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Is systems leadership the missing piece of the infrastructure delivery puzzle?

08 September 2023

‘You can’t lead a system from a silo’, explain Mark Coates and Andrew Crudgington, Systems Approach to Infrastructure Delivery contributors.

Is systems leadership the missing piece of the infrastructure delivery puzzle?
Infrastructure projects need to deliver outcomes. Image credit: Shutterstock

No one would disagree that great leaders have a big role in maximising the benefit from the billions we invest in infrastructure.

It’s a mistake, however, to think of infrastructure leadership as being about one person.

Projects are getting bigger and longer.

They need to be integrated into a complex set of existing networks to deliver better services and improve people’s lives.

In this world, leadership has to be diffused across a project ecosystem.

Ensuring we have enough of these leaders is a priority for our industry.

We also need to look beyond the boundary of the project.

Challenges such as the transition to a low-carbon economy are systemic and need a system-wide response.

So, we also need civil servants, regulators, investors, asset owners, and many other stakeholders who can lead effectively within our infrastructure system.

Systems deliver outcomes

A Systems Approach to Infrastructure Delivery (SAID), published late 2020, was the first output from an ICE initiative, led by our colleague Andrew McNaughton.

Andrew set out to understand what could be done to address the fact that up to 70% of major infrastructure projects disappoint their owners – in terms of cost, delay or simply failing to deliver against expectations.

The core argument in SAID isn’t new: infrastructure projects need to be orientated to deliver outcomes and not (just) a set of structures.

SAID also urges colleagues to put projects into context.

In a country like the UK that has built up an enormous stock of infrastructure over centuries, projects need to be thought of as a tool for improving the performance and effectiveness of these existing networks.

Throughout 2021 and 2022, we were part of a team that explored the ideas in SAID with leaders from real projects, culminating in a second report on putting the principles into practice.

We’ve also just finished a series of international SAID roundtables.

Leadership needs to change

Leadership has been a running theme of all this work.

The first SAID report concluded that outside moments of crisis, the leader’s role is less all-seeing hero and more to cultivate the right environment.

The projects we spoke to in stage 2 agreed.

They told us that leaders must be:

  • resilient;
  • possess subject-matter expertise and sector experience;
  • thrive in a multidisciplinary, culturally diverse, and geographically dispersed environment; and
  • manage relationships with a complex web of stakeholders.

This a lot to ask of any one individual—probably too much.

In fact, colleagues stressed the importance of selecting leaders who are aware of their limits.

These incomplete leaders are, however, adept at selecting and motivating a talented group of individuals and melding them into a united team.

The incomplete leader

The incomplete leader was first described in an article in the Harvard Business Review in 2007.

It stresses the collective and collaborative nature of modern leadership arguing that “the incomplete leader knows that leadership exists throughout the organizational hierarchy – wherever expertise, vision, new ideas, and commitment are found”.

The four key capabilities of the incomplete leader are:

Sense making: understanding the contexts in which an organisation and its people operate, capturing the complexities of their environment and explaining it to others.

Relating: building relationships within and across the project (and beyond), taking time to understand the perspectives and feelings of others and explaining their own position without aggression or defensiveness.

Visioning: creating a compelling picture of the future. Moving from what is, towards what could be.

Inventing: developing new ways to achieve the vision, connecting the abstract vision to the reality of life on the project.

No one leader will be strong in all four capabilities, so they must ensure that the leadership team – and the organisation as whole – balances out their personal strengths and weaknesses.

Will we have enough leaders to meet future demand?

In October last year, the ICE launched a third stage of the SAID programme to identify in more detail the capabilities needed to lead complex infrastructure projects and the routes to acquiring them.

We have also contributed to a parallel Major Projects Association (MPA) initiative with similar goals.

Having taken part in a series of MPA workshops, it’s clear that SAID’s ideas about leadership resonate widely.

And, they are finding their way into leadership development frameworks, including the Association for Project Management’s Major Project Leadership Specialist Certificate.

There were, however, some worrying themes.

Not least the fear that the supply of leaders with the right characteristics is at risk of outstripping demand, a trend intensified by the demands of enormous mega-projects, such as Saudi Arabia’s Neom.

Given the scale of the UK’s current ambition – the Infrastructure and Projects Authority’s National Infrastructure and Construction Pipeline is worth £650 billion over 10 years – there’s a strong case for industry leaders, the ICE included, to focus on the health of the leadership pipeline.

In this context, we reiterate another SAID conclusion: the infrastructure sector will benefit from being more open minded about where its future leaders come from.

We won’t succeed if we only look to the pool of traditional engineers and project managers.

Systems leadership as the missing piece of the puzzle

It's worth highlighting that projects will only deliver on big outcomes like net zero if they’re successful in improving the performance and effectiveness of existing infrastructure systems.

A theme at the international roundtables was that a project’s ability to secure these outcomes is blunted when other parts of the system, policy, investors, regulators, asset owners, etc. aren’t all pushing in the same direction.

You can’t lead a system from a silo.

The capabilities needed for this wider systems-leadership aren’t well understood.

But if we’re to deliver the best outcomes for people and the planet, then this is a gap that we urgently need to fill.

  • Mark Coates, international director of public policy and advocacy at Bentley Systems
  • Andrew Crudgington, independent consultant