Leading mega projects 
and revamps

How to effectively lead a mega project, turnaround or revamp in a highly constrained resource environment. The leadership approach for successfully delivering a project with an entire team in stretch roles is discussed

Paul Hayes and Christine A de Vlaming

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Article Summary

Imagine you are handed a massive plant project tomorrow that involves a major turnaround, capital project work, revamp and maintenance work that must be executed in 12 months from start to finish, with a need for 1500 craftsmen working double shifts for one year and more than four million man-hours to perform all of the work.

The project requires immediate mobilisation of more than 250 project professionals and engineers, and the entire project management team must be mobilised within 60 days. The project is to be executed like a fire rebuild project, but completed in even less time than a normal plant rebuild. Engineering has just begun, no material has been fabricated or is on-site, and the specific work scope evolves overtime due to the very nature of the project. You must essentially start construction and engineering at the same time. 

Now picture the project leadership team that will assist you and the issues they must face in such a scenario. Be realistic and do not expect your “A” team to be just sitting around awaiting your call, or that your favourite contractor has their best people available. The reality is that your project team will be far less experienced in aggregate and will likely be from various backgrounds and companies. Inherently, you will place these people into stretch roles. How is your leadership of this team different 
from previous projects? How will the team fare?

Picture yourself, either as an owner with a plant down and chartered 
with leading a major rebuild or mega project, or as an EPC contractor who 
is responding when his best client 
calls and says, “I need help, now!” How do you respond? How will you pull together the team and find the leadership to do it?

Today’s project landscape and associated resource market
First, let us look at the harsh realities of today’s EPC labour market. In this market, if you still think you are going to get the “A” team for your project, you are either extremely sheltered from the project world today or simply delusional. The first step in successfully leading a project in today’s environment is to understand, accept and plan for the impact this highly competitive resource market will have on the project.

Globally, there has been a major shift in the size and complexity of plant projects since 2002. Mega projects are nine times the size they were. There is a shortage of qualified EPC contractors. Global engineering and project resource demands far exceed available resources and, furthermore, fewer resources are entering the EPC market to meet current and future project demand.

The following information was collected from 334 US and seven Canadian engineering colleges (Source: Michael T Gibbons, American Society for Engineering Education):
- 20% increase in engineering bachelor degrees since 1999
- 3% increase in five major areas of study for EPC contractors since 1999 
- 27% decrease in chemical engineering majors from 1999 to 2005
- 12% decrease in civil engineering majors from 1999 to 2005.

In summary, the project landscape has clearly changed for owners and EPC contractors, as shown in Table 1.
The first reality this market presents for future project leaders, on both the owner side and the EPC contractor side, is that a project team today will be far less experienced than before and therefore inadvisably more stretched than ever before. The bottom line is it takes an entirely different leadership view and approach to be successful in such an environment.

Challenges forming today’s project team
Now, to look deeper into what this means from a project execution perspective, the environment presents a number of new challenges that the project leader will inevitably face, as well as several unique opportunities:
- There is a distinct lack of leadership talent: You may have many people who know the processes and practices, have the technical skills, but do not know how to supervise, manage or lead
- Lack of people with basic practical project experience: You will have many on your team with less than ten years’ total experience since school and minimal, if any, actual field project experience. They will likely be well educated, smart and have basic skills, but have not been in the project world long enough to hit the ground running. Essentially, the team will be learning as they go
- Lack of experience in standard project execution practices: Many staff members will have inherent raw skills and diverse experience base from other companies, but not with the current project-specific practices, or experience working with their new counterparts. The result is a mix of good people (hopefully), but lacking in consistent project practices
- While some of the senior, more experienced employees have a passion for fast-track projects, many do not: it may become apparent that most of the available senior talent have spent their entire career in a more structured, slower-paced project environment and may not fare well in a fast-track project mode. Many may be suitable for a home office support role, but not in a field role with long hours and intense stress
- “C and “D” players available (qualified?) for “A” positions: In the campaign push to recruit people, a lot of “C” and “D” players will be hired, and maybe a few “F”s. They were easily weeded out in the past. But today, there are no replacements standing in the pipeline. This means taxing the few available leaders, using more people than normally needed to get the job done, and making mistakes more often
- Personnel issues rampant: The pressures of today’s stretched market not only impact owners and contractors, but also individuals. The stress on project team members today can result in more personal problems that affect an individual’s performance.

The owner and contractor/project leader who are successful in developing a focused strategy at the onset of the project will take all of this into account, identify known weaknesses, and then turn those weaknesses into strengths to succeed with great reward. Developing the right strategy will not only mitigate these previously mentioned challenges, but when designed and implemented correctly will also result in achieving a powerful and sustaining competitive advantage. The advantage involves innovation as well as building leaders for future projects.

While it may not be obvious, these previously discussed issues/challenges provide all the proper ingredients and actually outline the recipe for achieving the next level of project execution excellence. Remember the old saying “crisis is the mother of invention”?

Consider the following view:
- Less or no experience = no set paradigms, natural innovation and creativity
- The senior experienced = passionate about teaching lesser experienced people
- No company procedure experience = will not blindly follow the procedure, could result in fit-for-purpose right-sized project practices
- Challenges and stress = opportunities, excitement and motivation. Many of today’s young professionals thrive on challenge.

How to develop an effective leadership strategy for today’s mega project
- Carefully pick the right people for stretch roles: The best approach for selection and utilisation of talent on a project in this environment may seem counter-intuitive to what you might initially think. For example, the traditional view would have the leader placing the most senior people in the most senior positions. However, given the scarcity of senior experienced people and the abundance of lesser experienced people, consider not placing your senior people in leadership roles. Rather, place the less experienced members in those roles who are ready to be stretched (i.e., stretch roles), then use your limited senior people more effectively and across more fronts as active coaches.

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