What NZ Police’s INCIS project taught me about ‘megaprojects’

Expensive, complex, multi-year initiatives struggle. Well 90%+ do.

Internationally the New Zealand Police project INCIS (Integrated National Crime Information System) was small by ‘megaproject’ standards but it had all the key elements of relative size, complexity, political scrutiny, technology stretch, cost and risk, all coupled to the widespread perception that it was a monumental failure, almost from Day One; with ‘debacle’ the most commonly applied label, even now in 2020.

I’ve blogged previously on perceptions of failure and the misbranding of an amazing project but as we look to rebuild our economy with a whole raft of major infrastructure initiatives it’s worth exploring ‘megaprojects’ and whether there’s a better way. I believe the label ‘megaproject’ is a misnomer and it’s dangerous because it encourages us to think the answer to large, complex, risky endeavours is to call them projects and manage them accordingly. Nor is the megaproject an agile-at-scale initiative although there should certainly be some agile footwork going on and unrelenting customer-focus. ‘Megaproject’ is a convenient label but it just doesn’t fit and it brings so much baggage it should be dumped.

The label ‘megaproject’ is a misnomer and it’s dangerous because it encourages us to think the answer to large, complex, risky endeavours is to call them projects

So what is it? Here’s three areas of INCIS that could have been dealt with in more productive ways given some different frames of reference.

Every time the core team, and I include the police team and our partners in this, did something we thought was innovative or exploratory we faced a barrage of criticism for failing to ‘toe the organizational party line”. Given we were working across a wide spectrum of business and technology innovation this was inexplicable but it became endemic and made our thirst for innovation almost impossible. We were handcuffed. Unfortunately the purpose and strategies of the parent organization – the customer – were paramount, and frankly none of us knew any better at that time. But it narrowed the focus of what we were there to do, and now we know better.

So how about this as an approach. Allow all the parties, in this case a mix of public and private sector organizations, to each set out, and codify in one place, their purpose and strategies. Ensure everyone understands and respects the drivers for each other organization, what they mean for the people on the teams, and how they can enable creativity, innovation, and collaboration. In other words, operate as a business – a smart business leveraging the power of diversity, networking and collaboration – within a strategic framework that is transparent, alive and nimble. Then crack the holy grail of management by collectively delivering to strategy. Be one of the 20% of organizations that currently succeeds in delivering to strategy, and then help up the success rates internationally by changing the game across all types of business ecosystems.

Become a smart business leveraging the power of diversity, networking and collaboration.

Silos proliferate organizations, even now, and we were no different. Too often silos mean holding onto power, and, sometimes, contributing to the abuse of power. The same thinking that applies to the networking of strategies applies here. Let’s assume your initiative is technology-enabled, as most are these days, you’ll be looking to bring together policy, solution development, infrastructure, integration, security and transition requirements, and more. If people looking after any of these areas, and upon whom you are reliant, decide not to play ball then life gets very difficult; it becomes all about blame and your initiative unravels. And that’s the last thing you can afford. By now you’ll have found the 100’s of moving parts you started with run into 1000’s. Delivery expands every single day. If you can’t connect up all the work then you’ll lose control and never get it back again. So, kick down the walls, disenfranchise the silo advocates, and build beautiful living plans including all the dependencies. This isn’t project-management on steroids. It’s relationship management. Yes, its relationship management as you would do in a high-functioning business. There’s that word again – business.

By now you’ll have found the 100’s of moving parts you started with now run into 1000’s. If you can’t connect them up you’ll lose control and never get it back again.

I’ve had many conversations with directors of big initiatives and am always amazed how many of them surrender delivery to their commercial partners. Often the customer is embarking on a major initiative for the first time and doesn’t feel confident in their capability. Another sub-text is that when, not if, things go badly they want someone to blame. This approach is often pitched as a risk management strategy. But history would say it adds to your risk. The contract might be sitting in the bottom drawer but it badly wants to come out and play and this is no way to start an innovation-initiative.

The problem is that this behaviour can mean you, as the customer, become completely reliant on your provider’s tools and their perspective on the current state-of-play. This will often include your consulting partners who ironically have no more hands-on experience than you do, but can cite the theory all day long. Bottom line, control of the initiative is surrendered which is just bad management and appalling governance. The answer here is to hold onto ownership and be clever about how you go about it. Build from the starting point that no-one understands your business better than you do. So first up, invite your potential partners / suppliers into a wide-ranging business conversation. These conversations then help build the strategic framework we’ve discussed previously and then move onto the delivery plans. This reinforces the position that the ongoing management of this initiative will happen using your management systems and all providers will be required to work within, and report back, using these systems, and do so in real-time. This should be a condition of them winning the work and in the rose-tinted phase of pitching for the work they will agree to this approach. Once again, you’ve raised the level of the discussions to that of a business – your business – your initiative. You’ve extended the thinking, the conversations and the range of techniques and tools you will use to ensure successful delivery. All because you are thinking about the business and what makes it tick, not just the more narrow concept of a project.

To achieve the three things previously discussed you need to be managing a business – not a megaproject – a business with many moving parts but also using extended thinking and disciplines to make it all work. The world is about to embark on a rebuild. Let’s do everything we can to ensure every $1 invested delivers value.

Retire the label ‘megaproject’. It is outdated and inaccurate. Start talking in terms of a start-up business, and even better think ecosystems – a ‘business-within-a business’. Expand your thinking, use collaboration technologies, and dramatically increase your chances of success.

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