Getting Glasgow 2014 to the Starting Line

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As the program team behind the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games geared up for the final race to the finish ahead of the event’s opening ceremony, program Management Head Martin Lawton shared key insights on lessons he’s learned during the journey with our team. 

Glasgow 2014 is the biggest sporting event in Scotland for a generation – six thousand five hundred athletes from 71 nations competing in 17 sports over 11 days; watched by a million spectators in person; and a global audience of 1.5 billion.

But for Martin Lawton, a veteran of the Manchester 2002 Commonwealth Games – steering a program of this epic scale to a successful conclusion is a case of using some elementary project management skills; including having the right plan, establishing a good system, and making sure you’re working with the best possible team.

If you can set it up properly in the early stages of the program , you are up and running,” he says. “In terms of project and program management systems, like timelines, risk management, issue capture, or cost management systems, there’s no real difference with any other large, time-sensitive program.

Glasgow Sign on Building

Going for Consistency

The biggest challenge of a program on this scale and intensity is to achieve a consistent program management (PM) approach across the organization’s multitudinous functions.

“People on all levels need to understand the principle that everyone will do a certain thing on a certain day, to report risks in a certain standardised way, and for the senior leadership to communicate decisions in a clear-cut way across the board.”

“The biggest challenge is about consistency,” Martin explains. “It’s difficult when some projects are managed offline in Excel or Microsoft project plans aren’t updated. You need a co-ordinated, standardised approach, so that when people on one side of the organisation categorise an issue as a serious risk to the success of the program, for example, that means the same thing to someone in a very different area.

“It’s vital to get everyone involved in the programto look at their work in the same way. People need to be discussing their challenges openly and regularly.”

For Martin, the worst thing is for a team member to hide a problem and hope it will go away. “Issues and risks need to be on the table so they are known about in advance,” he points out, “and so we can all help people solve the problems they’ve got.”

In order to achieve this consistency, Martin recommends establishing a simple, centralised structure rather than letting different functions set up their own project management systems. “You need a centralised budget and centralised control of the program,” he says. “You also need to make sure that people from different areas are regularly sitting down together and updating each other on their progress to make sure no one loses sight of the wider program perspective.”

The important thing to get right when you’re working in a project like this when you don’t have a tangible product outcome is to make sure everyone in the program really sees the value in that project management process.

Martin Lawton - Program Management Head

Making an Integrated Plan

For Martin, it’s also vital to establish and to follow a detailed, interdependent program plan, and to know exactly how far the organisation has progressed along that plan at any one time. “My first questions when getting involved with a program half way through is asking to look at the plan, and to find out where exactly we are on that journey. Are we 60 percent down the line? 80 percent?”

“It’s really important to know exactly where you are on the overarching plan, rather than relying on hundreds of individual, separate project plans. It’s only when these plans are consistent and interdependent that individual teams can see how their progress affects the progress of the wider program, and anyone who fails to deliver their objectives on schedule can be pulled up, and helped to get back on track.”

“The key to successfully delivering a large and complex program like the Commonwealth Games is simplicity” he says.

“You need to keep it simple and fight to keep a central approach. You need to establish a strong PM team at the centre and then embed them across the departments, with a strong reporting line back to the middle.”

“You don’t want to end up in a situation where staff are reporting to their own department managers, who are breathing down their necks at all times and forcing them to say whatever reflects best on their own department. You need to ensure different teams are facing an external challenge from someone who is able to point out when goals and deadlines have been missed and highlight the impact of that delay on the wider program.”

Ramping Up Expertly

One of the distinctive characteristics of working on a major sporting event like the Commonwealth Games or the Olympics is how quickly a small bidding organization of a dozen people needs to ramp up into a full-scale delivery operation with hundreds of staff.

“To be successful you need to make sure you have a mature PM expert on board from the very beginning,” he says. “All bidding teams have accountants and lawyers involved at the very earliest stages, but it’s vital to get someone with the necessary program management skills involved at the beginning to make sure the program is set up properly at the outset.

“My very simple approach is that any project set up correctly with good people working on it will be a success.”

Sharing Lessons Learned

Martin is a strong believer in the importance of sharing of best practices and lessons learned from one set of games to another. “Broadly speaking, all major sporting events are set up in a very similar fashion,” he points out. “Much of the set up can be transferred from one to the next. But that also means that the same mistakes are often transferred again and again.

“Internationally I think there should be much more of a focus on capturing the lessons of one games and passing that learning on to the organisers of the next. You have dedicated professional organisations for engineers, accountants, or lawyers, for example, which regularly come together to set standards and share lessons.

London 2012 has had a big impact on what we are doing more broadly. Because it was so successful there has been a lot of discussion about how their model can be transferred to ours. Most importantly London 2012 seriously raised the game in terms of the public’s perspective on events of this kind, and particularly in terms of the levels of service offered to both spectators and athletes.

We had significantly more volunteer applicants from across the border than we initially anticipated – and more than 58,000 in total, breaking all records for the Commonwealth Games. There was such a feeling of love for the Olympics last summer it’s really helped us. People wanted to be part of something like that again and getting involved with the Commonwealth Games was a natural progression of that.

Additional Reading: our London 2012 Case study

“It seems to me that in the major sporting event world there is no real equivalent; generally each program is set up in the same way as its predecessor, with no real sense of stepping back and analysing past events to learn lessons about what could potentially be done differently.”

Many of Martin’s best practices offer useful insights for many organisations embarking on major programs with teams that have a lower level of project management maturity and experience.

Communicating Simply

How to effectively communicate program information to the senior management team is one key lesson.

“Often data is often presented to an organisation’s senior management in far too complicated a way,” Martin explains. “There are generally too many stats, pages of data, far too many numbers. All too frequently program managers put forward these sets of numbers without providing any real supporting narrative, so it can easily become misleading – or just downright incomprehensible.

“Don’t just print out and present the raw information to senior executives in the format generated by the system; that won’t help you keep them updated, or help them understand the direction and resources you need. You always need to analyse the data the system gives you and recast it in the way your audience want it to be presented, so it’s useable for them.”

Martin Lawton has a simple formula for how best to present program updates to senior leadership teams.

“Initially, I recommend concentrating on one A3 piece of paper for each department setting out the top 15 issues, the top 15 risks, and pinpointing exactly where that area of the organisation has progressed to within the plan as it stands at that point in time.

“As you progress through the program, this can be expanded; six months later, and each department needs a 10-page summary containing lists of the key challenges, key achievements, top five issues, top five risks, budget updates, summaries of whether the team is operating according to the plan, and how to get back to it if not. I also recommend setting out a list of lessons learned by each area for each update.”

Another of Martin’s recommendations is making sure the different project plans are truly interdependent. “You also need to make sure your plans actually talk to each other,” he says. “In Microsoft Project you are never going to have one all-encompassing software file that covers everything; you need to make sure they are properly linked and fully interdependent. That way if something is slipping in area X you can easily see the impact on area Y.”

But it’s not all about communicating program data with the senior leadership team. The other absolutely vital factor is about engaging and communicating with the rest of the delivery organisation.

Engaging with Stakeholders

“For me, successful communication of the plan is about personal involvement,” Martin says. “It is really important to make sure you’re really getting out and about rather than being stuck in an office behind a closed door. The headquarters of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games is a huge building; there are some 500 people working here over five floors. The PMO team is made up of 35 people spread across the whole of the project.”

Understanding how to work with people with very different levels of project management maturity is another real essential in this industry. “Some people have really good skills already, others have arrived with plenty of experience but in a different skillset, and others have never done anything like it before,” Martin points out.”

“With this mix of backgrounds you can’t just rely on email; you really need to get out from behind your desk and help lead people through the process. You need to be coaching people, adapting to their personal circumstances and skillsets.”

This mind-set has led to a very positive culture among the team in Glasgow, Martin argues. “By getting out and rallying the team, you make sure there are no dissenters; everyone is on board. We’ve had a lot of positive feedback; people really see the value of what they’re doing, and that is essential.

“The senior management team have also helped support the development of this culture by sending out regular messages supporting what we’re doing. We’ve also been working closely with Police Scotland and the City of Glasgow – refreshing and recalibrating plans together.

“We have set up a joint program office and are working as one team. You need to listen to everyone and bring everyone with you, from the 24-year-old graduate who’s never worked on a project before but has a degree in risk management to the 60-year-old project manager who’s been round the block and seen it all before.

“Successful communication and leadership on a program of this size is about style and approach, being open to new ideas and expecting people to bring them to you if they have them.”

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