Ways of working: how to enable a successful environment for all

Stefan Hilson

Associate Director

In capital delivery businesses, the environment should be creating success, and that success should be delivered by everyone, rather than relying on a handful of heroes. Having the right delivery environment that allows everyone to perform at their best will enable businesses to pre-empt major changes, reduce firefighting, and focus on driving improvement.

With the shifts discussed across digital, processes, and strategic change planning, now is the right time to embrace wider changes to how leadership and teams operate.

Our work around the globe shows that organisations are starting to move away from the traditional, centrally controlled styles of working. Instead, they are moving towards being more purposeful and digitally-enabled, with a greater distribution of strategic thinking, information and change capability. For those that are ahead of the curve, richer information is now becoming available at all levels of the business, rather than being held only in informal reports.

Example for a transport operator: The transport operator defined digital as key to breaking down their hierarchy and empowering every individual to take responsibility for driving digital. This resulted in four lenses of their digital vision: digital engineering, digital project management, digital construction and digital operations. These are not specific to divisions, teams or disciplines but rather they articulate the connection between parts of the project lifecycle, including how physical and information assets are designed, developed and put to use.

Linked to this, organisations and projects teams are looking for more diverse thinking, experience and skillsets. Importantly, there is an appreciation that teams with different backgrounds, experience or ideas should be nurtured and considered part of the business change processes.

Embracing change by refocusing on leadership

We still unmistakably work in the era of the ‘hero’ leader, who takes huge responsibility and is the revered decision maker. These leaders have traditionally sat in the centre of a command-and-control business environment that is going to find itself at odds with these new ways of working. The challenge of relying on heroes is often compounded by the progressive over-reliance on these individuals to drive programme success, rather than a successful working environment and organisational leadership.

Continued disempowerment and erosion of accountabilities can create organisations consisting of heroes, and those who need to be saved.

The reliance on this kind of leadership and decision making is arguably stifling the new breed of construction organisations and environments which cultivate success. Coupled with a growing scale and volume of projects, and a lack of resources to lead these, there needs to be a reboot to retain this experience and use it positively to enable the business, its structure, processes and governance, while opening the door to greater diversity and wider distribution of accountability.

Characteristics of a ‘hero’ organisational environment

We typically see the following characteristics across capital delivery businesses still operating a hero culture:

  • Relying almost exclusively on the senior leadership team or key individuals for decision making – even for tactical-level decision making
  • Slow and short-term focused decisions, due to volumes faced
  • Employees suffer diminished accountability and, as a result, have a loss of interest and engagement
  • Fewer individual voices and ideas are expressed
  • Individuals become more entrenched in a familiar, task-based routine, reflected in a narrow skillset
  • Structure, processes, and governance focused largely on compliance and escalation rather than decision making at the right level
  • Hiring processes are focused on proven experience over potential
  • Attrition from those who do not fit the hero mould erodes diversity
  • Reduced creativity and organisational adaptability

Our market interviews in 2020 identified that governance and agile decision making was the lowest scoring answer in all areas:

  • 1.5 out of 5 Governance and agile decision making

Rebooting leadership – empowering rather than rescuing

Hero leadership styles result not only in decision making bottlenecks but also in a systemic bias towards technical depth over business breadth. To reboot the leadership in infrastructure organisations, leaders must:

  • Stop relying on their technical skills: Where decisions fall on heroes, the focus is often to navigate around the immediate obstacles to progress, with the planning horizon on the other side of that obstacle. This involves dusting off their technical skillset and historic experience to dive into the detail of the issue. This inherently leads to short-term decisions, tactical thinking, and a habitual reliance on technical capability and previous experience over broader business skills.
  • Find space and capability to focus on the big decisions: Leaders must lift their heads and see a much more distant horizon, exploring the scenarios they might create. They must focus on understanding the business functions, how they integrate and inform governance decisions. They are then able to start truly understanding, inspiring, coaching and setting direction, rather than doing the jobs of their teams. With improved levels of information to inform long-range forecasts, leaders must start to create the headspace to look further ahead and pre-empt strategic risks.
  • Look for more varied attributes: Decisive, action-focused leaders are going to become less relevant with a shift in working styles and digital insights. Instead, future leaders are likely to have improved digital literacy and analytical skills, strategic vision and an ability to engage a more varied, remote set of team members, stakeholders and disciplines. These digital, strategic and people leadership skills need to be consciously recruited and developed, in addition to a foundation of technical competencies.
  • Enabling processes to be agile, not just a control mechanism. Purposeful processes are aligned to outcomes rather than tasks. They provide control and enable confidence in consistency, quality and efficiency – while also being adaptable. Leaders must drive purposeful processes, which foster different ideas and enable teams to deliver tasks, but also identify opportunities for change, or a better way of working.

An example in an asset delivery organisation: Proactive efforts are being taken through coaching and creating time to move the leadership team away from heroic interventions with a greater focus on broader business performance and change.

Our global survey in 2018 identified key barriers in setting up major infrastructure programmes successfully were due to late decisions and short-term thinking:

  • 46% late decisions
  • 40% short-term thinking

Rebooting teams and organisational structures

Initiatives like Project 13 and the recent Construction Playbook have further emphasised the transformation required. Our dialogue with leadership teams in 2020 reflected this and found a growing recognition that a new organisational model is required to enable insight and information for the benefit of the entire workforce. Rigid hierarchies that drive escalation are increasingly being rejected in favour of those that are more flexible and empowering.

Teams will need to be better able to use new insights from their data-rich environment to make their own decisions, enact appropriate strategies and engage stakeholders.

In a growing industry that is already struggling to find the right level of capability, organisations need to determine when – not if – they start to actively cultivate a broader set of skills.

Example: A leading transport operator realised that to benefit from their transformation digital investment, they needed to radically re-shape how their organisation works, breaking down the historic hierarchy for more widely distributed and digitally enabled decision making.

Three steps for bringing leadership and a new organisational environment together

Transitioning organisational style and skills is one of the slowest to change. The industry has deep-rooted narratives around overcoming struggles and snatching victories – frequently these actions are considered stories of success. We rarely hear about the projects that simply went to plan.

To change working styles, organisations need to consider long term skill needs and rethink how they recruit, recognise value and enable staff. This involves considering three aspects of an individual’s experience of an organisation.

1. Recruiting for the future

Organisations should start hiring for the future by focusing on:

  • Business breadth and adaptability rather than technical depth
  • A person’s potential instead of experience
  • The skills that will be needed when the future business capability is realised
  • The ability of everyone to enact business change, including levels of emotional and social quotients (EQ & SQ)
  • Skills required to embrace digital working.

2. Recognising value

Correct the day-to-day trend of a hero culture by:

  • Identifying and aligning the explicit and implicit mechanisms by which behaviours are recognised and rewarded
  • Aligning reward mechanisms with those that analyse, plan, predict and avoid the crises
  • Identifying the unsung heroes who have been under the radar.

3. Enabling people

Leaders must enable the success of major projects through all of its people:

  • Train for good business leaders, with broad technical basics
  • Give teams purposeful performance outcomes to achieve with the structure and governance to support
  • Provide the digital delivery environment they need to realise these outcomes
  • Make them part of planning the future of the business
  • Provide leadership that supports, guides and enables the team to broaden their skills.

The outcome – success through the many

Through acknowledging the hero culture and historic reliance on them, leaders can create a successful environment which enables success through ‘the many’ rather than ‘the few’.

People will be empowered to act with purpose as they work towards well understood business outcomes and integrated across business functions and they will understand how to use data and systems to make decisions. Individuals will develop a broader business skillset and understanding of the business architecture and will be able to quickly adapt local ways of working around well understood outcomes. Finally, teams will be better at engaging in meaningful business changes as they are delivering in a measurable way every day.

This content forms part of our realising the extraordinary series and findings focused on ways of working and is supported by findings focused on people, culture and capability.

For further information contact:

Stefan Hilson
Associate Director