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Partnerships approach helps organisations deliver projects

Driving collaboration and embracing uncertainty
Infrastructure debates often focus on building assets, politics and funding. Less considered is how infrastructure enables city-shaping, better community experience, and whether projects translate into social and economic outcomes.

Professor Suresh Cuganesan, CEO of the John Grill Centre for Project Leadership at the University of Sydney, says that infrastructure projects require leaders who understand stakeholder perspectives, drive collaboration and embrace uncertainty.

Australia has a once-in-a- generation infrastructure opportunity,’ says Cuganesan. ‘But we will only realise its potential if it has enough current and future leaders with the capability to manage and govern increasingly large, complex projects

Cuganesan believes that a new paradigm in infrastructure projects is emerging. ‘The old approach of government and contractors developing a master plan, seeking comment and being constrained too early by a fixed funding envelope is failing. We must engage the community up-front on project concepts and think more broadly about outcomes, including the intangible aspects of place. This approach requires expanded skill sets in infrastructure leaders.’

Australia will spend almost $100 billion on infrastructure this financial year – the most in three decades – according to the Reserve Bank of Australia.

The project boom and community trust

Federal and state governments are embarking on a wave of projects, amid a population boom.

The risk is that some projects experience budget overruns, costing the community billions of dollars and more again in indirect costs, including loss of community trust.

Sydney’s light rail project, for example, has been delayed and is in contractual dispute with a subcontractor. Melbourne’s controversial East West Link project cost $1.1 billion, only to be scrapped.

Cuganesan says budget overruns are too common in major projects.

Much work has been done to improve projects, yet we continue to see problems. We need to step back and consider if we are asking the right questions about why we are doing particular projects.

The confluence of new and old forces is making infrastructure projects harder to deliver. Larger infrastructure projects are needed to keep up with population growth and urbanisation.

Retrofitting congested capital cities with new infrastructure is challenging.

As project size grows, consortiums may have more partners, adding to complexity. Foreign and local entities working together and with different tiers of government mean that project leaders deal with larger stakeholder groups with differing perspectives.

At the same time, communities have become more organised and energised around infrastructure projects, and social media has empowered their protests. That, in turn, has added to project politicisation, and political uncertainty has compounded the problem. ‘Infrastructure leaders have to navigate a fast-moving, unpredictable project landscape,’ says Cuganesan. ‘It’s vital that they can “pivot” if needed, and that teams can draw on different disciplines to solve multidimensional problems.’

Cuganesan says that the centre fills an important gap in Australia.

‘Infrastructure stakeholders recognise that their staff need expanded skills…they also know there is a gap in the talent pipeline as experienced people leave the sector, and knowledge and skills are lost.

Three key strengths to learning, that work

1. Multidisciplinary approach

2. Applied focus

3. Collaboration

More than 85 percent of course participants surveyed say that their relationships with direct reports, peers and other stakeholders improved after the program.

Four in five say that the training helped them to reposition themselves as leaders in their organisation, and many participants say they established innovative approaches to solve problems, achieve cost savings, better governance or other project outcomes.

Participants feel more confident in their role, with a number moving up to more senior roles in their organisation. ‘They have higher job satisfaction because stakeholders are working towards a common goal, there are better team dynamics on projects, and they feel that they are making a difference for the community.’

‘By developing a new generation of infrastructure leaders, and equipping them with broader skills, the centre can have significant economic and social impact. Great infrastructure shapes cities, builds nations and, most of all, enriches communities.

This article was first published in Infrastructure Partnership Australia’s official annual publication, Future Building: The Australian Infrastructure Review (edition 9, pages 61-62).