Despite their growing popularity, megaprojects - large-scale, complex projects delivered through public-private partnerships - often fail to meet budgets, time schedules and project goals. As well, critics complain that these projects are frequently motivated by vested interests operating against the public interest.
Researchers Alfons Marrewijk and Marcel Veenswijk from Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, The Netherlands and Stewart Clegg and Tyrone Pitsis from the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia set out to explore these issues. They compared the project designs, daily practices, project cultures and management approaches of two international megaprojects, Environ in The Netherlands and the North Side Tunnel Project (NSTP) in Australia. Their goal: to explore how these approaches support successful cooperation between partners in megaprojects.
Environ was a large European infrastructure project that ran from the early 1990's to 2006 to construct a high speed train connection between Amsterdam and Paris. The NSTP was building a 20-km tunnel as part of Sydney's 2000 Olympic infrastructure.
The researchers spent a year examining the megaprojects from the inside. They visited Environ's headquarters and regional offices to conduct 85 biographical interviews with both managers and employees. For the NSTP project they observed the Project Alliance Leadership Team's (PALT) meetings and interviewed the team's members as well as other management teams and workers, and stakeholders in local communities and councils.
"Although both projects were marked as politically high profile, innovative, and infrastructurally complex, involving multiple stakeholders and having a huge societal impact in terms of prestige, costs and technical risk, the projects were organised in very different ways with very different quality outcomes," says van Marrewijk. "The Environ case was a striking example of characterisation of megaprojects in terms of the budgetary and time overruns, while the NSTP case was a welcome exception to the rule.".
The researchers' findings show how these projects each made sense of uncertainty, ambiguity and risk, and how project design and project culture play a role in how managers and partners cooperate to achieve project objectives.
a) "Our research indicates that megaprojects are not necessarily premised on widespread conspiracies against the public interest," says van Marrewijk. "Professionals and civil servants manage these projects to the best of their abilities amidst very complex operations, paradoxes, uncertainties, influences and ambiguities."
b) Project design characteristics that contribute to the success of the projects:
a. clarity in terms of scope and financial risks
b. full involvement of the partner organizations at the start of the project and equal representation at a board of directors providing strategic direction
c. adequate political antennae
d. clear definition of success by the project partners to achieve collective interests
e. balance of control versus commitment to meet the megaproject's objectives;
i. No excessive control from the organisational network to hinder the development of cooperation and commitment between the partners
ii. Provide autonomy to project organization to achieve the commitment to the project objectives
c) Project culture characteristics that contribute to the success of the projects:
a. priority for what's best for the project and an innovative no-blame culture.
b. strong social cohesion within the project stakeholders
c. reduction of conflict by involving the project partners with the correct project design
d. an environment
i. that credits entrepreneurship, pragmatism and getting things done
ii. where there is no debate on the role of public versus private players, and the team can easily stick to the ‘what's best for the project' maxim
iii. where the group members can connecting with their external project partners to build trust and share information
The researchers also made the following observations:
• Extending a common project culture beyond the limits of the project- alliance partners' sovereignty is always difficult. When stakeholders have to deal with organizations and individuals outside their sovereign realms they lack the authoritative resources to impose their will.
• Addressing cultural issues via a mandate to work together based on principles such as a no-blame culture and doing what's best for the project can still be undermined by key performance indicators that are too ambitious and that prohibit the ability to execute incentives/disincentives.
• Politics are a major issue/influence on decisions, especially when the government is a main stakeholder
• Differences in national culture, religion, history, politics and ethnicity are very important in understanding a megaproject's daily life
• A project's objective can either tie together or cause trouble for very distinct partnerships (i.e. hosting the Olympics (national pride) vs. a politically-motivated goal
Overall, say the researchers, project design and project cultures and rationalities play a central role in influencing successful cooperation between partners.
Source: Marrewijk, A., Clegg, S., Pitsis, T. and Veenswijk, M. " Managing public-private megaprojects: Paradoxes, complexity,and project design", International Journal of Project Management Volume 26:6, Aug 2008, pp. 591-600.
PMPerspectives.org is a website which connects project managers and sponsors with project management researchers. Our mission is to understand and improve project management practices. The research team comprises Dr. Blaize Horner Reich and Dr. Andrew Gemino from Simon Fraser University, Canada and Dr. Chris Sauer from Oxford University, UK.
© Reich, Gemino, Sauer (2012)