By Stuart Maister, Joint MD Mutual Value Ltd

“Give me six hours to chop down the tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” Abraham Lincoln. 

So you’ve got the green light for that major infrastructure project. It’s probably taken years to develop, design, get regulatory or other approval, ensure the finance is in place, then appoint the contractors (or win the deal if you’re on that side of the fence) and agree all of the commercials.

After all of that there’s now huge pressure to get on with it – start the work, get going, hit the tight deadlines.

That’s when you need to listen to Abraham Lincoln. Mobilisation is when you need to start sharpening the axe, and in this context that is all about building a team who will work closely together so that the delivery is more successful. Yet everything we hear and see suggests this isn’t what usually happens. And the result is that it takes a lot more swings of the axe to down that darned tree… 

We explored this issue more fully with three infrastructure leaders to share their experiences and get their perspectives. The theme of our webinar before Christmas was mobilisation, and the timing is important for at least one of our guests. Julia Pyke is the Director of Financing at EDF’s nuclear power station project Sizewell C. The task facing her and her colleagues is to assemble a team ready to go, with all plans in place and everything considered – while waiting for confirmation that the project has got the green light from government. 

(The latest reports say that the government has started final negotiations with EDF but says any conclusions will be put through “thorough scrutiny”.)

How do you build a sense of team in the middle of such uncertainty? Julia said they’ve assembled 150 (now 200) companies into a consortium to develop thinking and ideas and begin to create a sense of teamwork – without being able to commit to any of them that they will work on the project. It’s a difficult balancing act.

“What we’re trying to do is to get away from the whole master/servant thing and regard the project as a massive collective endeavour… not just for the project to happen but also for the project to happen in a way that works for the supply chain and so for consumers…To have early soft discussions…before we launch into hard negotiations on exactly what the terms will be.”

I think this is a powerful way to approach a long term project, or even multiple projects. To build a sense of involvement among an ecosystem. To have what Julia calls ‘soft’ discussions. It’s certainly something Martin Perks and his colleagues in the Regional Delivery Partnership (RDP) programme at Highways England are trying to do. (You can get a deeper look at the RDP approach in this previous blog post.) They’ve got a roster of Integrated Delivery Partners who are expected to be involved in broader discussions than just project delivery and to build a sense of aligned purpose. Martin sees this alignment as critical across the entire team – including Highways England people, consultants and the supply chain of the Partner. 

“(We’re) making sure everyone is aligned to a common goal; a shared vision of success. We have the principal idea of a golden thread. What is the outcome we want from this model, and then how do you pin the golden thread from your outcome to run it back through your contracts..aligning drivers and outcomes and goals to the workface. Not just client and tier 1 – this is an ecosystem, and unless everybody in the ecosystem can see how they contribute to the outcomes it breaks down.”

The key then is to also invest time in building a specific team when that is selected. This is where common purpose becomes critical and Lincoln’s advice is most relevant. We now know who is involved and there are contractual agreements in place to determine what each of them will do.

We also know something else which contracts can only provide a legalistic remedy for. Things will change, potentially radically (see COVID-19); behaviours and culture will vary; different people will have completely different understanding about the same idea; and we will discover complications which we did not anticipate. Unless there is proper teambuilding, with all of these issues tackled, things cannot be done right first time; creating waste. No contract on earth will cover all of this, but behaviours will prove the biggest challenge.

(We help clients tackle this through wargaming and developing relationship agreements that address how everyone will behave, and ensures they are held accountable for behaviour as well as achieving targets. At the centre of this is an articulated collective vision, an imagined reality, which seeks to set out the highest ambition the team can have. The focus is on the relationship, not the contract, and this is the only way to prepare for the unexpected.)

In the Sizewell C project Julia says they are seeking to address this despite the uncertainty.

“The way we’re doing that is through a sense of mission, because people are so passionate about decarbonising and showing what nuclear can do…it’s what’s keeping it together through what would otherwise be some difficult challenges and uncertainty.” (Article continues below the video)


The other way to create a team is to find one which already exists. Early reports suggested that the Sizewell leadership was looking to bring on board the team which is building the nuclear reactors at Hinkley Point C, and Julia confirmed this is something they are considering. They’ve got the scars and learned the lessons. Amazingly this is something which happens rarely, that an existing team which has developed expertise in a major project, has formed some sense of comradeship and collective spirit, then gets appointed to another similar project based on that experience. 

Jeremy Beeton, who led the London 2012 Olympics Executive and has decades of experience of leading major projects, reflected ruefully on exactly this. He was heavily involved in the previous generation of nuclear reactors at Sizewell B, and said in our post webinar discussion that the opportunity to leverage the expertise developed in the UK at that stage was lost.

“By the end of Sizewell B there was a team that could have put a twin nuclear reactor anywhere in the world…(but)all the skills got disseminated.”

Jeremy is the person who helped us focus on mobilisation as a key issue with his comment at an earlier event that:

“90% of the project’s cost is committed in the first 10% of the programme, and so if it’s not set up properly, and we don’t get the right levels of team building and relationship-building, then the project inevitably falls into trouble along the way.”

(You can read a longer interview with Jeremy about this here.)

This is the prize: to deliver far greater performance in the delivery of major projects, creating more value for everyone involved – but also making working together feel less transactional and more focused on a joint ambition. That is teamwork. There’s huge consensus that it is important. Now is the time to put it into practice in line with the UK government’s ambitions to build at pace.