Straight Talk on Project Management

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Five lessons IT Project Management can learn from HS2

I love to learn lessons from big projects so, to be honest, I’ve been writing and adjusting this blog for a while!

Pretty much since the new high-speed line was announced between London and the Midlands (and the North), I’ve been jotting down notes every time HS2 was in the news and waiting for the right time to focus my thoughts into a post.

This feels like the right time! I mean, before any more of it gets axed!

Joking apart, the cancellation of the Manchester leg does feel like a moment to take stock (nice railway pun – Ed) and assess if there are any takeaways for IT Project teams. Plus, it occurs to me that I may not still be writing these blogs when the line opens!!

Before we start – some house rules. Let’s leave any political views aside and see this purely as a project to discuss. Let’s be respectful that project management industry colleagues are still delivering this project (under enormous pressure and scrutiny). Let’s as individuals get a return on this huge investment by applying any lessons to our own projects! Lastly, I am an outsider looking in, as taxpayers we are all stakeholders, but you and I don’t have access to all the facts so let’s be non-judgemental students!


1 – Does Everyone Know the Business Case?

I recall a television news programme conducting ‘vox pops’ interviews about the business case for HS2. As I just said, as taxpayers we are all stakeholders but bearing that in mind – I can’t say that I really recall any of the members of the public confidently nailing the business case.

Most said that the line would mean shorter journey times between the Birmingham and the capital (but as one radio presenter said at the time, “if I want to get from Birmingham to London earlier, I catch an earlier train from New Street”).

Perusing business case documentation for HS2, it’s surprisingly hard to find enough references to “journey times” for it to be considered a key driver (nice railway pun – Ed). Searching the 134-page document, “journey time” comes up once but most “stakeholders” in that vox pops highlighted it!

It’s a slightly tongue in cheek illustration of a serious lesson that we can all learn! Of course, on most of our IT Projects, the list of stakeholders does not include the entire population of the country – imagine the size of the WhatsApp group!

Over the years though, I’ve seen many a project fail because not everyone is clear on the business mission. I’ve italicised ‘fail’ because although sometimes projects do actually fail through lack of organisational business case awareness, they can also ‘fail’ when a stakeholder wasn’t clear on what was meant to be delivered. Perception is reality, if your project was initiated to deliver ‘X’ and your stakeholder is expecting ‘Y’, even the best, world-beating ‘X’ will be viewed as a failure.

2 – Be World Class at Benchmarking

The Oakervee review, assessing cost estimates for HS2, recommended that HS2 (and the Department for Transport (DfT) needed to deploy more consistent benchmarking.

“The DfT… should build on the useful multi-project benchmark which the DfT has developed. Any benchmarking should be UK-specific where relevant but look to include and learn from international examples as well. As part of this benchmarking work, there is a need to monitor prices on the market to check that cost estimates align with current market prices.”

In projects, we typically benchmark quality, time, and cost. HS2 delays were well documented and mounting costs of the infrastructure project played a huge part in the decision to scrap the line to Manchester. The latest cost estimate for completion was £71bn and even that figure was in 2019 prices and did not account for recent rises in costs for materials and wages. A budget of £55.7 billion for the whole of HS2 was set in 2015.

We’re all pretty good at benchmarking, and our budgets are nowhere near those of HS2, I wish they were – we’d have better coffee for a start! In a time of rapidly increasing costs, HS2 is a lesson that we could always be doing better when it comes to marrying forecast costs with current market realities – from initiation through execution!

Your Business Analyst can be your go-to for this, if you don’t have a BA check out Business Analysis as a Service (BAaaS) from Stoneseed.

3 – Transparency And Integrity from The Top Down

The uncertainty that surrounded the last few days of the Manchester leg serve as a reminder of the importance of transparency and integrity.

In any project, I think you need to be transparent and honest with stakeholders as soon as you can, whether you’re the Prime Minister, and you’re the most senior decision maker on a huge national infrastructure project like this, or you’re the CIO overseeing a migration to the cloud for your business.

So, as we agreed, politics aside, from a purely project perspective, the days of the Prime Minister refusing to be forced into a “premature decision” over the fate of HS2 and stalling during interviews in Manchester to confirm its cancellation, having already filmed a video about scrapping the project before leaving Downing Street – does not sit well.

Now, more than ever, the IT Projects we work on need greater transparency. Rigorous governance and effective Project Management Office (PMO) are two ways to achieve this,

I think it’s a good time to measure how transparent our projects are and strive to be truly open.

I stress, it’s not a political point, we won’t ever do that in these blogs, in fact for balance …

4 – Have The Bravery To Kill A Project That You’ve Invested Heavily In!

Taking the reasons that led to the decision to axe the northern leg of HS2 at face value and, again, no political judgement here – cancelling a project that you’ve invested heavily in but is no longer right can be a gutsy move!

“The facts have changed,” the PM said, as he confirmed the HS2 high-speed rail line from Birmingham to Manchester would be scrapped and, sometimes, that is the case with the IT projects that we pour our hearts, souls, and budgets into.

A PM friend had to make such a call. Their project had consumed a considerable amount of its budget and had overshot financial milestones pre-covid, it was moth-balled (like most) during lockdowns, and when it was restarted after the pandemic it suffered a double whammy of rising costs and a changed business need. The cost spikes and the evolved needs of the organisation had been noticed, they were discussed at the water-cooler, concerns were raised and even escalated, but so often big decisions are too big. No-one was brave enough to make the call. Good money after bad was spent, costs continued to rise, the alignment between business case and project outcomes widened further, eventually the decision was made for them, and the project was closed down.

I’m reminded of something that a mate’s grandad used to say, it was something like: “It doesn’t matter how fast, or how long, or how well you shovel into the cement mixer, if you’re standing on a pile of sugar you’ll not build many houses.”

The lesson is that the business case may be sound when you get the green light (nice railway pun – Ed), but things do change, and IT Projects need someone to have their eye on that! Business Analysts are BRILLIANT at this, I mean there’s a clue in the job title, and effective Project Management Office (PMO) can also help deliver governance that supports this awareness.

5 – Know That Talent Churns but Governance Must Be Eternal

Before the first spade even broke the ground’s surface, HS2 was going to be a long project – almost 30 years! How many project managers were going to last from start to finish? It’s a rough guess, but I bet I’m not far off when I say it would have been … in the region of … none.

The thing is, talent turnover is a challenge for all projects, not just huge ones like HS2!! Project managers are in demand, tempting offers to leave in abundance! The organisational cost of a high churn rate is obvious and well documented, to recruit, hire and train (enough railways puns now – Ed) is costly and it can take a year or more for the organisation to see a return on investment (ROI), but on an IT Project delivery level the impact of churn has extra levels.

A delay to an IT project as your new hire beds in or added onboarding costs that weren’t in the budget can make or break a project. If a project does not have governance protocols that outlast a PM’s time with you, there can be extra delays as everyone “reinvents the wheel” whenever there is a change of crew (Delays, wheel, crew – I hope these are not a railway puns – Ed).

One of the areas highlighted by the Oakervee review was that of long-term accountability, and governance robust enough to remain solid as personnel changes. It is a good lesson for us all to learn.

Three ways I have seen this mitigated:

1.Robust Project Management Office structures and disciplines check out (Stoneseed’s PMO Services).

2. Strategies like effective milestones (where a team is tasked with getting the project from A to B rather than its full completion)

and …

3. Stoneseed’s Project Management as a Service (PMaaS) which can ensure continuity as it effectively becomes our problem not yours when key talent moves on, helping keep your project on track (I give up – Ed).

In conclusion, every project ever initiated allows us all to learn lessons, often from the safety of the sidings! I salute my project management industry colleagues who have and who continue to work hard on HS2 and wish you every success further down the line. (I’ve already got my coat on – Ed)

To find out how Stoneseed can help you to deliver your IT Projects, from PMaaS to BAaaS, from advisory to end-to-end PMO – call 01623 723910 or email


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