Innovation in Mega Infrastructure Projects: What Works?

A new report from Balfour Beatty and VINCI, argues for better innovation in mega infrastructure projects in the UK. It comes at a time when the UK has several of these projects underway and in the pipeline, including the new flight runway in the South-East, the Thames Tideway Tunnel, Hinckley Point, High Speed 2 and Crossrail 2. The report emphasies the importance of systems, processes and contractual arrangements to build-in innovation and maintain it over the life of the project. At the same time, it is increasingly recognised in best practice in infrastructure, that organisational culture and behaviours make a critical contribution to ensuring innovation happens and continues to happen.

Why Innovation Matters

The research report defines mega projects as “large-scale, high-risk and high-cost (typically over $1 billion dollars) infrastructure assets, such as airports, tunnels, bridges, power plants or transport systems. They are complex systems that usually involve a coalition of clients and contractors.”

A feature of mega projects is delays. The result is 90% of them over-spend their original budget, with all the potential economic and reputational damage that can ensue.

Balfour Beatty/VINCI believe that innovation is the key to improving performance, efficiency and delivery. In their experience, however, there is often a reluctance to embrace new ideas or approaches in mega projects, favouring instead the ‘tried and tested’ methods.

They argue that every mega project should develop and implement an innovation strategy (like Crossrail) to help bring the UK infrastructure industry at least in line, if not ahead, of other sectors. Part of the reason is to address the current skills shortage and attract new talent for the multi-generational, skilled workforce needed. To achieve this involves embracing technological advances and more collaborative ways of working.

“Innovation has to replace business as usual and become the new normal.”

The report concludes that:
“All the key players must step up to the plate and play their part in modernising the industry and prioritising innovation. Crucially, we believe, they all need to work together to do so.”

Building a Culture of Innovation

Testing for skills and behaviours in being innovative and creative have figured in several major behavioural assessment projects that B2B have delivered over the past decade. But arguably not enough? Whilst we would say that behaviours that promote innovation should be standard in all future behavioural assessments for mega projects, the Balfour Beatty/VINCI report is right in that systems, processes and contractual arrangements should build-in innovation and maintain it over the life of the project. Critical to supporting this this is building and maintaining a culture of innovation by:

  • Identifying and developing employee capability for innovative working. According to research by NESTA, the top three characteristics and behaviours are motivation, openness to ideas and original problem-solving.
  • Promoting and rewarding innovation, over and above financial incentives, including tolerance of failure and valuing risk taking.
  • Supporting innovation at all levels with managers being responsible for encouraging and reinforcing innovative working.
  • Modelling behaviours by leaders that encourage innovation through a transformational leadership style; in particular, inspiring, motivating, collaborative, cognition, planning, problem-solving, encouraging risk-taking, and emotional intelligence.
  • Introducing bespoke incentive schemes, induction programmes, and management development activities that promote innovation.

The NESTA research asserts:

  • Skills and behaviours that contribute to innovative working in organisations can be identified and measured.
  • Innovative working is not an activity restricted to a ‘subset’ of people with certain characteristics.
  • Research evidence supports the proposition that innovative working/behaviours can be systematically enhanced.

The B2B team works on helping clients to select their partners for collaborative mega projects and assessing their capability to innovate collaboratively. We also help them to develop the skills and competencies of their people to deliver innovative behaviours in collaborative settings and our work in this area includes many mega projects including the London Olympics, Sellafield, the Ministry of Defence, Thames Tideway Tunnels, The Palace of Westminster and over 2015-2017 several projects within HS2 Phase 1.

Whether it is for assessment of people and teams as part of a partner selection process, or for developing skills and behaviours, it is important that the process of design and delivery are supported by the very best of professional practices. B2Bppm Ltd are the first company in Europe to be certified to BS ISO 10667-2:2011 the only ISO standard in the world which covers behavioural assessment in procurement conditions and the development of collaborative behaviours in teams.

David Shindler B2B Team