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Leading strategic projects successfully: emerging insights

How do business leaders deal with the challenges around uncertainty, transformation, risk, complexity and challenging stakeholders? These are just some of the issues a group of leading business figures tackled at the ‘Emerging Insights’ event held at Cambridge Judge Business School (CJBS).

Dr Kishore Sengupta assisting John Laity during his talk at the Emerging Insights event

Dr Kishore Sengupta assisting John
Laity during his talk at the Emerging
Insights event

The event welcomed leaders and CJBS alum from the Leading Strategic Projects Successfully programme, led by Dr Kishore Sengupta. The attendees and speakers came from diverse backgrounds with a range of experience, offering a fresh take on how projects and innovation can be managed successfully.

The morning began with a series of short TED-style talks from a range of experts starting with Dr Nektarios (Aris) Oraiopoulos, University Lecturer in Operations Management at CJBS, offering his insight to the pharmaceutical industry, where most of the top selling drugs come out of small, nimble and innovative biotech companies, not the large resource-rich pharma companies more commonly associated with drug development. Dr Oraiopoulos looked at the advantage small biotech companies have when it comes to embracing innovation and collaboration whilst accepting risks, strengthening their position as front runners in the race for breakthrough drugs in a highly competitive market.

Takeaway: Innovation means getting comfortable with failure. Smaller organisations are often better equipped to take risks on new approaches and recover quickly if things go wrong. Larger organisations can suffer by not keeping nimble and open to change.

Next up was David Andrade, Head of Technology at Sky Betting and Gaming, who discussed the merits of a ‘product’ versus ‘projects’ approach taken at his organisation. By taking a ‘product’ approach they open up a far more flexible, iterative approach that focuses on learning as you go and building relationships. The end goal is not to simply reach the end of the project but continue to develop and deliver the best ‘product’. By inverting their thinking about projects, they are freeing up the process of achieving their goals

Takeaway: By taking a different approach to how projects are managed you can introduce a more fluid, iterative approach focused on constantly learning and adapting your ‘product’ offering the best result for your client or audience.

Professor Jaideep Prabhu, Jawaharlal Nehru Professor of Indian Business & Enterprise at CJBS, challenged us to take a different view of innovation, presenting his research on ‘Frugal Innovation: How to Do More (and Better) with Less’. Jaideep’s work looks to countries such as India, Brazil and China for a new approach to innovation; one that is diametrically opposed to the West’s dominant and structured approach to innovation with large R&D budgets and planned approaches to innovation carried out in insular environments. His work calls for a more frugal, flexible and democratic approach to innovation the relies on using the resources you have and thinking creatively about how innovation and project goals are met.

Takeaway: You do not have to be resource rich to make a big impact. Working with limited resources can bring fresh thinking and unexpected innovations. Don’t be limited by a lack of resources, rather see it as an opportunity to take a fresh look at what you do have at your disposal.

The final talk came from the inspiring John Laity, Co-Founder of Flying for Freedom. John talked us through his experience of transitioning from a one-man expedition to the Antarctic to running ‘Flying for Freedom’ in partnership with the charity ‘Help for Heroes’. His project grew from a personal ambition to be the first man to fly across the Antarctic and transformed in to a successful charity working with wounded, injured and sick service men and women; helping them to rehabilitate, retrain and re-integrate after suffering often life-changing injuries and illness.

Takeaway: Don’t be afraid to re-pivot when projects go off plan. If your original idea doesn’t immediately take off, don’t be afraid to change direction and build a new vision.

The morning was rounded off with a panel discussion on the ‘Implementation of Transformational Projects’, looking at the examples of Estelle Levin-Nally who runs responsible mining consultancy Levin Sources and Godfrey Ogle, Project Manager at London City Airport. Levin Sources works with clients around the world on transformational projects, often in high risk environments and challenging conditions.

Estelle Levin-Nally of Levin Sources comments: “We plan everything, and that includes planning for things changing. We know that transforming a business is not straightforward, it is often a messy path. But if this fact is made clear, and there is an understood expectation of what change means, then you can navigate this more successfully.”

Godfrey Ogle of London City Airport spoke about his experience of updating the infrastructure at London City Airport: “We plan carefully and within a strict project framework, using the necessary risk registers. But you can limit your vision this way – you’re not always looking at the bigger picture and reflecting on your own experience and expertise on a project. You’ve got to keep an open mind and be aware of the warning signs and be prepared to take action.”

The afternoon followed with breakout sessions on ‘innovation projects’ and ‘crisis management’. Participants had the opportunity to share their experiences and participate in discussions around creating a welcome environment for innovation, and what to do when you find your organisation or project facing a crisis.

Keynote speeches followed by Abdi Ali from Barclays, Treasury, Capital and Market Risk who talked us through his experience of ‘why major projects fail’ based on his time at a major bank.

The Dean of Cambridge Judge Business School, Professor Christoph Loch, wrapped up the day by looking at ‘state of the art’ projects; sharing a framework for successful projects and looking at the new challenges project managers will face in the future.