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Learning the lessons

General Sir Mike Jackson
PA Consulting Group Defence Director, pages 14-15
January 2009

The UK’s armed forces are currently fighting innovative and agile adversaries, and the ability to counter rapidly evolving threats with military capability delivered in the form of Urgent Operational Requirements (UORs) is critical.

The MoD has had a great deal of success in delivering UORs worth more than £3bn in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The recent announcement of 700 more protected patrol vehicles for Afghanistan, at a cost in excess of £700m, is  evidence of the continued commitment to meet operational requirements through the UOR processes.

In its 2008 report, the Defence Committee commented: “The UOR process has delivered substantial amounts of vital equipment to our armed forces operating in Afghanistan and Iraq. We commend DE&S for the speed at which it is getting urgently needed equipment into theatre, the procurement of Mastiff vehicles being a good example of this”.

UORs clearly represent a proven means of delivering capability into theatre very rapidly and in response to changing circumstances.

Building on these successes, the Defence Committee also suggested that “there are some important lessons which can be learned from the procurement of UORs and applied to mainstream equipment procurement, and we expect the MoD to ensure that this is done”.

In order to successfully transfer learnings from the successful delivery of UORs, it is imperative that the lessons learned are relevant to mainstream procurement.

How relevant are lessons learned from UORs to mainstream procurement?
There are some key differences between UORs and mainstream procurements. The majority of the MoD’s mainstream procurement budget is contained within the 20 or so major projects reported upon by the National Audit Office, each of which is worth c£1bn or more. These large projects usually deliver complex integrated systems, embodying substantial amounts of development risk. They are also the projects that the MoD finds most difficult to deliver within expectations. In contrast, many UORs tend to be small, of the order of £10m, and focus on developments of close to market or Military Off The Shelf (MOTS) equipment.

Whilst these factors suggest that UORs and mainstream projects differ significantly, some of the larger UORs do possess a spend rate that is comparable with some of the MoD’s largest projects and may be equally complex as some major projects, involving development risk and placing a much greater emphasis on realising capability, rather than delivering equipment. These UORs are much closer to mainstream procurement projects and valuable lessons could well be learned from their delivery.

UORs offer the opportunity to do things differently
There are both cultural and process differences between the delivery of UORs and mainstream procurement projects.

UORs, by their very nature, possess a strong sense of urgency with dates for delivery that are measured in months rather than years. This sense of urgency represents a double-edged sword, which encourages innovation and requires strong teamwork and focus for success, but at the same time also provides potential excuses for cutting corners, some of which may be important.

Innovation is often more apparent in UORs than mainstream procurement projects since, given the need to get things done, it can be more easily justified as long as it makes good sense, and experience suggests that it can be adopted rapidly. The rapid approvals process for UORs takes a more relaxed approach to scrutiny and a more pragmatic approach to competitions that tend to run more quickly, with selections being made on sufficient, rather than exhaustive evidence.

It is not only the MoD that works with urgency, flexibly and innovatively. The defence industry has an excellent track record of working at substantial risk in support of UORs, well ahead of any contractual cover and of putting aside commercial positioning in order to support delivery to theatre.

These differences provide opportunities for accelerated delivery, although they need to be realised within a fit-for-purpose organisational and process framework.

Learning the lessons of UORs
So what can mainstream procurement programmes learn from UORs? Five key actions are proposed:

  • Focusing on capability rather than equipment – The role of the Capability Integration Working Group (CIWG) is paramount, facilitating a clear understanding of the capability (not equipment) that is required and the actions necessary to deliver it. A clear capture of requirements, expressed in terms of outcomes, is as essential to the successful delivery of a UOR as it is to the delivery of a major project.

  • Encouraging innovation – Innovation is usually beneficial – but if, in extreme instances, it is coupled to a lack of control, it may result in chaos and failure to deliver. Some form of effective delivery framework is essential, but it need not be heavyweight and should use only those processes that add value and enable delivery. 

  • Maintaining control – Controls in the form of clear and realistic delivery plans and a stable requirement, backed up by a sound project management approach, really do make a difference. Driving delivery on a monthly basis through the use of a ‘plan, do, compare, act’ cycle has been shown to be extremely effective. Surprisingly this is, in our experience, still not universally well implemented within mainline procurements.

  • • Delivering with just enough process – An absence of process can be dangerous and lead to surprises, but reducing processes to those that add value and enable rapid delivery and streamlining those that remain, especially in the areas of  scrutiny, approvals and competition and limiting the evidence necessary to support them to that which is just sufficient.

  • Using right-sized, well-motivated delivery teams – Experience, from both within and outside of defence, suggests that rightsized (often smaller) teams of multi-skilled and capable individuals tend to achieve more, and much more rapidly, than large teams of specialists, with a real premium attached to an understanding of what is to be delivered and the operational context within which it is to be used. Similarly, experience shows that joint MoD and industry teams can be extremely successful. A joint team with clear responsibilities is likely to deliver best, particularly if industry has been involved from the earliest time possible, helping to shape the delivery plan and mitigate the major delivery risks.

Testing these proposals in mainstream programmes can be done easily and with little risk
While applying these lessons requires both cultural and procedural change to the current procurement process, substantial benefits are there to be realised: the savings made in terms of reduced cost escalation more than offset the costs of change. Rather than advocating whole sale adoption piloting these proposals within an incrementally based delivery plan, treating each increment as a UOR could provide a suitable vehicle for demonstrating their effectiveness and ultimately improving mainstream equipment procurement.

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