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5 Principles of Program Management for the London Olympics

Ky Nichol heads up the major sporting events practice for global consultancy Pcubed. That has included work for both the 2004 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games in Athens and the 2006 FIFA World Cup hosted in Germany. Most recently, he’s been involved with the 2012 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games. The latter are scheduled to take place in London from July 27 to August 12, 2012.

5 Principles of Program Management for the London Olympics

Aerial view of the Olympic Stadium.Image courtesy of London 2012

Nichol, who has been in project management for two decades, honed his expertise through working on major initiatives for NASA, the European Space Agency, and Accenture, as well as organizations in the high tech manufacturing and transport sectors.

Nichol and his Pcubed team work with Games organizations to oversee program and risk management, perform assurance, and advise on senior stakeholder reporting. Tools used include applications from both Microsoft and Primavera Systems (now part of Oracle). The Microsoft products in use include SharePoint, Project Professional 2007, and Enterprise Project Management (EPM) Solution.

5 Principles of Big Events

Nichol adheres to five key principles in his work on Olympic Games, culled from his experience in delivering large, multi-agency initiatives:

1. Integrate the organizing bodies early on.
2. Keep the end state in mind from the start.
3. Avoid early independence of projects.
4. Engender an appetite for organizational change.
5. Baseline early.

1. Integrate the Organizing Bodies Early On

“In the heyday of a bid, you put a bid book together, and you’ve got to sell it to many committees” says Nichol. “It’s all positive and [describes] lots of spend.”

The bid book lays out who is going to deliver what in order to make the Olympics happen. The players — primarily, the Organizing Committee and the Delivery Authority — need to agree about who’s actually responsible for what piece of the plan. Setting that out clearly and early is essential, says Nichol. Any ambiguity later in the project can generate disagreements. “Early agreement and clarity will save a lot of time and effort down the line. In our work with the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany they had integration at the top of their agenda and it worked to great effect,” he points out.

5 Principles of Program Management for the London Olympics

View of the Velodrome. Image courtesy of London 2012

2. Keep the End State in Mind from the Start

“London has developed a great pitch for what these big structures are going to do after the games,” explains Nichol. He can recount war stories about previous Olympics where facilities ended up in disarray post-event.

For London, legacy came first in the planning, says Nichol. For example, the main stadium requires 80,000 seats; but few continually operating stadiums need that much capacity. So London will build a stadium with 25,000 permanent seats. The other 55,000 will be temporary. Once the Games end, those temporary seats will be sold, and the remaining stadium will be ready for more traditional sporting event use.

Legacy planning also faces challenges. Currently, with the economic downturn, it’s hard to get private developers interested in developing venues, such as the Olympics Villages, which will be sold as housing apartments after the Games end. “There are venues such as Villages that typically rely on private sector funding and in the current climate there’s less capital for them to obtain the financing they need,” says Nichol.


3. Avoid Early Independence of Projects

When the program teams are just starting their work, says Nichol, there’s a tendency to send each one off to tackle development of a particular venue. That approach can lead to scope gaps. Interface areas usually suffer — for example the scope boundary between the venues and the connecting projects such as roads and common domain.

He encourages the various entities involved in the whole project to keep the program teams together as if they were part of one single team until a detailed and apportioned master plan is available. Without that integration, filling the scope gaps that surface downstream will have to come out of somebody’s contingency budget, “and you’ll end up applying for additional funding, which is not a popular move,” he says.

To help avoid issues like this, the teams held a number of scope reviews to identify the gaps. “Sometimes, there’s double-accounting,” says Nichol, “which is good because you can make savings.”

The Challenge of Reporting

Nichol considers management reporting a good indicator of whether things are in control or not. “Can [participants] put clearly on one page what the program is going to deliver together with accurate status data?” Nichol asks. “If they can’t do that, then something’s broken somewhere — no matter what the excuse is.”

Nichol and his team have helped Games organizations put in place effective reporting solutions from dashboard reporting that helped Athens work with the IOC to assisting London 2012s Olympic Delivery Authority in reporting status to Funding parties.

To help organizations put together fact based reporting for senior stakeholder, Pcubed has developed a proprietary system, the Pcubed Delivery Hub. As Nichol explains, the Hub draws from multiple scheduling engines and other systems to produce standard dashboards that allow users to drill down on the details from a high level.

4. Inspire an Appetite for Organizational Change

“The people you start up these things with aren’t necessarily the people you need downstream,” Nichol says. “There’s got to be some clever human resources strategy in this.”

The Games are, ultimately, a temporary job that requires specific kinds of expertise. Those in charge of hiring want to attract the right kind of talent from around the world to do the work required, which may only last a couple of years. That may require premium pay — more than you’d like to pay, says Nichol — “because you’re only going to get them for two years, and they’re taking some risk.”

Also, although there’s a body of people who tend to move from Olympics to Olympics, says Nichol, there are also a lot of government workers from the host city government involved. These people will go back to other jobs once the Games are over.

Keeping these two kinds of people engaged and working well together requires effective stakeholder management and team building, Nichol says. On the Athens Olympic Games this encompassed “some well planned team building and great management together with some really good parties” to bring people together.

5. Baseline Early

“You’ve got to have some measuring point that people are working toward,” says Nichol. Without it, the team will go into disarray and “you’ll lose time hand over fist.” When deadlines start to slide, says Nichol, there’s no spending more money nor changing the deadline. “Unfortunately in this case all you can do is scale the scope back.”

5 Principles of Program Management for the London Olympics

BMX track during the Games. Image courtesy of London 2012

For example, he says, early, during the process of setting up a Bid Book, many venues will be “iconic. Every venue will have a signature architect.” But as work moves ahead, reality sets in. There isn’t budget to fulfill the ambitious plans, and organizers are forced to take temporary measures “with things overlaid on to make them look good for the Games.” Those iconic facilities often end up being more traditional, less expensive structures.

Yet, that’s also the reality of putting on a major event like the Olympics. Setting milestones is a constant challenge in planning the Games. First, the vision for the Olympics has to developed way before the actual work required can be laid out and priced in detail. In the case of the London Games, the initial bid submission was mid-July 2003. London was selected as the final location two years later, in July 2005. As one instance of the volatility of the entire process, two sports — baseball and softball — that were part of London’s bid were dropped by the IOC two days after London was chosen as the host city. At the same time, the IOC pondered whether to add other sports as replacements. How do you properly plan for venues that you may not need or may not even know about?

Second, there are multiple levels of reporting involved. First, there are the C-level milestones, which need to be reported to the International Olympic Committee. Those involve the major pieces of the entire project. Then there are internal high-level milestones that get reported up into the UK government. Those get broken into sub-programs, projects, and workstreams, which lay out what the individual workers will be doing on any given day.

Nichol has put in over three years toward the London Olympics effort to date — “in and out for pieces,” he points out. Will he have a front row seat to the spectacle? Perhaps, but that isn’t something the master planner has actually planned for yet. But, as he explains, “I’ll be early in line for tickets and hope I get some.”

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Written by Dian Schaffhauser

Dian Schaffhauser is MPUG’s editor. She’s been covering project management, business transformation and topics technical as a journalist and editor since IBM released its first PC. She invites you to send your best story ideas for MPUG to her at editor@mpug.com. She promises to let you know what she really thinks.

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