Industry Voice: Vital project management lessons from the past must be learnt if the UK is to realise the opportunities of net zero, explains Ashwini Bakshi from the Project Management Institute
At the heart of the Conservative Party's 2019 general election manifesto lay a promise to 'level up' the UK and reduce inequality between regions. Over two years later, however, the materialisation of this pledge is yet to be seen.
Investment has been made - the government last year committed £200m to 477 local projects across the UK - but pressure is mounting for ambition to become reality.
With such a vast scale of initiatives running simultaneously, systematic program and project management will be critical to the agenda's long-term success. When we also consider the priority to achieve net zero - one of the most complex challenges of our generation - it becomes clear that yesterday's methods will require a rethink for progress to be achieved.
Setting clear objectives
First, we need to define what 'levelling up' means and what success looks like. For every project, those leading it must produce clear objectives that can show stakeholders why it is taking place, what the outcomes will be, and how long it will take. It is important that this roadmap is realistic and does not over-promise to communities already sceptical about how projects can help them.
No project comes without risk, and so the inherent executional and reputational risks must be considered, listed, and mitigated where possible. Transparency is critical to gaining stakeholder trust, and they should be informed with risks that are likely to be realised throughout a the project.
We need to break the cycle of failed projects like HS2. The railway expansion has drowned in a sea of different strategic objectives, painting a confused picture for taxpayers seeking assurance on where their money was being spent. This exemplifies the importance of setting a dominant objective and benefit when starting a new project, while providing ongoing clarity that breeds stakeholder confidence.
For 'levelling up' initiatives, project managers can benefit from public consultation before starting to move forward. The general public expect their taxes to, ultimately, improve the quality of their life and they should have a voice in how this is done. Equally, project leaders should be able to clearly show stakeholders how less immediately relatable project objectives will improve their lives moving forward.
For this reason, project leadership should keep coming back to the original objectives, firstly to confirm that they are still valid, and secondly to ensure steady progress towards benefit realisation among the communities in which they are looking to improve. Stakeholders should be kept informed at every stage of this process.
Addressing the project skills gap
Finally, the realisation of a mass scale of projects will be complicated without the project talent to lead and execute them. Our recent survey found that over 80 per cent of UK professionals have managed projects but only half have received formal project management training. Furthermore, the government found there is currently a 12 per cent deficit between businesses saying project skills are important (80 per cent) and those saying they are currently performed well (68 per cent).
By putting inexperienced or underskilled individuals in charge of public sector projects, the government will face innumerable issues that undermine their wider commitment to Levelling Up the UK. Investment in national project upskilling - from ministers to junior professionals - would lay the foundations for the successful execution of 'levelling up' plans.
Learning must be conducted using a goal-orientated approach. We must first identify a project's end goal, and the non-negotiable skills needed to reach that point. The evolution of learning means that individuals can take a holistic approach to upskilling, deploying strategies that range from classroom lessons and e-learning to micro-credentials and learning audits. Once resources are made available, so it is ultimately up to the learner to own responsibility for their own development.
The prospect of the government's plans is an exciting one for the future of the UK, especially as we strive to meet our net zero commitments, but vital project management lessons must be learnt from the past if this anticipation is to translate into success.
Ashwini Bakshi is managing director of Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa for the Project Management Institute.
To read more about the project management principles that can facilitate the transition to Net Zero, please visit the Project Management Institute's website.
This article is sponsored by Project Management Institute (PMI).