How to: build a more flexible culture to enable major project success

Sophie Dukelow

Associate Director


In the next edition of our realising the extraordinary series, we explore how businesses can build a more flexible culture by expanding the definition of capability and promoting cross-functional working.

The construction sector requires a level of presenteeism to deliver programmes and solutions. But this natural characteristic, coupled with the risk profile of projects, has created infrastructure organisations with rigid and often bureaucratic cultural characteristics. This rigidity has historically slowed the industry down and reduced organisations’ ability to respond to a changing project or fluctuating market needs – especially when compared to other industries such as manufacturing.

The global pandemic has challenged the ingrained presenteeism culture and meant that only critical or key site teams could physically attend work sites or undertake works. This has led to the adoption of COVID-19 safe restrictions initially and longer term, new permanent working practices which support greater social distancing or ways of working. For example:

  • USA: Example guidance by The Associated General Contractors; “The company will divide crews/staff into two groups where possible so that projects can continue working effectively if one of the divided teams is required to quarantine”.
  • United Arab Emirates: Besix, a Belgian company in the Middle East, is adopting high-tech hard hats to visualise, track and record workforce activity. The technology monitors the location of workers. Should an infection occur, the system can help with deciding on areas to sanitise or deep clean, or whether to close entire sites.
  • Germany: Germany’s three main construction associations agreed on additional measures to protect workers with pandemic testing and the supply of one million face masks to site workers across the country.

This change to working has been sustained over the last year and is likely to continue as organisations seek to make the new and more flexible working practices permanent measures. For many site-based workers, this might mean a combination of office and site work and a requirement for different skills, tools, systems or technologies to execute previously site-based work. In office-based roles, employers are providing greater flexibility and choice in working hours, patterns and locations to support an individual’s personal circumstances.

These new working practices have also changed employees’ expectations; employers must accommodate this changing shift in expectations to both provide the environment wanted by staff, but also to retain them.

Challenges to flexible working

To achieve this more flexible approach, there needs to be strong programme cohesion between functions, with people united by mutual outcomes, shared targets and clarity around accountabilities. Through our work globally, organisations struggling to build or embed a flexible culture typically have:

  • A rigidly operated structure and processes, which is often hierarchical and centralised. Capability is often not understood in terms of value add but rather very transactional
  • Over-stretched, ‘burnt out’ or no longer inspired people, resulting in retention challenges for those who will inject challenge and help evolve the business
  • Innovation being discouraged on the grounds of limited capacity, focussing more on transacting work than driving value
  • A focus on technical capabilities, with limited value placed on non-technical skills such as leading and managing the programme, people and the supply chain
  • Emphasis on task completion and compliance, rather than delivery of the outcomes
  • A lack of interest from people to understand how the wider programme/functions operate to drive overall value and enable improvements

Steps to build a flexible culture

To counter these challenges, below we explore the steps required to build a more flexible culture and drive productivity.

1. Embed a learning culture

A learning culture is one where people are continuously learning from their experiences – any stigma around failure is removed and a ‘fail fast but learn’ philosophy is adopted. This philosophy puts focus on being 70 percent right and adapting in real time, rather than a solution that is 100 percent right but never moving forward.

For a learning culture to be embedded across an organisation, learnings need to be captured and socialised much more. It is vital to ensure past learnings have been reviewed, assessed and built upon to continuously improve delivery and avoid repeating the same mistakes. This requires effort and focus and can’t be achieved causally at the end of a project.

An example of a successful approach is in the rail sector where major programmes in countries such as the UK and Australia are creating collaboration hubs online to centralise lessons learnt at the project and programme level. This is complemented by bringing industry leaders from cross-functional or other sectors cascading lessons learnt from other projects.

2. Empower people

It is critical that people are prepared and encouraged to make decisions at the right time. To enable this, there needs to be clear accountability structures which outline who and where people can make decisions – clearly defining how governance interacts with the workflow. People need access to timely and accurate data to make informed decisions, and to use a decision framework that prioritises programme outcomes over functional delivery targets. The key to this is having supportive processes and governance.

Often, leaders believe that their teams are empowered or should be able to make decisions but there is a gap in expectation or capability, resulting in a disconnect.

This occurred in a rail metro authority that undertook a full change control process to empower lower levels to take greater ownership and decision making. Despite the change process, the delegated authority structure was not robust, and engagement and communication with the lower levels wasn’t thorough, resulting in a gap in capability. This was remedied through an upskill programme, revised delegated authority structure and clarity of approach at all levels.

3. Broaden the definition of capability

There is a need to value both depth of technical capability and breadth of capability, understanding how projects are delivered within the culture of the organisation to drive the right outcomes. Most commonly, capability definition is done through performance management processes and organisation-wide consistent measures of behavioural and collaborative skills. These must be transparent and consistent across functions to enable alignment and longer term development needs across the programme.

4. Promote cross-functional working

This requires breaking down structural silos between different functions across the programme organisation. Setting up multi-disciplinary teams enables people to understand the priorities, methodologies, restrictions and necessities between all delivery teams. This broadens understanding of how projects are delivered, builds connection to supporting colleagues’ needs and promotes problem solving.

Cross-functional working can be achieved by designing an organisation with multi-disciplinary teams who work together via project-led matrix structures, or by setting up designated collaborative working meetings and ways of working. Engaging people collectively, rather than relying on a central team or the same individuals, promotes speed and can reduce ‘burn out’ and overreliance on the same people.

To make this work effectively requires leaders who understand the wider business operations and understand where compromises will need to be made to enable the best outcome overall.

How to embed flexibility post pandemic

There are simple but effective actions which major project leaders’ can adopt now to enable a more flexible culture and solidify changes implemented throughout the global pandemic into a new flexible operating model. These include:

  • Agree on the organisation’s values and cultural characteristics: ensure that the organisational culture is underpinned by relevant values, and promote understanding of why this matters, and how these values will support effective delivery. Use employee feedback, engagement surveys and checkpoints to reflect on how the culture has been embedded and is evolving.
  • Be upfront with people that the culture will flex: as major projects needs evolve, there will be moments where the culture will change. This is part of the natural evolution and the transition can be supported by clear and honest communication via multiple channels and in a way which promotes and aids cross-team thinking and working.
  • Plan ahead for capability evolution: as leaders, it is critical to forward plan the capability and capacity requirements to deliver the programme ahead of time to limit disruption points (such as succession of key roles) by actively identifying and managing mitigation plans. A programme naturally goes through cycles of activity which require different capabilities.

    For example, at the development stages the focus is on developing the strategy and delivery model alongside external engagement and teams will operate with a level of ambiguity as the strategy develops. The delivery stages require a focussed team working to a clearer set of deliverables often requiring a high degree of internal engagement. At handover stages, there is a high degree of planning and integration capability needed. Understanding these capability changes and the shift required in the organisation to continue delivery will support a smooth transition and help people to operate in these differing environments which have different outcomes.
  • Set a standard to live the values: use a charter to help leadership levels set the standards of behaviour and priorities, which can also be used to hold each other to account when this is not the lived experience. Leaders should also be empowered to balance their functional and strategic role to successfully deliver the outcomes and benefits for the whole programme.
  • Provide role and reward clarity: establish clear capability and role definitions to provide clarity, responsibilities and accountabilities focusing on both skills and behaviours. It is also important that people understand the programme’s target outcomes (both in the short and long term) and the impact they have on personal reward. Recognise and incentivise people to live by the right behaviours to achieve the right outcomes. This will encourage flexibility and people to behave in an outcome-based way.

These quick wins will enable a strong foundation for longer term flexible working and operating models in major projects organisations. These foundations must then be built upon through a continually evolving culture and capability framework, underpinned by recognition in the importance of trusting and empowering employees and supporting them through continual development.

Read more about workforce planning and the importance of culture and capabilities in teams in our findings.

For further information contact:

Sophie Dukelow
Associate Director