Ten ways to improve your project execution

A culturally diverse project execution case study on the challenges, solutions, and benefits of using a carrot instead of a stick

By IPS August 5, 2022
Courtesy: IPS

Imagine this… you are in a kick-off meeting with your project owner, partners, and subcontractors. A vision of project outcomes has been shared and agreed upon. However, there is a lack of alignment on actually how to achieve these process, design, and execution outcomes. With cost, schedule, cultural and technical differences looming over the team, like the sword of Damocles, how can you work together to overcome your differences and create an execution plan everyone can align on and aspire to?

Disagreements about design elements, execution, risk-management solutions, and safety standards are inevitable when multiple teams work together, and this can be amplified when working with teams in countries with different cultures. How do we create a culture of empowerment, collaboration, and respect to find a middle ground and work out our differences with compromise? The answer is to lead with your heart and by example; use a carrot instead of a stick, embrace an UBUNTU approach.

There are certain principles that need to be nurtured in successful project executions. At IPS, we believe that projects require a strong and innovative environment where everyone feels empowered to work collaboratively to capitalize on individual and organizational strengths. Management should lead by example to not just overcome challenges but also to embrace cultural and technical differences. Morale is fundamental to health and safety; just as there is a plan to keep everyone safe on the site, a plan needs to be in place to keep project teams feeling appreciated and motivated.

To demonstrate how to effectively overcome execution challenges in a real-world project scenario, here are 10 examples from our recently completed Bavarian Nordic Fill and Finish Facility for Live Viral Vaccines in Kvistgård, Demark.

Bavarian Nordic Fill & Finish Live Vial Vaccines Facility Case Study Project Background

The facility uses the best available aseptic fill and finish technology to deliver millions of lifesaving vaccines annually to patients globally suffering as well as offering CMO services. The BSL2 facility has the flexibility to operate at either a clinical or commercial scale and can quickly process vaccine products to meet the needs of a rapidly changing world.

It is world-class in terms of its project execution and efficient use of space within the limited footprint. The diverse project team included people from over all over the world, including the United Kingdom, Denmark, Italy, Germany, India, Ireland, and America. By working in a unique, morale-centric, “no fear”, collaborative, and shared-risk environment, the culturally diverse project team ensured that the facility was designed, constructed, and validated within 30 months for the agreed cost and to a level of finish that stands it apart in terms of patient safety.

The uniqueness of this particular project flows around the capital cost, schedule, and spatial constraints. The team realized a project which stands apart in delivering against all of these objectives in an innovatively collaborative way would set new benchmarks for similar projects with technically challenging aseptic processing environments.

To meet time constraints, equipment vendor designs were expedited, and the engineering, design, procurement, buying, construction, and qualification phases were vertically stacked on top of each other. This type of structure required a robust, strategic, and thoughtful risk-management strategy. Constant reviews, workshopping, and action plans of design, GMP compliance, cost, and the schedule were vital.

The requirement for the high-speed filling of complex, fragile molecules with small bulk volumes and minimal product losses drove new approaches to find proven technology clustering to achieve the desired outcomes. The result is a facility that seamlessly integrates “Best Available Technology” to deliver cost-effective and operationally efficient fill and finish capability. Read more about the project here: https://www.ipsdb.com/projects/fill-finish-facility-for-live-viral-vaccines

1. Know When and Where to Air Disagreements 
Find a middle ground in this culture clash by working through disagreements in private and being very direct. Then, leave the emotion behind and emerge from those private discussions with a positive personal and project message to present to others.

Challenges were at times publicly recognized to present a united, positive front to the team, leading by example in “the shadow of the leader” to encourage similar behaviors throughout the team. Cultural differences in communication styles were addressed, not avoided. A strength of the senior team was their recognition and adaptation of their behaviors to be the people the project needed them to be, putting ego to one side and cloaking ourselves in humility.

2. Team-Building Exercises Make a Difference
Due to the challenging work that comes with fast-track projects with such a tight budget and schedule, it is essential to keep the team energized. Hosting a team-building event improves productivity, increases motivation, encourages creativity, connects remotes teams, builds trust, opens communication, and increases morale. Any event, from hosting a pizza party, learn-and-learns with a health and mediation coach, massive project milestone celebration, or a retreat will have a positive impact.

The team invested in a two-day social workshop to brainstorm ideas on how to mitigate the challenges of the project, how to reduce stress, and increase morale to bring the team together to refresh and re-engage collectively. A positive upturn in energy, enthusiasm, and newly formed friendships were noticed after this event, adding to the momentum of the project through to completion. 

3. Survey the Project Team to Ensure they are Engaged and Morale is Maintained
Consider creating weekly surveys to send to the project team members so management will have key performance indicators they can act on to ensure your project will continue to thrive. Not just saying you care about your team, but showing it by acting on feedback will make your team feel listened to, appreciated, and respected because everyone will have a voice that matters. It’s the reaction that’s important here; just a survey without action will disengage.

This is a testament to how much management took the situation seriously, opened the doors of communication to make meaningful change, and created a nurturing and positive culture and work environment – and it worked.
Suggested questions:

  • In my organization, we collaborate effectively to meet the common goals
  • I feel involved and motivated in my work
  • I am satisfied with the workload
  • I think we are good at providing constructive critique and feedback
  • I have a clear understanding of my role and responsibilities within the project team 

4. Promote and Increase Access to Collaboration and Open Communication
Collaborate in “high-touch, low-tech” ways such as whiteboarding, visual management, and team feedback mechanisms.

The project team set up a design and project challenge whiteboard in the entrance hall of the project office. A lounge environment was set up where everyone could share, brainstorm, and solve challenges openly and inclusively. Simply writing two or three bullet points each day invited contemporary and structured discussion from the whole team and fostered not just excellent solutions, but also a shared sense of mission from the team. This can be so often missing from project teams, where individual colleagues are only focused on “their” issues and do not have the opportunity or visibility to cross-fertilize their innovation and excellence elsewhere. Similarly, sketching potential design solutions on this board and leaving them there for a day allowed others to doodle or present modifications or alternatives to the solution and opened the door to a number of innovative outputs, and also encouraged humorous interchange within the team, strengthening relationships. High-touch, low-tech innovations fostered knowledge sharing and the excitement in shared solutions for the best project outcome.

5. Incentivize Instead of Intimidate
Creating a positive vibe when everyone is stressed out can be a challenge. While this can go without saying, it is almost always pointed out when someone does something wrong, but not when they do something right. It is important to make a concerted effort to show gratitude and positivity to keep the team happy and motivated. Another way to motivate a team is to give them a common goal outside of their day-to-day tasks they can rally together to achieve. When planning your project, consider adding in monetary and/or recognition contract incentives.

For this project, it was not for individual team performances, but for collective outcomes to keep the focus on maintaining the budget. They sought ways to ensure that these could be shared among the key members of each participating team. Of course, it was necessary also to have some risk-sharing in terms of schedule achievement – but it ensured that contractually these were constructed with “challenging yet achievable” milestones that fostered cross-organization communication. 

6. Add Focused Resources to Focus on the Big Picture
Consider investing in a “hit squad” project management team that formally meets weekly to review the biggest challenges and resources with the experience and authority to deal with them. This allows your core team to progress with the necessary key activities.

This brave move in adding additional resources at this level proved to be a key unlocker to many challenges and opportunities. The roaming remit of this individual also provided a helicopter view at times to bring unforeseen critical challenges to the fore and unlock the opportunities they presented as well as leaping the required hurdles to success. We knitted together a traditional “worst first” approach with the critical milestone challenges to ensure that all team members could focus on progress, whilst the PEWP (Project Executive Without Portfolio) solved those issues which may frustrate them. A positive side-effect of this was to drop stress levels within the team as they recognized that their challenges were seen by the senior team and were addressed, leaving them free to innovate and perform where they could add the best value.

7. Learn to Plan for Success, But Also to Plan for Failure
As the schedule is typically critical with a complex tapestry of supply chain partners, expediting and understanding the risks and opportunities in each supply channel is key for projects. Examine the cost not just of action but also the cost of inaction (in terms of budget and schedule) and reach solutions together that are optimal. Plan not just for success; equally importantly, plan for things not going quite right with a “plan B” for the occasions where the risk-based best outcomes approach did not occur. It is important not to shy away from examining potential failure situations. Often the “right” and “best value” solutions are only found in times of extreme challenge. This open communication proves the truth behind the old saying that “necessity is the mother of invention”.

The team managed to identify recovery solutions in almost every scenario. In addition to standard project control of detail activity sequence, a high-level vision was mobilized to review milestones and to distill down to core activities that had to be completed to maintain the critical path. They had had to recognize the “known unknowns” and be flexible enough to deal with “unknown unknowns” – so whilst this took the novel route of not being directly connected to the detailed schedule, it generated a visible and digestible focus for the team to ensure that key issues could be addressed and secondary or less critical ones deferred. Of course, this gave rise to an inevitable “bow wave” later in the project where they had to develop solutions later than they would have wished, and mobilize additional resource to deal with this, but this was a necessary route and one which they overcame by keeping these deferred issues in a parking lot.

8. Innovative Vendor Management – Cost and Time Is Everyone’s Responsibility 
To expedite vendors, engineers looking after the equipment and installation packages can be responsible for more than just the technical aspect. They can also be work package owners and custodians of their own budget and visual management tools (action trackers, change order registers, milestone planners, etc.) used for trending and measuring their success. Positive empowerment and visibility are the fuses that can lead to an explosion of excellent ownership and management of this project element.

IPS made a concerted effort to tactfully build professional working relationships with equipment suppliers so there was more transparent communication about the progress so IPS could help guide them along the way, if needed, to help ensure they met their project milestones, working as an integrated team.

9. Take the Right Risks
With every project, there are always risks. Aside from logically reviewing the budget and schedule considerations, seriously analyze your project team’s ability to compromise and problem-solve together – it may be a key indicator if you can pull something off in the end. Best laid plans often go awry and unforeseen circumstances can make things fall apart, but it is the team’s ingenuity that can put it back together. Knowing which risks to take can often come down to “feel” not “fact”. Be able to, and allow others to make those decisions.

Typically, it is standard practice to complete the entire piping design prior going to construction. However, construction wanted to start routing pipework sooner to expedite the project. The project team compromised and took a risk by issuing the piping systems for the basement floor first so construction could begin sooner while the rest of the piping design for the other floors were being worked on. Knowing there may need to be some rework in the future, the project team relied on the years of experience, skill, and judgment of the design team to get this first part right. The risk paid off with limited rework experienced but maximum schedule benefit. 

10. Build Trust
Each project has a complex network of relationships and interdependencies. To process map and optimize this would be a gargantuan task. As project leaders, our job is to ensure that each collaboration brings the best value to the overall project in a transparent and positive way. The single and only way this can occur is to build trust in each and every relationship with communication. This trust can come principally from three sources: (1) a long relationship; (2) honest communications that put each other under acceptable risk and work positively; and (3) a little bit of mutual give and take and investment in relationships, time, and passion. Of course, this way of project delivery depends on having a mature client and a supply chain who are willing to embrace it – it’s a two-way street – but the rewards are massive.

This is the least tangible but most important part of the whole shooting match. Creating an atmosphere of trust where we all help each other, a UBUNTU cultured project environment, was something that took time and effort from all, alloying each of the previous nine principles together and trusting each other to do the “right” thing, not the “best” thing under challenge.

UBUNTU – working together unselfishly for the common good – is an African derived concept which has benefits throughout the commercial and project world. As Desmond Tutu says, “I am because we are”. The principles above may not all be applicable in every project environment. Still, the application of them to the maximum extent has been shown, on this excellent project, to truly bring out the best in each individual and each team, and therefore offer the best results for the project.


IPS is a CFE Media content partner.

Original content can be found at IPS.

Author Bio: Author, IPS