take issue with, in the course of this interview.

"Antarctica is so remote that it has nothing much to do with us."

Nothing could be further from the truth. As Linda explained [04:00], through the work of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and polar research by other nations, it became clear that we are more connected with the continent of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean than many of us realise. Sir David Attenborough himself said at the launch, “What happens down there, affects us up here. And what we do here, affects what happens down there.”

"What happens down there affects us up here, and what we do her affects what happens down there." Sir David Attenborough

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Working with the National Environment Research Council (NERC) and BAS over the last four years, I am convinced that this kind of research is critical for our own and future generations on this planet.

“Reducing your fleet by half is downsizing.”

[05:33] Linda explained this difficult decision. Currently, BAS operates two vessels, with one planned for decommissioning next year. BAS could have replaced like for like, but ultimately the preferred solution, a larger more powerful ship, which allows experiments on board among other things, leads to better science. 

As Andy later pointed out, a reduction in the operational budget of running two ships, means more resources for important science. And, after all, science is the mission of BAS, isn’t it?

Sometimes we can be so focused on a part of the organisation’s problems - in this case, resilience - that we can overlook a simpler, more powerful solution.

The decision still means trade-offs for some stakeholders that they were unhappy about at first. But now everyone is much more aligned with making the new vessel an outstanding success.

Sometimes we can be so focused on part of the problem that we can overlook simpler, more powerful solutions.

“You can only have one customer on a project.”

I've heard this statement made in project management training courses. When it comes to decision-making on a project, people say, “Anything with two heads is a monster.” This statement is true when it comes to making a decision and giving clear direction. But governance - the organisation of roles and decision-making - while it should adequately represent the customer, is not the customer. Andy [09:20] began by saying he had two major customers, and later Linda argued there were several others.

Linda [15:20] described the communications strategy. The project developed it with the aim that every customer needed to gain something from the communications.  The customers, in her view, includes several government bodies as well as an ecosystem of private companies. This strategy helped her and others work through difficult issues for some stakeholders.

“You need a large core team for a £200 million project like this.”

Andy has a team of four [09:20]. Yes, four! He describes this team as spanning four decades - one person for each decade - which in itself is a strength for him. Team members are bound to see things from a different perspective. 

It is the fashion to recruit and create generation-based cultures, particularly in the digital world, that claim a better empathy with their own new breed of customer. Andy’s team does that as well as bring in the experience of different generations. The experience that comes with age has something to offer as well.

“It's impossible to future-proof a vessel like this since the project is over several years; it will be obsolescent by the time it goes into service!"

and

“You can't possibly consider an Agile approach to building such a huge ship.”

Andy explained [23:30] how they created a change budget so that obsolescence-on-delivery was less likely to happen. In fact, much of the thinking on this sizeable marine engineering project was more akin to Agile approaches than the traditional Specify-Design-Build (Waterfall) method we might expect from a substantial marine engineering project like this. As a result, much is impressive about the new vessel, where it has been able to take advantage of technologies that weren’t even in existence when the project began.

The change budget was their guard against obsolescence. I suggested it might be called an opportunity budget. With such rapid advances in technology, I’m sure these approaches will be needed by more and more projects, in all kinds of sectors.

A change/opportunity budget can future-proof a project against obsolescence.

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“Expertise in the particular technical field of the project is everything when managing a project like this.”

When people recruit for a project manager in, for example, server systems projects, they are likely to look for a candidate with experience of server system projects; and when they recruit for a project in building construction, they look for managers who have had experience of such projects. This practice seems to make sense. It is called domain experience. Employers place a high premium on recruiting project managers with domain experience.

And yet, Andy not only claims to have minimal previous ship-building experience [34:15] but argues that domain experience can be a disadvantage.

Maybe domain experience in leading and managing isn't quite as important as some say it is.

“People need to talk about Benefits Management.”

Andy says, no they don’t. In fact, he argues [36:00] that this is management jargon and it gets in the way of thinking about the rationale for the project.

We do need to be careful with our language, particularly in areas we care about. It can marginalise people without our realising it. 

“There is no way back from negative press that goes viral (i.e. when the British public wanted to call the vessel Boaty McBoatface)”

As you can probably tell by now, I’m a great fan of Linda Capper. In this segment of the interview [39:05], Linda talked me through the highs and lows of the initiative to put the naming of the boat to the public. Communications in the public domain can be a two-edged sword. Here, though, there was a skilful use of the media that capitalised on an otherwise-embarrassing episode.


Calling out the gold in each other

Finally, I got Linda and Andy each to call the gold out in each other [52:40]. It’s interesting what each of my guests said about each other, but also how ready they were to do this.

We could do with more appreciative, honouring work environments like that, couldn’t we?

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