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Major Projects Leadership Academy

The challenge

Under the Civil Service Reform Plan, all Government Departments have agreed that by the end of 2014 ‘Senior Responsible Owners’ appointed to Major Projects must have passed through the Government’s Major Projects Leadership Academy (MPLA), run in conjunction with Oxford University’s Saïd Business School.

David Pitchford – Executive Director of the Major Projects Authority (MPA) – put the case for improving the capability of major project leaders in this way:

What has happened here over the last 25 years, and indeed in most western jurisdictions, is that there’s been a very strong trend to outsource project leadership to the consultancy sector – and that means you’re also outsourcing knowledge. At the end of the project, the contractor will walk out with the money and the knowledge.

The Academy meets the need for major project leadership, both in terms of technical and commercial know-how and leadership capability, to return to Whitehall rather than being lost to the private sector. This ensures the people responsible for major projects are able to cope with the particular stresses and strains of leading a big project in the public sector; and it encourages agility against a backdrop of unfolding change in priorities, circumstances and political direction.

Our response

In facing up to this challenge, participants on the Academy convene for three, five-day residential modules delivered over a 12 month period interspersed with a demanding schedule of preparation and assignments. At the beginning of the programme, before the first module, participants complete a bespoke psychometric evaluation and undergo a 360-degree feedback process. This feedback helps each participant understand their individual strengths and weaknesses, allowing them to establish a development plan and understand how they might sustain their own levels of intensity over the project lifecycle. Each of the three modules that follow provides rigorous academic input and insights from Oxford faculty and experienced practitioners to blend theory with practice in a way that allows participants to reflect upon and develop their own ways of working. For example Sir David Higgins, the Chairman of Network Rail and former Chief Executive of the Olympic Delivery Authority, discussed key decisions he faced while delivering the Olympic Park and challenged the participants to consider what their response would have been.

Outside the classroom, key ideas from the Academy are taken further during master classes and through conducting a Major Project Review. This review is not only useful to the major project under consideration but allows the participant to reflect upon the role of assurance and transfer this learning to their own work. It is important to keep in mind that through continuing to work in their major project full time, participants are able to apply their learning directly to the workplace and bring the challenges they face into the programme. Sharing these challenges with other senior civil servants in this way provides useful bonding as well as learning experiences and this aspect is developed further through the programme’s 'action-learning sets' to build a network of people with common experiences and skills across departments. This interaction delivers value for individual participants and also builds a network that is an extension of the Academy itself.


Just two years ago only a third of major projects were found to deliver on time and on budget, now this is nearly two thirds. The Academy contributes to this improving picture by training project leaders to apply the right approaches, experience and review processes to maintain performance over time. It provides the capabilities and confidence for Senior Responsible Owners to intervene decisively at the earliest opportunity if such monitoring highlights shortfalls and the need for intervention.

Participants build a portfolio of evidence demonstrating their understanding that the management of risk is central to the delivery of all projects and an appreciation that leading a major project is not simply scaled-up ‘project management’. This reinforces the key learning that major projects are temporary organisations in their own right and, as such, come with the need for real leadership and accountability. Participants leave the Academy with an understanding that successful major project leaders recognise engagement of stakeholders as one of their most important roles; embrace the importance of creating a team around them that they can trust and rely upon to deliver, and understand the necessity to incentivise key team members to stay on a project.

All participants are rigorously assessed. A panel made up of the Academy Director, the Chief Executive of the Academy and a Permanent Secretary considers participants’ assignments and evidence of their improved skills, capability, and on-going professional development.

The Major Projects Leadership Academy allows over 100 Major Project Leaders per year to develop their competence and capabilities. This means the UK Government is building sufficient capability to successfully lead the portfolio of Major Projects across Government.

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