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The Major Projects World: What you Need to Know and How to Get Started

The Major Projects World: What you need to know and how to get started

In the family of project types, Major Projects hold a special place. They are the impressive adults who have achieved great things. Everyone looks up to them with respect and a certain amount of awe.

But what are Major Projects, what makes them different, and how do you get into major projects as a career? Well, who better to ask than The Major Projects Association (MPA). This is the UK membership organization for the businesses, authorities, and other organizations that deliver major projects.

So, we invited Jonathan Norman, the Knowledge Manager of the Major Projects Association, to answer our questions.

The Major Projects Association logo

What You’ll Learn in this Article

In this article, we’ll look at:

What are Major Projects?

Is a Major Project just a ‘BIG’ project? Well, many major projects are big. But there’s more to them than that. I’d avoid thinking about them in terms of size and focus instead on complexity.

The Major Projects World: What you need to know and how to get started

Size Isn’t Everything

Of course, there are plenty of smaller projects that fall into the category of ‘major’ because size or expense are not the defining features of a major project. However, there is often a correlation between big or expensive, and major. 

The element that defines whether a project is ‘major’ or not is its complexity. And complexity is a measure of the extent to which the outcome is predictable at the outset. Unpredictability can be caused by a whole range of things that are essentially outside of our control. 

Major Projects are Time Machines

To my eyes, one of the best metaphors for major projects is as time machines. Let me explain. There’s a plan (not yet an approved or funded) in South Wales, for the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon project. As a major project, this has it all: 

  • hugely complex in engineering terms
  • transformative to the ecology of the local region and to the energy infrastructure of the UK 
  • very political and potentially divisive between the advocates and the opponents.

Check it out. It is an amazing vision of the future and this is where the idea of the time machine comes in. If it’s built, it will change the appearance of the natural landscape, our understanding of renewable energy, and our capability as project managers and engineers. 

Major projects are the medium by which all of these changes and more are generated. 

The Swansea Bay Project as an Example of Complexity

For example, the Swansea Bay project really only makes commercial sense if it is commissioned as part of a bigger scheme of tidal projects around the country. The UK is uniquely well-suited to these kinds of projects because of the nature of the tides around our coastline. But what’s to say if, once we’ve started, that some other renewable energy system comes along that completely eclipses the costly and technically challenging nature of tidal power. We’re left with a (very) expensive white elephant.

Scale and Uncertainty

Indeed, it is often the very size of these projects that exposes them to the risks of uncertainty. Clayton Christensen, the Harvard Professor who died at the start of 2020, published a wonderful book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, way back in 1997. At the heart of the book was a simple idea.  Organizations can do everything right and still find themselves eclipsed by new competitors. These competitors may be much smaller and (consequently) much faster and more agile. They can shortcut all of the time, effort, and money the original company has invested in creating a breakthrough to produce a killer app. By ‘killer app’, Christensen means a new version of the technology that completely replaces the original version.

Major Projects vs Mega Projects

The question you are bound to have is the comparison between mega projects versus major projects. I prefer the term ‘Major’ and avoid conflating the two.

Megaprojects are large-scale, complex ventures that typically cost $1 billion or more, take many years to develop and build, involve multiple public and private stakeholders, are transformational, and impact millions of people.

The Oxford Handbook of Megaproject Management
Edited by Bent Flyvbjerg

I have established that a ‘major’ project is a project with a high degree of complexity. Mega-projects share that complexity but I think they do necessarily have attributes relating to size (financial and or physical), which isn’t implied for a Major project.

I’d also note that the word ‘Mega’ belongs in the lexicon alongside words such as ‘Blockbuster’ and can (sometimes) involve elements of hyperbole.

The Major Projects Dilemma

When we start down the road of a major project, we can’t always see the end point. This means that major projects are great engines not just for big bits of infrastructure but for learning and for change. They require organizations to proceed stepwise. They must test the ground ahead as they go and adapt to new:

  • technology
  • economic conditions
  • political realities 
  • …and more 

This then, is the Major Project’s Dilemma…

Many major projects need a certain scale to be able to create a vision that is worth pursuing. This brings the transformative benefits that offer direction and aspiration to society. But, since they are also complex and uncertain, how do you balance:

  • the need for construction, engineering or project management muscle and momentum,

against 

  • the risk of failure and the need to remain agile? 

And how do you balance 

  • the need to exercise their power as engines of change and innovation 

against 

  • the risk that pushing the boundaries might bring to what is probably already a huge investment? 

This tension between what or how you are trying to create and the need to deliver it against a schedule and a budget is reflected through the ‘Five Key Elements of the Major Projects World’. We’ll look at them towards the end of this article.

How is Working on a Major Project Different from other Projects?

When it comes to pure project management, the answer is probably ‘not very much’. These projects still require you to:

  • Plan
  • Schedule
  • Budget
  • Control
  • Organize 

… in exactly the same way as any other project. 

There are nevertheless a number of significant features of major projects. These, to my mind, are where the interest and opportunities for a varied and engaging career lie. We will look at:

  • Timescale
  • Stakeholders and Supply Chains
  • The Horizon of the Activity

Timescale in Major Projects

In 2009, The Guardian newspaper branded Sellafield Nuclear site as the most hazardous place in Europe. It is a vast, sprawling complex; a legacy of the cold war and the push toward nuclear weapons. Cleaning up the site is a project with a 100-year timeline. 

This and the fact that, like most nuclear sites, it is based in a very out of the way place, makes it a special project. And it’s a wonderful apprenticeship for project managers, engineers, and other specialists. 

The objective is very straight-forward: to clean the site and make it safe. The milestones on the way will involve discovery and invention – such as the challenge of permanent safe physical storage for nuclear material. Whilst this is a project with its roots firmly in the past, it is a project that looks forward to the challenge of finding new forms of safe energy generation and the looming threat of the climate crisis.

Making the Impossible Possible by Kim Cameron and Marc Lavine

An interesting comparison is with the clean-up of the Rocky Flats site in Colorado US. This was a long-running project to clean up a US nuclear weapons plant. It is documented in the phenomenal book, ‘Making the Impossible Possible’ by Kim Cameron and Marc Lavine.

This book is valuable reading for any serious project leader. It is a sourcebook for much of the original thinking in Positive Organizational Scholarship – the application of Positive Psychology to the organizational setting.

Stakeholders and Supply Chains in Major Projects

Major projects have a lot of stakeholders! 

Let’s take the example of High-Speed 2, or HS2. HS2 is a new high-speed railway linking up London, to eight of Britain’s 10 largest cities. See box below for more background.

Citizen Stakeholders

Like all major projects, HS2 will have an impact on a vast number of its country’s citizens. The impacts can be very direct, requiring people to move home against their wills. Or they may be indirect – possibly through political preferences, rather than personal implications. 

Think about all of the citizens concerned with High-Speed 2. 

  • People directly affected by the route of the railway and its impact on their communities
  • Travelers planning to use the service
  • Business owners and employees who will benefit from the construction or operational phases of the project
  • Those who may not directly benefit from the service and who feel that projects would deliver better value 
  • The British taxpayers, a part of whose income will pay for it

High-Speed2

HS2 is a new high-speed railway linking up London, the Midlands and the North, serving eight of Britain’s 10 largest cities. 

Once operational, HS2 will serve over 25 stations connecting around 30 million people. HS2 will significantly improve connectivity in the North and Midlands and will also integrate the existing network serving stations into Scotland, creating 500,000 extra jobs and 90,000 homes around HS2 stations. 

Organizational Stakeholders 

The delivery models for major projects is another big differentiator. What do I mean by ‘delivery model?’ It refers to the design of how we structure and deliver the project, and who is involved. 

And, typically, there are a lot of big, powerful organizations involved. In the UK, the Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) is one of the smaller and less high-profile departments of Government. But they are responsible for a number of very major projects: the Commonwealth Games or the roll-out of broadband internet, for example. 

Public Sector Stakeholders

They are a perfect illustration of the need to work with many organizational stakeholders to make a success of a major project. Indeed, DCMS works with many arms-length organizations that may report to it, but which operate independently. High-profile examples include:

  • UK Sport
  • BBC
  • Ofcom
  • Gambling Commission
Infrastructure Stakeholders

On big infrastructure projects, you will typically work with:

  • Highways authorities
  • Power, water and telecommunications utilities
  • Local and municipal government
  • Residents’ and community associations
  • National and international interest groups and NGO

So, stakeholder management, collaboration, communication and working with and through other organizations is a key element of any major project. This is true, whether you are working on a piece of infrastructure or in a Government department such as DCMS in the UK.

The Horizon of the Activity: Project or Program?

Although we talk in terms of major ‘projects’, the reality is that these examples are more aptly described as programs. I’ll define a program as:

Program:
a collection of projects that deliver a capability – an outcome that enables economic, social, or national activity. 

For more on what programs an program management are…

This means two things: 

1. A major project really only starts with the initial delivery

Firstly, the work involved in a major project really only starts with the initial delivery. 

Major projects are all about a ‘long tail’. For example, HS2 will only deliver (most of) the value associated with the project if the social and economic regeneration that the investment is intended to deliver, happens. 

This perspective on major projects is often called whole-life project management and it creates a need and roles for those who will manage the use, maintenance and, ultimately, the decommissioning of the project at the end of its life. 

Designers, facilities managers, data analysts, architects, and, yes, project managers have a part to play in this post-delivery aspect of a major project. ‘What happens after’ is an essential part of major project management; whether that is asset usethe reuse of materials and waste, or the safe dismantling of time-expired assets.

Each of these elements require specialist skills and involve aspects of project management.

2. Programs are emergent (whatever the business case says)

Capability is highly sensitive to:

  1. the passage of time and
  2. the environment within which we are working and living.

Take the example of the Defense Industry, which is one area where the language of capability is now established…

During the height of the Cold War, Defense Capability in the UK meant NATO having sufficient tank divisions to defeat a perceived threat from the then Soviet Union. Today, these terrifying steel monsters are largely an irrelevance in the face of a threat that seems far more focused on:

  • cyber-warfare
  • fake news
  • undermining Western liberal democracies using Facebook and Twitter

As recently as summer 2020, the BBC News reported that the UK military was considering abandoning the tank.

All of this means that programs are emergent. They arise from and adapt to the situation. So, they deliver elements of future capability a step at a time.

And you, as Project or Program Manager, must test the water to check for the need to refocus or even abandon a program, should the requirement change or disappear. Even the largest and longest programs no longer define a hard route towards a known future. Which presents a continuing challenge to those delivering the programs, as much as it does to the Governments who initiate and fund them.

Routes into a Major Projects Career

Given the rich mix of functions and roles required, there are plenty of routes into a career in major projects. There are two primary approaches you can take. You can come from:

  1. The PM Route
    Project Management or a related qualification, such as those offered by APMPMI or PRINCE2
  2. The Functional Route
    A role or qualification in engineering, information technology, or another relevant profession.

Developing Your Career

Once you’ve chosen your port of entry, there are several directions you can take. 

A number of the organizations associated with major projects in the public or private sector have project academies (or similar). Examples include Sellafield and the Ministry of Justice

The more enlightened organizations offer a full career path. This may allow you to reach the top of the profession either as a functional specialist or by moving perhaps from projects to program management and then perhaps to portfolio management or a PMO. The security and defense contractors Qinetiq are a good example. They recognize that those who are most comfortable with technical specialisms should not have to move into management, to progress.

The Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA)

The Infrastructure and Projects Authority is the UK Government’s center of expertise for infrastructure and major projects. IPA are responsible for the overall project delivery system; the projects, people, and processes that together create the right environment for successful delivery in the UK public sector.

Their responsibilities include: 

  • Supporting and de-risking the most complex and high-risk projects
  • Developing the skills and capability of the people who deliver projects
  • Overseeing the project lifecycle from policy, initiation and financing to independent assurance

The Infrastructure and Projects Authority’s Project Delivery Capability Framework provides excellent guidance on career pathways in projects specifically for those in the public sector. But the advice is very applicable to anyone seeking to map out a career in major projects – in the UK or elsewhere.

The IPA website offers an indispensable source of useful reference material for anyone involved in Major Projects, or who wants to learn more about them.

Five Key Elements of the Major Projects World

You’ll probably already recognize the hot topics in Major Projects. For starters, the complexity that defines a major project is increasing with the uncertainty associated with technology, commercial, social and environmental change. 

This is all a reflection of the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world we live in.

The five key elements that contribute to and characterize this complexity, which we’ll look at, are:

  1. Collaboration
  2. Sustainability
  3. Diversity
  4. The Digital Twin
  5. Agility and Resilience

Collaboration

A major project has high complexity, a large number of stakeholders, and considerable degree of change. An antiquated ‘command and control’ leadership and management style just won’t work. 

Instead, you need a high degree of collaboration, right across the whole supply chain. Ideally, the client and the contractors feel a shared ownership of the challenge. Consequently, they will also share the risks and the rewards. They are incentivized to innovate together. 

That, itself is complicated. So, there are only a few major projects that have managed to achieve a high level of collaboration. One UK example is Transport for London’s Bank Station redesign.

Sustainability

Sustainability is cited as a key requirement for every major project. Look, for example, at:

But sustainability presents us with a complicated dilemma. Let’s start with the portfolio: how do we choose which major projects are the right ones when we struggle to look more than three or four years into the future? 

The Long-term Challenge

That struggle arises from two factors that cause complication as they interact:

  1. Our genuine inability to see far into the future in a complex world that is changing rapidly
  2. The nature of political decision-making that is, almost always, constrained to timescales imposed by the political system of the country – in the case of democracies, the electoral cycles that are often just four to six years.

The Growth Challenge

Most of our large projects are predicated on a simple model of growth. This may be a financial metric, or levers which are intended to drive that value, such as: 

  • more air travel
  • more consumption
  • bigger cities

Although the UK Government, with its Social Value Act, and the international community, notably the UN, with their Sustainable Development Goals, have proposed alternative models of value, money still rules. 

And the projects themselves are resource hungry too. They soak up time, money and, in most cases, resources that have a big negative impact on the climate, such as:

  • Concrete
  • Steel 
  • Energy

The challenge is to make our major projects into positive investments that yield lifetime reductions in harmful pollutants and waste products while delivering public good.

Palace of Westminster Restoration and Renewal (R&R) Programme

The Palace of Westminster is the home of the Houses of Parliament. It is one of the UK’s most treasured buildings. Recognized the world over, it is the symbolic heart of British democracy and the nation.  But the 150 year-old Palace is falling apart faster than it can be repaired. And what is there is hardly suited to a modern democracy and the technology it demands. 

The mission of the R&R program is to save the Palace and create a working home for parliamentary democracy for generations to come. This is a hugely complex project that involves heritage, engineering, and politics; a heady mix.  

Diversity

Diversity is now an important part of the agenda for all major projects. They are engines of social change. As such, they need to be at the forefront of the drive to make our society more representative, with equality of opportunity for all. 

But more than that, neuro-diversity (different ways of thinking and different ways of valuing) has been shown to be a pre-requisite for driving change and innovation. So, there is an immediate advantage to having a Board, a workforce, and a supply chain that is as diverse as possible. The 2012 London Olympics was a pioneering venture in so many ways. It was one of the first major projects in the UK to champion diversity. And it did so as part of the strategy behind the Games. This is a nice illustration of the connectedness of the phases of a major project.

The Digital Twin

We’re all now aware of the power and ubiquity of data. Initially, this is thanks to the mega-corporations such as Google and Facebook. But, more recently, huge Government efforts to track and trace those who may have been exposed to COVID-19 have made it still more evident. 

Tracking human activity allows us to understand and influence trends in behavior and to measure and improve the performance of our projects. Major projects are just as much part of this revolution. 

In the world of construction and infrastructure, the new Holy Grail is the Digital Twin. This is an exact digital replica of the physical building. It shows how it was constructed, how it needs to be maintained, and how it changes with use. 

Alongside the legions of project managers and engineers needed for the UK Government’s ambitious post-COVID project delivery revolution, the country will need at least as many data specialists. And I expect it’s true globally. There will be a premium on people who can model and analyze data or create beautiful and complex digital models that future major projects will need.

Agility and Resilience in Major Projects 

The final key element is that of agility and resilience. These are essentially two-sides of the same coin. 

However big and ambitious your project, if the outcome you deliver, or the way in which you deliver it, cannot respond to changes, then you are open to catastrophic failure. These may be changes in, for example:

  • Technology
  • Social values
  • Commercial demand 
  • The environment
  • …even Political direction

Not every risk may be as all-devouring as COVID-19. But there are new risks to major projects that are emerging the whole time. Some are:

  • Natural, like the Coronavirus
  • Inadvertently man-made like climate change
  • Deliberately engineered such as the cyberthreats of aggressive nation states

One Key Element to Rule them All

In many ways, agility/resilience is the overarching element which encompasses all of the others. 

We now have a first understanding of complexity (or at least recognize that it is inherent in every human activity). Particularly, we recognize the challenges it presents to a discipline such as project management, which has traditionally been all about control… controlling:

  • Cost and budget
  • Resources
  • Time and schedule
  • Quality and scope of a delivered outcome

Organizations now understand the limitations of forecasting and efforts to maintain control. Yet they do still struggle to change at a rate that will allow them to survive. 

The Joys of Major Projects

This is why working in major projects is challenging and rewarding in equal measure. 

They are challenging because they demand not just technical excellence but an understanding of:

  • Big data
  • Human psychology
  • Economic theory 
  • International geopolitics
  • …and more. 

The learning and knowledge you need to rise to the very top of the Major Projects world puts the PMI’s Talent Triangle in its place, as merely a starting point!

And, in the face of success, you face the constant threat of failure. They are rewarding because you are at the controls of the time machine that drives the transformation of everything around you and the creation of the world of tomorrow.

Where to find out more

There is a wealth of good information for anyone wanting to learn more – and maybe move n the direction of ever bigger projects.

  • The knowledge repository on the Major Projects Association website includes 1,500 reports, videos and other resources on the experience of major project delivery. And do look out for their free webinars and their excellent YouTube Channel.
  • The Infrastructure and Projects Authority is the body that oversees the Government’s Major Projects Portfolio – everything from HS2 to roll out of Broadband or Universal Credit – and is a tremendous source of tools, models and insight on major projects in the public sector. 
  • The National Audit Office reports on many of the UK Government’s major projects and their progress and offers a very candid view of the opportunities and challenges of the sector.
  • For those of you with a more specialist or functional interest, take a look at the:
  • And for any younger readers of this article, I recommend, Alison Watson’s Class of Your Own.

Please Tell us about Your Experience of Major Projects

As always, we are keen to hear your perspectives, so please do contribute them in the comments below. And we’ll respond to every contribution.

About the Author Jonathan Norman

Jonathan Norman works as Knowledge Manager, part-time, for the Major Projects Association; a role that involves curating, collating, and sharing insight, activities, and events with the Association membership and the wider major projects community of practice. In his previous career, he was a business book publisher (at Gower Publishing and Routledge), which involved developing and commissioning some of the best references and reading on all aspects of project and program management. Alongside his Association role, he continues to provide development editorial support to authors and offers freelance consultancy on knowledge and community of practice management and development.

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