Improving project outcomes in complex, data-rich environments

by Mike Potter and Ben Whittingham, senior managers, PwC / 4/5/2018 12:33:26 PM

How can you improve programme delivery performance and increase stakeholder confidence when carrying out complex programmes in data-rich organisations?

One of the authors of this article recently had a small extension built on his house using a local builder, who used a basic spreadsheet to control the cost and timescales for completion. This allowed him and his wife to have visibility of who had been paid to do which jobs, understand which areas of the build contained cost uncertainty and enough confidence that they were not going to bankrupt ourselves. In the end they did overspend slightly, but they were happy with the outcome.

The same simple approach obviously doesn’t work for all programmes - although it is still surprising how much programme management is done using spreadsheets! One quick look at the headlines in the newspapers paints a bleak picture around the success, both actual and perceived, of programme delivery at the moment. Perhaps the two things are linked?

For example, major infrastructure programmes can barely get out of the blocks without being under fire for being ‘white elephants’ - often with an ever increasing forecast costs. Changes to the design or any construction issues occuring are touted as major problems, draw down on the allocated risk pot is reported as cost escalation.

Looking to these kind of programmes gives us insight about the scrutiny and focus by stakeholders (from end users to taxpayers, MPs, residents, shareholders etc.) on the organisations tasked to commission, deliver and regulate the programmes.

These two factors, perceptions of performance and increased scrutiny, when combined lead to high levels of sensitivity and very low levels of confidence in programme delivery performance.  In discussions with Programme and Portfolio Directors, managing complex capital or business transformation programmes about these issues - there are a number of themes which are consistently raised.

Some Typical Programme Delivery Concerns

Some Typical Programme Delivery Concerns


As programme complexity increases, the systems, processes, information and organisation need to adapt to the new environment and make the life of a Programme Director and their delivery teams simpler, more integrated and more insightful.

The recent rapid development in technology capability means there is an opportunity to use a digital approach to disrupt delivery norms. This could potentially make a step change in performance and improve stakeholder confidence.

A proposed approach

We have developed an approach, used in a number of large scale programmes, from defence to transport and financial services, which is focused around balancing the maturity and integration of four key elements.

  1. Programme Control - Understanding the key programme drivers and milestones for the phase of work, setting up the right forward-looking KPIs and leading indicators, to actively manage these.
  2. Digital Platform - Creating a single source of programme information, taking data directly from existing programme management systems, which gives line of sight through the programme which provides insight all levels.  Integration of disparate pieces of information to forecast out turn and predict likely outcomes.
  3. Transformation - Setting an operating model and organisational structure to support the achievement of the the programme and key milestones. Be agile in changing these structures as the programme moves through its lifecycle.
  4. Performance – Setting up the governance and culture to allow teams to work together to succeed. Incentivise collaboration and high performance.

Programme Delivery Elements

Looking at each of these areas in more detail and setting out some suggested criteria, gives a view of a potential future state of framework which can be used as a useful reference point to start any transformational change of Programme Management within organisations. 

1) Programme Control

The right KPIs and performance measures are in place, not just KPIs that can easily be produced. These need to be forward-looking to understand the impact on final programme delivery, not just providing status information about the current position.

Performance measures which triangulate multiple data points to give rich insight and use past performance to predict likely out turn.

Robust processes and work instructions exist to manage the programme and provide timely input into the Programme Management systems (MS Project, P6, ARM, SAP etc.) the compliance with these processes needs to be measured and monitored.

A standardised planning approach across the programme and through the levels of plans from high level milestones to detailed activity planning.

2) Digital Platform

The programme has the appropriate IT systems in place to allow for information to be captured on progress and plans on typical programme management parameters such as cost, schedule completion and dependencies, quality, risks and issues.

The process of data capture and consolidation is as automated as possible, and all programme performance reports are sourced from a single ‘Golden Source’ of data, that has good levels of governance.

IT Systems and data capture, consolidation and presentation should be done in such a way to allow easy filtering and drill down. 

Data is high quality, representative and consistent to enable the programme to accurately measure performance and make appropriate decisions. Data should come from the source systems without manual adjustment.

Information is accessible via a number of different media from mobile devices, to laptops and large format AV-equipped conference rooms.

3) Transformation

The organisational structure reflects the focus on programme delivery success, by integrating and standardising processes, systems and data. The structure is clearly defined with clear interfaces between operational, functional and externally-facing business units with clear roles and responsibilities within each.

Leadership project a positive culture that supports programme delivery. Leadership reinforces organisational discipline by mandating the adherence to standard process, simplifying ways of working and openly reporting on performance.

A simple operating model is in place that is able to better support customer delivery by clearly integrating (and standardising where appropriate) processes, systems, data, organisation and people. The operating model is designed in consideration of a number of lenses including the customer, regulator and wider business.

The operating model, organisation and leadership changes as the programme transitions through the programme lifecycle phases.

4) Performance

Teams are rewarded by collaboration and achievement of agreed targets and milestones.

Decisions are made at the right level and at the right time, through a clearly understood governance structure. Individual and team accountabilities and decision rights are clearly communicated and embedded into ways of working.

Programme governance structures flow down through the programme to the work/activity execution level and outwards to external stakeholders. The timing of reviews are scheduled to minimise delay and latency in the system. 

The Vision

Bringing all these elements together and maturing together unlocks the opportunity to use technology to bring a new level of insight to a Programme Manager's fingertips. Imagine a scenario where the following happens:

  • A milestone schedule for completion in 3 months’ time is flagged as at risk as day-to-day activity completion linked to the milestone is falling behind plan. The level of float for the milestone is predicted to be negative in 8 weeks’ time. The milestone owner is informed via text or email;
  • The cost management system is aligned to milestones and the programmes work breakdown structure (WBS) - it shows there is an underspend and allocates additional funds for overtime or temporary extra resource. This data is fed into the bi-weekly resource planning meeting;
  • The risks for that element of the WBS are displayed as the risk/opportunity register uses the same programme structure as the cost system. Mitigation actions for the risk or opportunity realisation actions are fast tracked - the owners of the risks and opportunities are informed of the change in priority.

All this can take place at a near real time tempo, rather than waiting for a set piece monthly performance review where a milestone owner makes a subjective judgement on the RAG (Red, Amber, Green) status of his or milestones.

Example dashboards

Forward look at the scheduled activities, coupled with predicted resource loading 

Common structures allow data comparison between time and cost


Aligning organisation to programme structures (e.g. WBS) allow standard metrics to be used by multiple users

Potential Outcome

Using a framework to maximise the potential benefits of new technology, coupled with elements tailored to redesigning the organisational structure, governance regime and performance measures to use a cutting edge digital platform can change the dynamic of programme delivery success.

Thinking about programmes in this way also allows for open access to slices of information by commissioning organisations, customers and regulators. Potentially, if you scrubbed out commercially sensitive information, it would give the general public transparency on programme performance.

This sort of open, integrated and transparent approach to delivery could create a step change in performance. As one client, responsible for the commissioning of a complex defence programme, said  - sunlight is the best disinfectant.

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