How to gain client confidence around cost, risk, and delivery

Managing costs on large-scale infrastructure programs is an enormous challenge. As infrastructure consultants and program managers, it’s one of the most important ways that we help our clients.

Just as delivery models demand different approaches, every project is unique. Likewise, different clients want different levels of control over their programs. To satisfy clients and integrated stakeholder teams and to drive effective, proactive interventions, the program management team must generate insights that provide the appropriate level of visibility over commercial and financial data as well as project delivery progress. This is as much about identifying areas for improvement as creating a culture that always examines where further improvements can be made.

At Surespan, we constantly innovate the way we use systems, tools, and data analysis so that we can trust the data and the insights it brings. Following are some key ways that combined data analysis and behavioral approach helps us to avoid the use of ‘I think’ or ‘I feel’ in decision-making, allowing us to drive project efficiencies while helping clients meet strategic outcomes, particularly on large infrastructure programs.

Collaborate and integrate early with key stakeholders

As a consultant, we establish the exact level of control clients need by engaging in upfront communication before the project even starts. Once that’s achieved, we can tailor the level of visibility around cost and risk management throughout the program lifecycle as well as assurance around delivery. It’s crucial to get this step right. Get it wrong, and clients lose confidence quickly.

Ultimately, it’s up to the consultant to understand clients’ needs. Of course, the better the relationship between client and consultant, the easier it is for parties to collaborate. This trust is often built up across multiple programs.

Establish data trust

Managing and presenting information sits at the heart of an effective program delivery organization. Digital dashboards, such as Power BI, allow us to give clients maximum visibility of their projects as they are fed by data from multiple sources to generate regular progress reports.

For this process to work most efficiently, it is important to establish data trust right from the outset so that all parties can focus on the trends and intelligence gleaned from the information rather than the quality of what is being presented.

In addition, the program team must judge exactly how to present the information to best meet stakeholder needs and intents. In reality, the possibilities are endless – all data levels could be opened if the client so wished and presented either digitally or on paper. In the past, this would have been a huge, resource-intensive undertaking. Now, however, the process is much more efficient and a lean team of skilled operatives using a single source of truth can meet even the heaviest of data demands.

Opening a window on strategic outcomes

Most programs exist to create or enable some form of wider strategic outcomes. Having a thorough understanding of these outcomes allows us to drive the right data through the digital dashboard so that it becomes the lens through which customers, owners, and delivery teams can measure performance against them. Right from the start, all program team members should be able to answer the question, ‘Why are we doing this and how are we contributing to those outcomes?’ In this way, individual organizational needs are no longer the primary driver for decision-making.

Ultimately, setting the environment for how multi-disciplined and different organizations work together and behave commercially will drive program success, which should be measured on the realization of the wider benefits as well as the traditional critical success factors of time, cost, and quality. Generating insights from trusted data to provide the appropriate level of visibility is key to making this happen.

Successful program management requires an integrated approach

When it comes to infrastructure-led programs of major transformational change, establishing a shared operational culture is key. While the outcomes and vision must be clearly defined right at the start, Surespan’s Kobi Lucas and Devlin Fenton propose also taking time to build desired behaviors from the bottom up.

When people talk about program management, they often focus on the processes rather than the people involved. But if you want a disparate group of people who aren’t used to working together to operate as one, the first step is establishing a culture of collaboration.

Human-centered design is key for adopting technology that is right for the program, rather than trying to retrofit a program around new technology. A common operating culture should be the platform on which the technology is built. Digital tools and systems should then be set up to process and share data from multiple sources in a single source of trustworthy, reliable, real-time information. The objective is to make it easier for designers, contractors, and supply-chain to collaborate.

Our experience has taught us the importance of taking time to build a structure that brings the interests and actions of different stakeholders together right from the start.

There are three reasons why building an integrated culture is increasingly important

1 Complexity: Infrastructure programs are growing in scale and complexity, a reflection of the increasingly complex world they inhabit. This means working with a vast range of organizations and people at local, regional, national, and even global levels, many of them with competing interests. All the while you must consider specific political, geographical, social, cultural, linguistic, and economic climates.

2 Sustainability: Unlike other types of programs, capital programs create the infrastructure that will exist for a very long time. To be sustainable, programs should be built to serve future as well as current generations, avoiding the need to expensively retrofit or rebuild. Endeavoring to provide intergenerational equity and a legacy through sustainable planning, design, and construction is vitally important. This could be as simple as leaving space for new walkways or carriageways or envisioning cycle routes in the skies.

3 Technology: At the same time, it’s important to keep pace with technological change. The objective should be to establish a connected system that brings consistency and value to an entire pipeline of work. From the very beginning, all the program information should be held in a common data environment (CDE) and kept up-to-date. Each team member across all disciplines should know how to navigate, store, and collect data within the CDE, including contractors or supply chain at each phase of the project. To properly prepare the teams, we implement a structured ‘fast start’ mobilization process, increasing the certainty of delivery on time and on budget.

Program management: Five lessons learned

While each program requires a bespoke solution, we have distilled five lessons from our experience in Integrated Client Partner roles on major infrastructure programs such as improving San Francisco’s water system (see case study, below).

1 Narrative: The first task should be to define the vision and program outcomes, informed by the client ethos, values, and strategic objectives. This, in turn, will inform the scope of the capital program and its objectives. Creating a narrative to fit this will form a platform to develop the program and give it direction.

2 Operational structure: A connected step is identifying, categorizing, and engaging with the different stakeholders involved, with a view of establishing a ‘one team’ structure, where organizational badges are left at the door. The degree of control that the client requires is of course an important consideration when deciding on the most suitable structure, which should be shaped to suit. Due to the complexity and duration of major infrastructure programs, which often span five to ten years or more, collaboration across the supply chain is paramount to successfully ensure delivery.

3 Information management: The effective use of virtual design tools such as BIM (Building Information Modelling) during the design and construction stages can help all parties efficiently manage huge amounts of information and develop knowledge. BIM also means that building or logistical issues can be resolved before getting to the site — avoiding potentially expensive retrofits or rebuilds. BIM model data, stored in the non-proprietary COBie (Construction Operations Building Information Exchange) format, can then be integrated with the client’s asset management software allowing a seamless transition of information to the operations and maintenance (O&M) team.

Managed well, data should flow freely between asset lifecycle phases through to O&M. Indeed, placing an emphasis on the O&M stage often leads to the gathering of better data early on which improves stakeholder interaction and engagement.

4 Embracing ambiguity, uncertainty, dynamism, and risk: By their nature, major infrastructure programs often require cultural and organizational transformational change which involves a degree of uncertainty and risk. Working in such an environment requires dynamism — which should be encouraged by the organizational set-up of a program. Certainty will grow as the program progresses, but even so, we are living in a period of flux where technology and customer needs are constantly evolving. Flexibility is key and the Integrated Delivery Partner model provides flexibility in both capacity and capability of resources.

5 Sustainable accounting: It’s increasingly clear that traditional approaches to business case planning are failing to fully quantify impacts and risks, particularly when it comes to socioeconomic and environmental considerations over the long term. In addition to financial reporting, we should take account of other metrics such as carbon. Where possible, we recommend a ‘six capitals’ approach, putting a monetary value on manufacturing, human, social, intellectual, natural, and financial capital.

Once program management was about seeking delivery of an objective through a collection of projects — with the knowledge that the endpoint was uncertain. With so many variables involved, there was a recognition that achieving the desired objective could not be guaranteed. That was not necessarily a bad thing: the skilled program manager would look to exceed expectations, where possible. Today, however, programs are all about certainty. Objectives need to be ultimately defined before anyone says yes; business tools offer ways to measure precisely all the known ingredients. All this achieves is constraining programs to what we can predict. That means many fall short.

Ultimately, it is people who make programs work and success depends on getting the most out of them. The first step is to agree on a clear vision and define the project outcomes to create a compelling narrative that aligns strategies and actions, providing a platform for a ‘one team’ approach. Success relies on communicating the narrative to influence behaviors from the bottom up.

In addition, to be sustainable more thought has to be given to the evolution of a program, allowing for a range of possible future uses. Our integrated delivery model is designed to address the entire program lifecycle, creating legacies for generations to come.

Three reasons why agility is a powerful instrument in the program manager’s toolkit

When it comes to program management, agility is as much about meeting evolving client needs as managing the unexpected.

At Surespan, we often cite agility as being a key attribute of a successful program management (PgM) model. We define PgM as being a disciplined, systematic approach to orchestrating resources to plan, design, construct, and deliver a collection of projects in a coordinated way to obtain benefits for the owner not attainable if managed separately. When we talk about agility in terms of PgM however, we are thinking about the PgM model itself, and how it should be molded closely to program and client requirements. It is also a mindset that program leaders must possess when applying that model to delivering a defined client outcome.

Agility defined

Major infrastructure delivery programs of work are usually complex. An off-the-shelf, prescribed PgM model rarely works well. Without fully understanding a client’s needs, and expectations and establishing desired outcomes right from the very start, it is hard to build a responsive PgM model that can flex as the program moves through planning, design, and construction, through to effective operations and maintenance. Pre-planning is an essential step in this process, however, program set-up and implementation must allow for and anticipate change.

The delivery of long-term programs of work rarely goes just as planned, often running into funding issues or other delays, and the program leadership team must be agile enough to manage these uncertainties to minimize the impact on program delivery and cost. This involves understanding the critical issues, assessing them quickly, and recommending a solid course of action, as well as reading the leading indicators and pivoting the program team (from the client down) to the shifting conditions. A focus on maintaining the vision is essential throughout.

Agility in practice

Our PgM model is agile and enables us to:

Call on subject matter experts

Integrating the depth and range of our global technical strength and capabilities to bring programmatic solutions to our clients’ big infrastructure delivery challenges is an integral part of our PgM capability and approach.

Our SMEs support the program team to identify various options that could be evaluated and/or implemented to keep the program moving forward when the original design-builder departed the program.

Scale up or scale down

As program managers, we understand that the program will evolve and that resources need to scale up and down, so getting the right level of staffing at the right time is critically important.

The ability to implement such a rapid scale-up was due largely to keeping the leadership team well informed of the needs so that each key partner could assign staff to support the overall deployment.

Retool as needed

Understanding program requirements is critical along with working ‘hand in glove’ with client leadership to slot the right program leaders in at the right time along the program lifecycle.

Agility is as much about adjusting the team to respond to program and client needs as understanding that the program will be led at different times by different disciplines and being able to transition seamlessly between them. To do this effectively, it’s important to stay focused on delivery and anticipate requirements.

Our agile PgM model has been key in elevating our offer from initial services to program solutions.

Ultimately, however, no matter what and where the program is, the first step is always to understand the client’s greatest needs, expectations, and political ramifications and define the desired outcomes. Many may tout agility, but that alone is not enough: the program team must understand how to pivot and implement the best PgM model and options available.

This only works if the client and program team are aligned and adhere to the three ‘Cs’ – communicate, cooperate and collaborate for the program’s success.