Lessons from the UK’s Major
Project Leadership Academy
An Interview with Dr Paul Chapman
We sat down to speak with Dr Paul Chapman, a leading expert on the learning and development of executives responsible for major projects. Alongside his role as Academy Director for the UK Government’s Major Project Leadership Academy (MPLA), Dr Chapman established the University of Oxford’s MSc in Major Programme Management and has published extensive research in the field. Dr Chapman shared compelling insights into the UK Government’s Major Project Leadership Academy, highlighting the centrality of leadership training in successful major project delivery.
In the six years following the financial crash of 2008, the UK government’s national debt increased by £765 billion. It was in this context that the Government Major Project Portfolio (GMPP) drew the attention of senior decision-makers. The GMPP showed that the government was spending circa £500 billion on major projects, while cost overruns of around 10% were common. Faced with its mounting national debt, the UK government knew that it could not afford for its major projects to continue to accrue such overruns. In response, focus shifted towards efficiency and reform.
Dr Chapman believes that “at that time, in the Civil Service there were many excellent leaders, however they were typically generalists or focussed on policy and that did not automatically translate into them being effective at leading major projects”. The government itself recognised this and according to Dr Chapman it “invested into building esteem around project management and project delivery and in a practical, and as it turned out, highly effective first move, ministers set up the UK Major Project Leadership Academy (MPLA). In order to be admitted into the programme, applicants had to be supported by the head of the government department that they worked for”. They would then go back to that department properly equipped to take on major project leadership.
With progress made in establishing the Academy, Dr Chapman could see that the government was enacting “a visible attempt at culture change around major project delivery”. When looking at the GMPP and the UK government’s project leadership capacity at the time, Dr Chapman believed this cultural shift was enabled with the establishment of a Delivery Function, where “the government really needed clarity of structure when it came to major projects” and development of professional standards, and where “systemic changes were needed in order to mitigate cost overruns and increase the likelihood of projects being implemented well”.
Jon McGlynn (Chair, APM) presenting Nick Borwell (Director, Function, Profession and Standards, IPA) and (Tony Meggs (CEO, IPA) with accreditation for MPLA. Paul Chapman (MPLA Academy Director, Oxford) in attendance. Image source
What is the UK MLPA?
The Agreement establishing the MPLA was signed in 2012. Six weeks later, the first learning and development module got underway, with a plan to enrol six cohorts of one hundred and eighty civil servants into the Academy. Dr Chapman had previously led the establishment of Oxford University’s MSc in Major Programme Management and explains that following a transparent and open procurement process, Oxford’s Saïd Business School was chosen by the UK government to design, develop and deliver the MPLA”.
Dr Chapman outlined the four key competencies that serve as the focal point of the UK MPLA. “Firstly, there is leadership of major projects. Secondly, leadership of self. Thirdly, technical knowledge, and finally, commercial aspects of project leadership- creating and delivering against a business case, and engaging and contracting with outside organisations to do so effectively”.
The Academy outlines these core tenets as follows:
Leadership of Self
“Distinguishing the self-knowledge to all a leader to know how to maximise their leadership impact on the project.”
Leadership of Major Projects
“Distinguishing those leadership attributes which are most germane to major projects (‘temporary organisations’), compared to the leadership of ongoing operations.”
“The competency to provide commercial leadership and exert effective control over the ‘extended delivery team’ across organisational boundaries.”
“The competency of appropriately applying the principles, disciplines and tools to programme and project management to support the leadership of the project.”
In terms of commitment, the Academy requires participants to complete three modules over thirty-two days of learning, including seventeen contact days, with assignments and assurance reviews conducted during the programme. Dr Chapman believes, however, that perhaps the most important aspect of MPLA assessment is the final assessment panel. He explained that at all MPLA participants are required to present a portfolio of evidence to an expert interview panel who consider one key question: “do I have confidence in this person to lead a major project?”. If the answer to that question is no, the participant will not pass the course.
This final assessment question sets the UK MPLA apart. By ensuring that all graduates of the Academy have gained the trust of the expert panel, Dr Chapman is confident that the UK MPLA succeeds in training government project professionals to the highest standard.
This final assessment question sets the UK MPLA apart from similar courses around the world, where some see the programmes as more of a rubber stamp than in-depth training. By ensuring that all graduates of the Academy have gained the trust of the expert panel, Dr Chapman is confident that the UK MPLA succeeds in training government project professionals to the highest standard.
The MPLA’s Continued Impact
There have been four UK government administrations since the Academy was established in 2012, and notable implications of government’s response to EU Exit and Covid. Having served as Academy Director in these far from benign times, Dr Chapman is confident that the rigour of major project leadership within government is in safe hands. Beyond widespread participation in the MPLA, the UK government has invested into the project delivery profession, from the creation of the Project Delivery Fast Stream for the civil service (the third most applied for fast stream course offered by the government) to the newly established programme for Junior Ministers.
In the context of the UK government’s announcement of a £650bn investment in infrastructure, the work of the MPLA is as vital as ever. It seems that for Dr Chapman, major project leadership needs to be brought into sharp focus as a standalone discipline, quite apart from the more generalised leadership roles performed so well by civil servants across government departments. The MPLA is a significant step towards achieving this goal, with Dr Chapman’s academic research (which can be found here) supporting this push for major project leadership to become recognised as an essential for governments worldwide, as well as for major corporations.
Business Writer at Foresight Works