Being agile without a capital ‘A’!

My construction project management students will generally tell me that Agile has no place in construction.  Indeed, many feel that the PMI has alienated engineering and construction by their insistence of the integration of Agile in the Body of Knowledge.  When it comes to the Agile frameworks such as SAFe and Scrum maybe the students are right.

However, I do have a deep suspicion that construction does, and has for some time, used agile approaches we just don’t call them Agile!  Take the idea of ‘gamification’ which features in many Agile facilitation approaches.

Gamification is more than just playing games

Gamification at its simplest is defined as:

the application of game dynamics and mechanics into non-gaming environments

For example, the use of Planning Poker to improve estimating practices and encourage consensus building around the estimates.  Or Retropoly – a game based upon Monopoly which encourages open reflections during the retrospective process.  There are many others.

But gamification is not just about ‘playing games’.  It’s actually about generating game mindsets.  As we see in this definition here:

Gamification is a process of enhancing services with (motivational) affordances in order to invoke gameful experiences and further behavioural outcomes

It’s not the playing of the game that matters. It’s the generation of the feelings, behaviours and attitudes that come along with gameplay that makes the difference.

If you have never seen the San Diego 4-hour-house then it is definitely worth having a look at the short video clip.  In it, two teams compete to build a house from the ground up in 4-hours.  The winning team does it in two hours 45 minutes!  The causes of this amazing productivity are many, but one of the big contributors is the motivational impact caused by the introduction of the competitive elements between the two teams.  This is not just the construction of a house to them, but the participation in a big-time construction game league.  As commented by one of the participants: “

This is not the normal day-job. This is fun!

By the way. It would be tempting to look back on the four-hour-house and dismiss it as just a piece of publicity, with no real engineering or construction value.  However, it’s worth remembering, the application of the time-constraint on this project forced innovation around the construction processes which we can still learn from today.   For example, the use of chemically heating concrete to get it to set within 30 minutes is now a common practice where time is of the essence. 

Crossrail and the use of competition to encourage innovation

Earlier this year I wrote about the great project legacy sharing that has been occurring in the UK promoted by the Major Projects Association.

Crossrail is probably best known as the 15 billion pound railway that is going to be severely over-budget and over-time.  What is refreshing however is the transparency of the operation of the project and its determination to ensure a real learning legacy.  You can find many useful reports and insights on mega-projects on the Crossrail Legacy site.

Crossrail is a large infrastructure project creating an east-west railway line across London and its surroundings. The line will be 73 miles long including 13 miles of underground line under central London. Crossrail brings together numerous contractors working over a dozen of sites.

In the early stages of the Crossrail project, it was recognised that innovation would be critical to finding appropriate solutions.  That meant both encouraging the generation of new ideas as well as having the mechanisms to select and exploit the development of the new solutions.

Invention is the first occurrence of an idea for a new product or process, while innovation is the first attempt to carry it out into practice.

A three-year open innovation programme was funded to encourage the sharing of ideas.  Crossrail adopted an open approach to “create an innovation ecosystem around itself and to foster collaboration among contractors”. 

The innovation team set up the Innovate18 platform where every employee could submit innovative ideas, which it evaluated.  And guess what?  For those ideas which looked promising, the team helped individuals to prepare an entry for the innovation competition.  

Innovate 18 has been very successful with over 800 innovations submitted to the platform since it first went online in 2013 with the support provided by the innovation programme team contributing to a high level of engagement with the platform. The innovation competition aims to promote the submission of early stage ideas to the platform by offering the possibility of financial help to further develop the idea and in doing so overcomes one of the challenges faced by innovation submission platforms which is a tendency to mostly receive submissions for incremental innovations.

Researchers at Imperial College London evaluated  the success of the Crossrail innovation programme and you can find the full report on the Crossrail website.  There is lots of learning to be found here about how to promote usable innovation.  For me, I feel that creating the change in mind-set, promoting sharing between suppliers who don’t normally share and encouraging the follow through of potential new solutions.  Well, that culture change could at least partially be attributed to gamification – creating that game mindset which encourages individuals and groups to just have fun!

Agility is all around

Agile and its related frameworks have created energy and excitement around the techniques that they espouse.  That energy to do things differently, and hopefully to do things better, is an important positive force. 

It would be a shame if this energy led to insularism and ‘methodologist terrorism’.  Perhaps the real lessons are that when we look through a different lens we can and must learn from every discipline.  Maybe our plea to those working on the next PMI Body of Knowledge, which promises to integrate Agile into the very way projects are managed, is that we need to be:

small ‘a’ agile in our practices, welcoming of learning from all disciplines and wary of imposing prescriptive methods.

For further information

  • Hamari, J., Koivisto, J., & Sarsa, H. (2014, January). Does Gamification Work? -A Literature Review of Empirical Studies on Gamification. In HICSS (Vol. 14, No. 2014, pp. 3025-3034).
  • Koivisto, J., & Hamari, J. (2019). The rise of motivational information systems: A review of gamification research. International Journal of Information Management45, 191-210.
  • Worsley, L., & Worsley, C. (2019). Adaptive Project Planning. Business Expert Press.

What learning legacy are you building?

Project learning legacies

I’ve just returned from a week in the UK having had some great project conversations.  One thing that really struck me was the emphasis on learning legacies.  This has particularly taken off in the engineering and construction industries where learning legacy portals are being made publicly available. 

These legacy learning sites aim to share knowledge and insights across the profession. As the Crossrail legacy site so aptly puts it – they want to promote a

‘pinch with pride’

attitude to encourage projects to learn from what has happened before.

Our work on lessons learned, which came out of the Success Stories Shared initiative in South Africa, suggested that:

Despite 80% of projects running PIRs, less than 20% of PIR reports were ever re-accessed, and there was little evidence of organisational learning.

Lessons identified only become lessons learnt once the collected knowledge is used in current or future projects. There needs to be a transition space created where a shift takes place, and vital knowledge is not simply stored away in files, not being accessed, but rather becomes implemented on a practical project level. But who is responsible for this shift from lessons identified to lessons learnt and how can it be facilitated?

It is interesting to see in sites such as the Major Projects Knowledge Hub that there is an emphasis, not only on sharing stories but also on connecting networks of experts across the industry.

Perhaps there needs to be a conceptual shift between the process of identifying lessons and actually learning lessons. If learning results in change, then what usually takes place at the end of a project would be the identification of a lesson. Rather than having lessons identified as one of the outcomes of the project, it should be seen as the start of the process that develops the lessons that are genuinely learnt and thus, by definition, implemented.  

In one retail company in South Africa, we have seen this approach embedded in the process of starting a project.  The project motivation documentation requires the project manager and sponsor to agree on which previous projects the new project is most similar.  There must be some evidence that information and learning from these projects have been taken into account.  After four years of this in action, both sponsors and projects managers are unanimous in their view – it is crazy not to do this!

Learning legacy portals

Perhaps the best known and earliest portal in the UK was that set up following the 2012 London Olympic games:

This is now in an archive state but here are some others that are very much alive and worth following:

I’m sure there must be more across the world.  Please do share information about any others you know.

Our new book, Adaptive Project Planning, uses stories gathered from lessons learned in projects across the world. It is now available on Amazon.

When the budget really matters: A church restoration with lottery funding

When Ian Cribbes, took over the project management of the St Edburg’s church conservation work in Bicester he had not quite realized how different it would be from the projects and programmes he had managed for over 30 years for BAE Systems.    The project had a £205,500 budget – somewhat smaller than the multi-million-pound projects he had been involved in his professional career.  This budget came in two phases; phase 1 was for £19,500 and was allocated for the carrying out of development work (the production of plans and reports); phase 2 was for £186,000 and was allocated to the actual works to be carried out.  But, as he is the first to admit, this project proves the point that being small does not necessarily make it simple.  Sometimes tight constraints demand higher levels of capability and attention to detail from the project manager.

The St Edburg’s work was a conservation project to restore its Grade 1 listed building, parts of which date back 900 years and was funded by the Heritage Lottery.  (In the UK work on a Grade 1 Listed Building is categorized as ‘conservation work’ when its purpose is to retain what is there for future generations.  Renovation and restoration, on the other hand, is when work is carried out to take things back to what they were.)

Ian is an experienced project manager and knew he had things to learn as the construction domain, and in particular heritage conservation, was new to him.  What he hadn’t foreseen was how the difference in the funding and the stipulated budgetary control processes would affect the planning and every aspect of the execution of the project.  The budget constraint was absolute – it was this amount and not a penny more!  While the control of spending on commercial projects is important, with most, especially larger, budgets there are usually opportunities for virement – moving costs between account categories.  It is also often the case that there isn’t an absolute cost: when push comes to shove – more money can be found.  This was very much not the case on this project.

Continue reading “When the budget really matters: A church restoration with lottery funding”

Changing IT roll-outs into stakeholder-led implementations

When rolling out new IT infrastructure to a large number of client sites, it is tempting to consider it to be the same project over and over again.  But while the project may be justified in terms of the standardisation of technologies across the corporation, how those technologies get implemented and exploited by each business area may be substantially different.

Philpic1Phil and his team recognised that the crucial factor, the thing that would make-or-break this global project was not the technology but the differing business contexts and stakeholders concerns that each roll-out would deliver into.  A previous attempt at implementation had been a costly failure – the business knew it and needed other options.  Fifty-seven countries impacted;  12,000 applications reduced to just one thousand; the very way that users could access their PCs would change with admin rights removed from all personal computers.  These changes were far-reaching, and their instigation by a central controlling group was unlikely to meet with group-wide excitement and positive emotions!

The business agreed a new approach was necessary.  The first actions taken by the project manager, Phil Urwin, was to send members of his team to visit the twenty hub-countries and establish the stakeholder success criteria.  What would make it good for them at their site… in their words?  Phil’s aim was to convert the technology implementation into a stakeholder-led programme.  Each site visit resulted in a 2-page summary of what mattered to the local stakeholders, and each site was different.  Some reported non-technical users who would need hand-holding –  others reported good technical skills.  Implementation no-go times, PC wants and needs- all captured succinctly in the 2-page mandate for the site implementation.

The rollout project was a large initiative for the company.   At the Head Offices in the UK,  the normal governance structures existed – “these role-based stakeholder engagements were engaged through formal structures, but often there was little interest from them beyond getting a view about the status of the project.  It was with the agenda-based stakeholders that we needed to focus our attention.”  The project established open channels of communication with these groups using webex or whatever medium best suited the participants.  Before and during the implementation this was crucial and resulted in at least weekly meetings.  While the project team took responsibility for the initiation of the meetings, the agenda was driven by the stakeholders – it was definitely their meeting.

With fifty percent of the programme rolled out and four of the largest implementations completed the signs are good.  Customer satisfaction ratings were previously 2-3 and during and post the implementation moved from 4.1 to 4.6.  When asked about the lesson learned from the project, Phil describes two critical areas:

  • A stakeholder-led project. Right from the start, the project outcomes were aligned to the needs and agendas of stakeholders in their own business context.  Phil does not talk about the technology or what it could or could not do – his total focus is on addressing these concerns.
  • Stakeholder-focused, “like-minded team.” It’s not enough for the project and project manager to be stakeholder-focused this attitude and approach must be propagated throughout the whole team. Following the process is not good enough (although the process matters) the understanding and buy-in from every team member is crucial to translating good ideas into a reality on the client site.

Phil Urwin is currently a programme manager with The Grangeside Group.  In September he will be presenting at the New Zealand Project Management Conference in Christchurch on how to recruit the right project manager, develop and keep them.

My thanks to Phil for taking part in the Success Stories Shared initiative.

SSS-logo-smallSuccess Stories Shared is a South African initiative to encourage sharing across the project community. Driven by Louise Worsley & Linky van der Merwe, you can find these stories online on this blog site or at

If you have a story to share, please do contact us:

  • Louise Worsley: