Client interview - Abu Dhabi Airport

Successful delivery of mega-projects such as Abu Dhabi Airport's Midfield Terminal Building depends on having an international outlook and an open mind.

As CEO of Abu Dhabi Airports, a role he took up in March 2013, Tony Douglas is responsible for the delivery of the Midfield Terminal Building, a true mega-project one-and-a-half times larger than Heathrow’s Terminal 5 and satellite buildings. Though there are similarities toT5 , which he delivered several years ago, today’s mega-projects require a more global approach, says Tony.

“There are areas where we have moved on,” says Tony. “We now acknowledge far more global supply chains and methodologies, and that you have got to integrate even more diverse standards and specifications to try and maximise opportunity.”

The similarities in the two projects lie in the creation of a one-team culture. “You need to get absolute clarity in terms of having one project, one family,” says Tony. “You use the energy around a truly special mega-project as the energy that brings the family together. If you walked round my offices, you would struggle to determine who works for whom – just as it was on T5.”

Embracing ambiguity

The challenge on this project is its complexity, says Tony. “This is a systems integration project that just happens to sit inside a big building, not to be confused with a big building,” he says. “It’s got the world’s biggest baggage handling system inside it.”

“On a project like this, you can guarantee all manner of change, given the changing technology and international aviation standards, and not least security issues. You need to almost enjoy ambiguity, be pleasantly intrigued, curious and excited about it.”

Absolute clarity

When Tony arrived, his focus was to pull everyone together and set their collective sights on the end goal. “The responsibility I was very fortunate to be given is about connecting what is already in place, adding what’s missing, and giving it a sense of purpose and clarity,” he says. “Clarity is the key word.”

He and his team established a 100-step plan to take them to the opening date, which will be 07:00 on 17 July 2017. Everyone, including stakeholders, has signed up to that commitment. “Everybody has a clear sense of purpose and clarity of what we need to do.”

For proof that this approach will work, one only needs to look at Tony’s previous mega-project. Khalifa Port, built on a 2.7km2 island 5km offshore, and the associated 51km2 Kizad Industrial zone, were delivered on time and on budget, a feat that was much admired in the UAE.

Weekly review meetings, held every Wednesday, see 48 people gathered in a room. This means that it just wouldn’t be possible for a tier one contractor to keep information about their tier two and three contractors to themselves. “We have moved way past that defensive closed culture where certain things are said in certain places,” says Tony. “If there is only one vision, and one vocabulary, it is difficult for people to have different sets of conversations.”

Tony’s advice for aspiring programme managers is to do what he has done and work in different locations. “There are a lot of people who get very comfortable operating in London, and therefore have a rather insulated view. You have to be a citizen of the planet and consequently go where the action is – which is seldom in the same place for too long.”