The art of project leadership: Delivering the world’s largest projects

The art of project leadership: Delivering the world’s largest projects

By Sergey Asvadurov, Tom Brinded, Trevor Brown, Mike Ellis, David Knox, and Rod Speering
The art of project leadership: Delivering the world’s largest projects

Four mind-sets and eight leadership practices distinguish successful leaders of ultralarge projects.

Today, the very largest and most complex projects command budgets exceeding $5 billion and require more than five years for design, planning, and construction. The sheer scale of such projects brings unique complexities: multiple interfaces with stakeholders such as local communities and government bodies, new regulatory and environmental requirements, and often unique technological challenges. We define megaprojects of this scale as ultralarge.

To draw on a sporting analogy, seeing any large-scale project through to a successful conclusion is by definition a marathon not a sprint. Without doubt, every marathon, at a little over 42 kilometers, is a substantial challenge. An ultramarathon, by contrast, is exponentially harder at up to 100 kilometers. Due to the enormity of the challenge, it’s something for which you can never fully train—only a select few know what it’s like to complete the race successfully.

Similarly, ultralarge projects represent an exponentially tougher challenge than a typical megaproject, often defined as $1 billion in in value or greater. They are the preserve of the few. As the size of capital projects rises, so does the complexity of strategy, design, financing, procurement, and, ultimately, project execution.

Today, the prize for executing large projects successfully is significant. With ever-increasing size and ambitions, the modern construction megaproject not only has a lasting impact on the owner organization but also can impact wider industry dynamics, the regulatory landscape, and even geopolitical relations. However, execution of large projects has historically proved difficult. On average, projects with budgets above $1 billion are delivered one year behind schedule, and run 30 percent over budget. If this trend continues, $5 trillion in value will be destroyed in the projects currently announced around the world. For the sake of economic prosperity and lost opportunity alone, this must change.

So, how can project owners boost their chances of completing an ultralarge project successfully?

We believe a critical element for successful large project delivery has so far been neglected: specifically the “soft” issues of project delivery such as leadership, organizational culture, mind-sets, attitudes, and behaviors of project owners, leaders, and teams. In our report, we refer to this blend of soft organizational topics as “the art of project leadership,” as opposed to standards, systems, processes, and technical subject-matter expertise, which we refer to collectively as project management “science.” A better understanding of how to get this art right will materially improve delivery of large capital projects—this is especially true in the context of the largest and most complex capital projects.

In addressing why ultralarge projects continue to fall short of expectations—despite all the experience, learning, discussion, and analysis that has been fed into this area down the years—we set out to explore the unique success factors drawn from the experience of “project practitioners”—people with hands-on experience in ultralarge project delivery. We conducted in-depth interviews with 27 practitioners, who collectively have over 500 years of project delivery experience, and then distilled, structured, and synthesized our findings.

While our interviewees give full credit to the absolute necessity of getting the core project-management systems and processes right (the science), most of the practitioners almost take that part for granted, claiming that many companies attempting large capital investment already do (and must) have best-practice standards and processes implemented.

Our research kept coming back to topics included in the art of project leadership; that is, the organizational and leadership aspects—capabilities, mind-sets, practices, attitudes, and behaviors—required to deliver the largest and most complex projects. Through our interviews we have found that the art of project leadership gains greater importance with increasing project size and complexity.

In this report, we discuss these findings, and provide actionable advice to capital-project practitioners. We distill our findings to four mind-sets (Exhibit 1) and eight leadership practices across project setup and delivery phases that are critical to success.

Successful leaders of ultralarge projects typically display four mind-sets.

Of the eight practices, four are relevant to the project setup phase (Exhibit 2) and four are relevant to the delivery phase (Exhibit 3). We believe that by embracing these mind-sets and practices, project leaders can dramatically increase the chance of successful delivery of ultralarge projects.

During the setup phase, there are four practices that require 'artful' application and which leaders should uphold as crucial.
Throughout the delivery phase, project-delivery leaders need to focus on these four practices.

Download the full report on which this article is based, The art of project leadership: Delivering the world’s largest projects, (PDF–5.72MB).

About the author(s)

Sergey Asvadurov is a partner in McKinsey’s Sydney office, where Mike Ellis is a senior partner and Rod Speering is a consultant; Tom Brinded is an associate partner in the Perth office.

Trevor Brown is an experienced leader of complex, major capital projects, including the Santos Gladstone LNG project. David Knox is former managing director and chief executive officer of Santos.
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