Mastering major programmes in an evolving world

by Amy Hatton / 7/10/2018 11:36:01 AM

In today’s fast-paced climate, major programmes are under more stringent expectations than ever before. Former PM Today Editor, Amy Hatton, spoke to Dr. Atif Ansar, Programme Director of the Oxford MSc in Major Programme Management (MMPM) at Saïd Business School, to explore how major programmes leaders can best equip themselves to rise to the challenge.

A perfect storm of media scrutiny, political debate and public pressure has brought major programme failures such as the collapse of Carillion to the fore in recent months. Atif agrees that such events are unfortunate and undesirable. But they are not, he says, anything new. “Go back as far as 2,000 years and you’ll find frantic letters written by roman emperors enquiring about costs and delays on building aqueducts,” he says. “Despite technological innovation in many sectors, major programmes continue to suffer from what my colleague, Bent Flyvbjerg, coins the ‘Iron Law of Major Programmes’ – to paraphrase, projects run over-time, over-budget and under-deliver on the intended benefits over and over again.”

“What’s changed is the investment of both time and money that organisations have entrusted to programmes, and the expectation that comes with that. Today’s major programmes are charged with delivering the bulk of public policy in the UK, for example. And virtually all large corporations on whom we depend for services – oil and gas, retail, utilities, technology - now deliver their strategies via major programmes; so better programme outcomes are becoming important to every facet of our society.”

What’s more, Atif continues, the global nature of today’s major programmes adds to a complex landscape that demands new skill sets. “The make-up of supply chains means that almost all major programmes are now global in their nature,” he explains.

“That can be quite controversial. If we look at procurement, for example, it’s rational to seek the best value regardless of geographical location. But this can introduce a political hue to a programme, largely because major programmes are so closely linked to domestic jobs.

"Global major programmes are, in particular, highly complex, high-stakes investments involving many local and cross-border stakeholders. As a result, an effective major programme leader must have huge sensitivity to the social, political and cultural factors at play to ensure they deliver good programme outcomes.

"These complexities were the driver behind Saïd Business School working with researchers, educators, policymakers, and corporations including BT, to set up the MSc in Major Programme Management. We wanted to impart a new understanding of how to tackle the global challenges that come with trying to solve world-scale problems. Our aim has been to help improve programme management practice and programme outcomes across all industries and countries.”

So, how can the major programme managers of the future equip themselves to meet these challenges? Atif is keen to establish that the skills required for better programme outcomes are rooted in what he calls ‘cognitive diversity’.

“Traditionally, major programmes have been run by those with a largely technical background. That’s certainly helpful but it by no means completes the picture. Most people approach their careers via a vertical ladder – they progress by becoming increasingly specialised in the one thing that they do.

"However, leading major programmes effectively demands a shift to a horizontal skill set. It means being equipped to deal with a vast terrain of highly complex subject areas – from organisational design to managing risk, from financial and legal aspects to understanding the implications of global supply chains.

"It’s also about curiosity, open mindedness, critical thinking and the ability to work with others. It’s about developing a mindset that allows you to grasp new areas very quickly – and it’s about understanding your personal leadership style and how that may impact the team and the programme.

"When a project or technical professional finds themselves at that stage of their career, requiring a horizontal skill set, then they’re ready to consider pursuing this Master’s degree.”

Surely, though, two years (albeit part-time) in the classroom is a huge ask of the modern professional? I wonder, in the age of remote learning, is such a traditional approach necessary? Atif is clear on the benefits.

“When our delegates come to Oxford they are students, first and foremost, and we insist that they put themselves in that frame of mind. Over time, most practitioners become intuitive in how they approach their work – they make decisions from past
experience, and they do it instinctively and fast.

"That’s great, and it promotes everyday efficiency. But when they make mistakes in their work, those are also perpetuated. The only way to tackle that is to become what we call a ‘reflective practitioner’. It’s about reflecting on past practice, separating good habits from bad, and having the courage to self-correct.

"That requires an intensive, feedback orientated learning experience in a safe psychological environment - and that means being in a classroom with faculty that are trained in this process. The other benefit is the peer network that students join (and take away from Oxford). Our classroom is extremely representative of today’s major programmes. We have students from thirty different countries.

"Currently about 30% of our intake is female, which is proportionately greater than out in the field (although we continue to push towards parity). Our delegates are highly accomplished professionals in their fields with a huge amount of experience which they bring to classroom debates. That cannot be replicated outside the classroom, or without the facilitation of the faculty.

"Digital learning is an area we’re very passionate about and are constantly working to develop. But it’s a complementary format and cannot be an effective substitute. The diversity of people in the room, their professional experience, the conversation, and
the prompt to read, write and reflect, is essential to achieving the cognitive diversity programme managers need for success.

"I always say to prospective candidates: don’t come to Oxford so that you can say you have an Oxford degree. Come because you have a specific view on how you - your outlook, passion and skills - can contribute to the world and make a unique impact. That’s what will really drive the successful major programmes our society needs.”

The MSc in Major Programme Management

Visit to explore the programme in more detail and to:

  • Download a brochure
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  • Watch videos of sessions from the 2018 Oxford Major Programme Management conference
  • Apply now for the next intake in September 2018

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