Human-focussed approaches to project delivery

An Interview with Montassar Draief

We sat down with Montassar Draief to talk about his career in megaprojects, the most  challenging projects he has ever faced, his advice for aspiring project managers and much more.

Montassar’s career in our industry is hugely impressive and our conversation brough out immense insights for project professionals around the world. In this two-part series, we will explore the challneges of working in our industry and how to best overcome them, with some examples from Montassar’s own experience. Next week, we will dive into his passion: smart and sustainable mobility. What does it mean to get ‘smart’? Is it possible at the moment? How do we get there? 

"The sheer dynamism of it. That is what drew me to megaprojects"

Montassar is the first to admit that megaprojects were not a lifelong passion of his. “I did not grow up as a kid who is always playing with Legos, trying to build little bridges and all of that” he tells me. Rather, it was when he was at university getting a degree in Engineering Studies that his practical training courses set him on track for his later career. 

Firstly, there was solar energy training in CIEMAT Madrid, which he enjoyed. Then airport training, which served as the real turning point for him. He explains that “I was working on the expansion of Dubai Airport, on Terminal 3 and the Emirates Engineering Centre for the Airbus A380. I was only around twenty two at the time and was put into the middle of this huge project at Dubai Airport. It was crazy.” In terms of commitment, think “twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Huge cranes everywhere. Around thirty contractors working on site at the same time”. Looking back, Montassar remembers taking all of this in and thinking “in a few years I will be landing in this airport. I am building it! This is my dream job”. He reflects on the fact that even today, when he lands at Dubai Airport, he still gets that same feeling: I built this!

Shortly after this training, he joined Systra and has been in the megaproject industry since then. 

"You can't describe a 'typical day'...beyond answering 300 emails"

When asked to describe a typical day as a Director or Project Manager at a company like Systra, Montassar had perhaps the only reasonable response: “well, every day is so different”. However, he was able to outline a few common patterns that many will be familiar with. “You need to visit the site to make sure that everything is going to plan, meet with various stakeholders, coordinate with members of your own team, work hand-in-hand with the contractors, answer 300 emails per day, review technical documents, manage the programme”. The list is not only extensive, but “it is at least all of these tasks at the same time”. 

He explains that rather than looking at specific tasks, it makes more sense to think in terms of objectives. “I had the opportunity to undertake several positions when I was at Systra and ADPi, from Project Director to Regional Director and Operations Director. Every position had common objectives that were driving the everyday tasks. You need to be on top of all critical actions that are likely to trigger delay or deepen complexities within the project”.

Not Without Challenge

While he has experienced huge successes throughout his career, according to Montassar, “the key to any megaproject is you must be mentally prepared to face daily challenges, different complexities in a wide range of areas, some of them you don’t know [yet!]”. Indeed, the potential for problems when building at such scale are well documented throughout recent and even ancient history. Within his own work, Montassar has faced a number of projects that threw up some serious challenges. 

One that stands out is the operation phase of the Oran Tramline in Algeria. When Montassar became the Managing Director of Operations for the line, he recognised the opening date was not flexible. Due to political pressures, operations had to begin on 1st May 2012, “we could not move that around, we could not even delay two or three months” he explains. Within this tight schedule, there was lots do so. “It was hard, you have to undertake training, operation and maintenance procedures, do all of the marketing and communication surrounding the operation, finish testing and commissioning. Just a lot was going on”. All of this was taking place simultaneously with nearly seven hundred people being recruited to join our ever-expanding team within just nine months.

Image source: Shutterstock

Montassar highlights that there was one factor that was clearly vital in achieving success on the Oran project – communication. “Hundreds of people joined the team and they had never worked together before. Immediately, I recognised that collaboration, teamwork and team building were of the upmost importance”. With this in mind, he committed to bringing the team together and creating a strong sense of comradery amongst colleagues. Reflecting on this, Montassar explains that “we always first think of the construction side when we talk about megaprojects, but those last six or nine months when you have to get operations ready on time, it requires huge amounts of teamwork and deep communication”.

Again, Montassar’s conviction that megaprojects are a fundamentally human enterprise comes to the forefront of our discussion. In his role as Managing Director, he focussed on bringing teams together to communicate more effectively, while building a sense of team spirit as the deadline quickly approached. In the end, despite a challenging schedule, the end date was met with no overruns, demonstrating the power of Montassar’s humam-focussed approach to delivery.

"The human aspect of it, for me, is the key piece"

While other projects he has worked on have faced difficulties arising from complex technical issues or architectural discoveries, the Oran Tramline in particular highlights an overarching theme of the conversation with Montassar – teamwork. “Our industry is very human”, he argues, ” this human interaction and teamwork that you implant into your projects, that is what empowers you to overcome problems”.

Getting Smart

Next week we will dive into a particular passion for Montassar: smart and sustainable mobility. We will explore his vision of the not-so-different future, where autonomous, sustainable and on demand transport is available in major cities around the world. Importantly, we will dive into how we get there. 

Share on facebook
Share on linkedin


Madeleine Jones Casey

Madeleine Jones-Casey

Business Writer at Foresight Works

Never miss a beat, sign up to our newsletter

Related Posts