Complex project delivery: why transport organisations need to explore new routes to value

Richard Sallnow Dimitri Konstantinidis

By Richard Sallnow, Dimitri Konstantinidis

Over the decades, transport organisations have developed sophisticated methods for delivering major infrastructure projects in a safety-critical environment.

Naturally, they continue to apply lessons from this experience to their current delivery challenges. But projects they must deliver today are radically different to those they’ve delivered in the past. With over 70% of all UK transport infrastructure projects running over budget, and over half having a benefit shortfall, something needs to change. Infrastructure owners and operators in road, rail and aviation must increasingly deliver transformational projects where stakeholder needs are unclear, incompatible or evolving.

New projects are more complex involving more inter-connected technology, more demanding safety standards, complex environmental issues. At the same time, the delivery environment is undergoing massive disruption. The sustainability and low-carbon agenda, the rapid development of innovative technologies and accelerating societal change all combine to create new risks and wide-ranging uncertainty.

Traditional project delivery methods aren't enough  

These changes mean that, in many contexts, a traditional delivery approach based on a stable relationship between solution and outcomes is unlikely to generate effective value. Moreover, a linear approach can result in the delivery of benefits that are no longer relevant at the programme end. How does a motorway service station strike the right balance between fuel versus electric charging infrastructure for customers, as the shift to electric vehicles increases to as high as 36 million by 2040 on UK roads?  

To maximise value from investment and deliver complex projects successfully, transport leaders need to reappraise their delivery approach and do things differently. Here are three priority actions to consider:  

1.Understand the project delivery environment first before confirming your delivery approach…  

Today, the environment around transformational projects is likely to evolve substantially between the first ‘go decision’ and the first spade landing in the ground. This makes it crucial that the current and future environment is considered before work begins. This helps understand how the environment might change and ensure the project outcomes remain relevant. Without this, the programme will be ‘doomed to succeed’ – working against objectives that are no longer relevant.

A traditional delivery approach will still be reasonable where an organisation can confidently know all elements of the delivery environment. For instance, the implementation of a road bridge that is certain to support the same volume and type of vehicles under known standards. But such certainty today is unusual – what if there’s a need to enable newly-considered ‘electric roads’, requiring the bridge to hold more infrastructure such as overhead power line?

Before confirming the delivery approach of a complex project, organisations must consider and challenge the delivery environment assumptions. The simple act of articulating what it knows, what it thinks it knows and what it definitely doesn’t know will highlight where better data, new information and fresh insight is needed.

Organisations should then consider how wider societal, environmental and technology trends could give rise to a range of different scenarios – and consider the likelihood and impact that might have on their projects. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, scenario planning has become a common tool to consider the short and medium term response to changes in transport use. This is what Transport for London (TfL) did, for example, in response to the dramatic decline in passenger journeys driven by the pandemic. Given the uncertainty surrounding medium to long term demand on its network, TfL needed to assess its financial sustainability and establish a robust long-term capital plan. Considering different scenarios for passenger demand with long-term capital planning scenarios and funding levers, TfL defined possible outcomes post-pandemic. This led to the de-prioritisation of strategically important schemes such as Crossrail 2 and the Bakerloo line extension, and instead focused on decarbonising TfL’s network, and investing on productivity improvement, innovation and technology for the first ten years of its capital plan.

2. Adapting is as important as planning 

In today’s environment, it makes no sense to focus on a rigid delivery plan with fixed milestones for most complex projects. This approach assumes that dense, messy challenges can be resolved with straight-forward analysis, drawing a clear line from cause to effect, leaving minimal scope to adapt to change.  

A more effective approach is to create flexible boundaries for potential solutions and experiment within them. Not every experiment will succeed. But by failing fast, organisations can learn fast. Be ruthless in stopping experiments that don’t produce the desired results and equally ruthless in identifying and investing in innovation that realises benefits. 

Leaders should be looking to identify specific trigger points, or leading indicators, during the delivery process that have the potential to disrupt the case for individual projects. These include events such as regulatory change, new legislation, deadlines for policy decisions or market and societal shifts in trends. Commitments made at the COP26 climate summit, for example, have the potential to up-end calculations around the relative value of different road, rail and micro-mobility projects. Increased announcements of corporate policies to work from home or increased housing demand in certain geographies hold the potential to lower transport use and challenge assumptions.  

The recent COVID-19 pandemic saw decreased use of public transport options across cities. In response, DfT accelerated the introduction of e-scooter trials to offer a green and more covid-safe means to travel. Working with Transport for West Midlands, we supported the design of the UK’s largest e-scooter trial at the time, adopting an accelerated approach to launch the trial in just four months. This trial won’t provide the perfect solution, but it has launched the process of experimentation and is already delivering learning to shape the future solution. 

3.Focus on delivering value early 

Traditionally, long-term transformational projects have aimed to deliver value in one giant leap via a big bang. In today’s fast-paced and messy operating environment, any disruption is likely to lead to disenchanted and disengaged stakeholders. 

This makes ‘time to value’ a critical factor. The faster a project can deliver outcomes that stakeholders value, the greater the buy-in and the stronger the case for investment. Delivering and releasing value incrementally, through smaller steps, can create a multiplier effect that focuses delivery and secures stakeholder buy-in throughout.  

The key lies in understanding and continuing to understand customer and stakeholder needs. Developing tangible demonstrators (not just paper designs) fast and throughout the delivery process is fundamental. This enables users to experience first-hand the value of transformation initiatives and provides visible proof that solutions in development are real and tangible.  

Feedback from stakeholders enables project teams to prioritise the areas where they can bring most value. It also enables organisations to map ‘value drops’ across the transformation. Aligning these to the organisation’s governance investment cycles helps minimise lead times between value demonstrated and ‘approval to proceed’. 

This way of innovating is something we’ve been working on with Network Rail. Together, we’ve created an Accelerated Innovation Programme that provides a practical process for turning ideas into workable solutions, capable of testing novel ideas and capturing tangible benefits in as little as 12 weeks. One such idea was the award-winning OLE StAT (Overhead Line Equipment Statistical Analysis Toolkit), a tool for making better use of performance data from overhead line equipment to predict and prevent asset failure. The tool improves the safety of workers on the track by reducing the duration and frequency of repeated manual surveys. It also has the potential to deliver millions in performance savings and make the railway a safer, more reliable environment to operate. 

Complex projects need to be adaptive 

The environment in which projects are delivered is ever more complex. Sticking with a delivery approach that is comfortable and familiar is likely to be costly and with a benefits shortfall. We’ve identified 3 ways in which organisations can approach their project delivery differently, creating flexibility and adaptability.

In our experience, when establishing projects and for those in-flight, organisations must understand the delivery environment and explore fresh options to their delivery approach, using those who can check and challenge the delivery approach from a non-traditional perspective. This will enable them to adapt to change, maximise value from investment and deliver the transport outcomes that customers want.

About the authors

Richard Sallnow
Richard Sallnow PA transport expert
Dimitri Konstantinidis
Dimitri Konstantinidis PA transport infrastructure expert

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