The Leaders Breakfast Series Continue: Complexity

Constructing Excellence

Complexity is an issue that construction has had to embrace increasingly over the last twenty years. Today’s infrastructure project is made up of a succession of moving parts, many of which have interdependencies and over which the project team have no direct influence. Any one of these, if not managed correctly and in many cases sensitively, has the ability to undermine the perceived success of the project. The challenge, though, is to establish whether they are manageable and what to do if they are not.

This concept of uncertainty is difficult for the engineering mind which prefers absolutes in its black and white world or more to the point wants to find a path to certainty. In the past, the project manager was able to break down the task into manageable chunks and assemble the completed units. Job done.

Nowadays, there is a host of external criteria that bombard the project team whose only defence is experience and capability. The questions now are around whether today’s armour of people, systems and structures equips the team with the right skills, experience and tools to withstand the arrows that are launched during the course of the project.

The project manager can be technically competent. However, this is not sufficient. The team needs to be able to cater for a host of stakeholders. end users, interest groups, environmentalists, communities and businesses supported by politicians, lawyers and regulators. All are seeking to maximise their position using the infrastructure project to further their cause.

The project is an ugly grub which metamorphosises into a beautiful butterfly – the asset. The project (with its cost, time and quality targets conspicuously painted on its side) is a political football which at handover becomes an asset and, therefore, its transition to a national treasure.

As we enter the 4th Industrial Revolution, we find that we have an ever-increasing number of digital tools that can create project certainty…by making assumptions about the external variables. However, there is a trade off in that the digital era has generated a fog of data. Oh, and wait a moment, the external variables that we previously fixed have still to be managed.

Anyone, who is associated with schools from Singapore to Stranraer, will tell you that the increasing problem amongst young people is mental wellbeing. Therefore, this man-made phenomenon has no natural remedy in its new generation. Generation Z (15 to 25-year olds) are no better equipped to deal with this than the Baby Boomer although they are less likely to be fazed by a digital solution.

The conclusion is that major programmes are complex and therefore, by definition, difficult. By being difficult they are unpredictable. There are too many moving parts. Nevertheless, the system pressures the project champion to fix the capital programme to gain a favourable decision. If the early budgets are too high, then forget it.

Is there a solution? Yes; and it probably has three parts. Firstly, as leaders we need to become politicians (with a small p) and shape expectations. Secondly, we need to systemise the possible and ensure that we learn from our past experiences – we may need to develop our tools so that we can manage risk, the interfaces and supply chains more efficiently. Thirdly, we need to be more sophisticated in the way that we develop our project leaders.

About the Author

Simon Flint, the author, is chairman of the Leaders Breakfast Meetings which seek to discuss topical construction issues. He has worked with Constructing Excellence and its predecessors since the 90s – looking at pioneering initiatives that improve the efficiency and productivity of the industry. However, the thoughts expressed in this “article” are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Constructing Excellence, Advance Consultancy or SCC.


The Leaders Breakfast series are a collaboration between Constructing Excellence, Advance Consultancy and SCC.