Rules of Thumb for Programme Management 

I recently graduated from the Major Projects Leadership Academy, an 18 month programme run for the Cabinet Office by Oxford’s Said Buisiness School

I found the programme incredibly useful and have committed to sharing some of the insights and thinking in my own organisation where I am Senior Responsible Owner for a portfolio of 15 programmes. One of the sessions encourages us to discuss and record ‘heuristics’. These are the shortcuts or rules of thumb, the nuggets of wisdom which we routinely use to drive actions in our projects and programmes. The following is a list of 5 culled from my work; I hope you find them useful or thought-provoking and I have included links wherever possible for those who would like to dig deeper, using examples from Denver airport, the Space Shuttle disaster and Barings bank amongst others to help illustrate the points. 

Build your bridges before you need them.  This is all about stakeholder management; projects and programmes are primarily about people – their motivations, thoughts, loyalties, trust. 

Building bridges means going out to your stakeholders and building a relationship and gaining mutual trust (like making a deposit in a bank) before you need to rely (make a withdrawal) on that relationship. Never let yourself get to the stage where the first thing you do to a stakeholder is ask them for something or have them say ‘I told you so’ like happened at Denver Airport. 

Just because it’s massive, doesn’t mean it’s not true.  

There is an assumption when working in large programmes that ‘someone somewhere’ has all the answers. In my experience it’s necessary to evidence rather than assume that. Over the years I have worked in programmes that have literally forgotten what it is they are delivering, that have no way or plan to understand whether a milestone has been met, ones that manifestly will run out of money before completion and others that have no risk management at all!  So, just because something appears so thunderously obvious or large, you really can’t afford to assume anything at all, especially if joining a programme ‘in flight’. 

Wash the laundry. With dirty laundry you essentially have 2 choices: acknowledge that it’s dirty and wash it, leading to fresh clothes, more choices etc. Or you can close the lid on the laundry basket and hope it goes away, leading to less choice over what you wear and an increasing stench that will never go away!  

Programmes often have ‘bad things’ in them, typically schedule or cost over-runs but sometimes issues of poor governance, shaky requirements or bad practice. Every time I have seen this, attempts to suppress or ignore the issues have, after short-term relief, led to far more damaging co sequences than if the laundry was washed straight away. In the case of minor schedule or cost issues, I have seen them emerge as major and usually irrecoverable ones so I try to welcome bad news and treat it as a problem to be solved so that I’m able to get to the issue while it’s still small enough to be treated. A healthy and inclusive approach to risk scanning obviously helps to head off these things as early as possible. 

Make no space for Delusion and Deception. Bent Flyvberg has conducted some excellent work analysing delusion and deception in major projects. He finds that often, major projects are started because facts are manipulated to over state the benefits and down play the risks. This can develop into a cultural approach to ‘managing information’. Delusion happens when an overly optimistic approach is adopted by a ‘can do’ organisation or people, leading to hopelessly unrealistic plans. So what do we as programme managers do?  Well, firstly acknowledging that these 2 issues are toxic is important. Next, evidence is always your friend. Whilst strategic deception may be something of an ‘external environment’ concern, as a programme manager it’s essential to be clear about what benefits you can actually deliver with the resources you’ve been given. It’s then up to the sponsoring group whether and how they communicate that. Delusion is much more controllable. By insisting on evidence-based plans you can detect it in schedules: I have frequently found project schedules that are wildly optimistic because they are based in ‘work must be done by’ dates and then systematically delete tasks and events that don’t fit. You’re the only loser here because in the short term you feel cosy but the reality is – you already have a schedule overrun!  Time to wash the laundry….. I find the use of open questions to determine the basis of estimate or cost often reveals these delusions. Also, an approach I used in aviation safety; rather than looking for evidence to disprove something (i.e. It’s safe to fly unless we find something wrong), using a mindset that asks ‘why is it so’ (i.e. What evidence is there that it is safe to fly?) helps to cut through what is often a mix of delusion and bluster. 

The relationship is (almost always) more important than the issue. Another stakeholder one to end with. Things happen, plans fail, risks manifest and people make mistakes. As the pressure mounts in high-stakes delivery it is very tempting to make this personal at whatever level. But think about it for a bit – most issues aren’t going to break a programme or even still be a factor in say, a year from now. But people will and how you all deal with challenges and failures, even if caused by bad behaviour, will linger long after the issue has gone so how you deal with these things is probably at least as important as what you do. 

That it, 5 heuristics, short-cuts, rules of thumb or whatever you want to call them that form part of my approach to programme management. Do these ring true?  What are yours?


Foreign Military Sales

Recent reporting has announced that Governmental process in the US has approved the sale of P8-A aircraft to the UK, pending Congressional approval. I will be the Senior Responsible Owner for the delivery of this aircraft and capability to the UK inventory and wanted to take a moment to explain the significance of what has just happened and the hopefully forthcoming Congressional part.

The UK is acquiring the P8s under an arrangement known as Foreign Military Sales. This is a process the US has established to share military capabilities with allies and partners and is governed by The Arms Export Control Act and the Foreign Assistance Act. To secure a sale under FMS, a government to government agreement is reached (although the negotiations can be complex, the letters that seal the deal are often straightforward) and the customer country then buys the equipment or service from the US government, not the manufacturer. This helps keep costs down for all as it allows us to benefit both from the sunk costs of research and development and from the economies of scale of joining a larger US order.

The actual way this process is managed is that the UK would typically submit a non-binding Letter of Request for Pricing & Availability – it's exactly as it sounds and allows a rough cost to be determined. If the decision to go ahead is made a Letter of Request for Offer and Acceptance (LOA) is sent and when this is returned, we have a limited time period to go ahead and buy, or to withdraw. It's similar to getting any price quote, only on a grand scale

Who is Involved?

The key organisations that make this happen in the US are the Defence Security Cooperation Agency, which administers and supervises all FMS cases on behalf of the Department of Defense. In the case of the P8-A, the

US Navy has primacy so the Navy International Programmes Office provides the Single Service oversight whilst the day to day negotiation and contracts are worked between the US Navy's Programme Management Office 290 and the UK's Defence Equipment & Support

Congressional Notification

For certain programmes, usually high value or ones that fall under the International Traffic of Arms Regulations, US Congress retains the final say and must approve the Foreign Military Sale. This approval comes right at the end of the process described above and means that subject to UK agreement and approval, the deal can go ahead!


Thanks for reading, please leave any feedback or questions and I'll try to get back to you.I'll write a separate piece on how the UK goes about procuring and approving new capabilities another time – there's only so much process anyone can read! I hope this has been useful in explaining how we're going about getting the P8-A and why this Congressional approval is so important. The process is very similar for anything we purchase through this route and if you want to find more detail, the DCSA guide to Foreign Military Sales is here.



Senior Responsible Owner

Senior Responsible Owner – what does that even mean and what does he or she do? Well, one of the key reasons that big, complex programmes can fail or at least, not achieve what they are supposed to, on time and budget is a lack of clear accountability. So in 2000, the UK adopted the SRO (sometimes also referred to as a programme executive) as the single point of accountability for public sector programmes: SROs of major UK projects are named here.

The SRO is ultimately responsible for the achievement of ‘benefits’ i.e. the thing doing what it’s supposed to in support of the bigger picture. As an RAF SRO I am expected to be publicly visible, an advocate for the programme and in a change to past military postings policy, stay in post for an extended period to see programmes through key stages.

I’m responsible for managing my stakeholders; informing and collaborating with them to make sure they deliver to me, I deliver to them and they work in support of my programmes. I ensure the programme is on track, keeping tabs on the myriad of inputs complex programmes can have. A good example for the RAF is our ‘capital programmes’ like the AIRSEEKER signals intelligence aircraft. It’s tempting to focus just on the 3 aircraft that the RAF is acquiring, but particularly for a capability like


Defence Lines of Development capture the ‘non-equipment’ factors

this, the aircraft is only a portion of what delivers the benefit. To do this, we have to have trained people, infrastructure support for operations and maintenance, a plan for how to use the capability (in military terms, this is out ‘doctrine’) and of course an information and communications backbone to gather, filter and transmit data to get it where it needs to be to inform decisions. The aircraft really is just the tip of the iceberg; recruiting, retaining and training the right people can often take longer and be harder than negotiating a contract to buy airplanes!

How do you know things are on course? Well the National Audit Office compiles an annual report of Defence’s largest programmes so it’s possible to track them. Also, the Major Projects Authority compiles an annual report. The most recent one shows that the UK has some 188 projects officially designated ‘major’ due to their cost and/or impact. These combined are worth £489Bn! AIRSEEKER is one of these Government Major Projects. In order to drive the kind of improvements identified in the MPA report a rigorous holding to account process is established; I may be summoned to give evidence to the Parliamentary select-committee-300x150.jpgAccounts Committee about any of my Major Projects and I am required to undertake a third party ‘Gateway Review’ at frequent stages throughout the lifecycle.

In order to make sure I can deliver both the programme and the information to enable the governance of it, I have a Programme Management Office here at RAF Air Command. With the help of other distributed staff, notably in the Defence Equipment & Support at Abbey des.gifWood, these people are the powerhouse of the programme. Together, we work on those things that put at risk any element of the programme, we manage the drumbeat of programme activities, co-ordinate publicity and stakeholder communications and of course, produce information for scrutiny.

I hope this has given you an overview of what an SRO does but I would be happy to answer any questions through the comments section and please watch my Twitter account for some of the day-to-day SRO work that goes on in managing some of these programmes.



Major Projects Leadership Academy

In September I moved to RAF Air Command to set up a post as the RAF’s Senior Responsible Owner for delivery of our Air Command & Control and Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance programs.  These include some big-ticket items: Project MARSHALL, which is replacing all UK and overseas Air Traffic Management via a service delivery contract with Aquilla, a joint venture between Thales and NATS.Reaper  Also, the REAPER and its replacement, PROTECTOR Remotely Piloted Air Systems, soon the new UK Multi Mission Aircraft in the Maritime Patrol role initially, the AIRSEEKER signals intelligence aircraft and E3-D Sentry extension and upgrade are among the programmes for which I am responsible.  I do not control the day-to-day operations and tasking of these systems – the ISAirseeker.jpgTAR Force Commander carries that role, whereas I deliver the programmes that introduces new
capabilities, change, extend or upgrade existing ones or provide capability management out beyond the necessarily shorter-term horizon of the Force Commander but as you can imagine, we seen a lot of time on the phone, ensuring that we are in agreement and alignment about the many issues that crop up right on the boundaries between us.


So with that established, what is the MPLA all about?  The Civil Service Reform plan in 2014 established the MPLA in order to try to ensure that major programmes delivered on time and to cost.  At that time only a third of them did, with large over runs or cost growth typical.  The programme is run by the Said Business School, part of the University of Oxford and is mandated for Senior Responsible Owners of government Major Programmes.  A Major Programme is generally defined as either something of considerable financial value (typically >£1Bn) or has particular non-financial value (such as a major change activity) or that in some other way would be important to the prosperity or security of the UK.  There are currently about 350 Major Programmes in the UK, and the Major Projects Authority is charged with ensuring they are delivered effectively and efficiently.

The MPLA (overview here) is run over about 15 months and is akin to a Masters-level programme but the qualification is a bespoke one, not matched to any other Masters.  There are numerous essays and case studies, 3 Residential periods of a week each, masterclasses, ‘Action Learning Sets’ where groups of us form into smaller teams to discuss the problems that we are finding tricky to solve.  In addition, each of us conducts Cabinet Office training to become a high risk reviewer.  This allows us to participate in formal reviews of the most challenging Major Projects acrid government.  Normally, participants will have already faced similar reviews as part of their duties so this experience as ‘poacher’ helps us to make the transition to the other side, whilst learning all the time from others on how to make our own programmes better.

At the end of the programme, our entire portfolio of work and evidence is bound together for a final Viva, where we are given pass or fail – a career-defining moment for all of us.

I’ll post more details as I progress through the MPLA: So far I have completed the first written assignment, 2 Action Learning sets, High Risk Reviewer training and the first Residential!  If you’d like even more information about the content of the course, this is the MPLA handbook which guides us through the programme.

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