A Programme of Action Research in Projects Leadership (ARPL)

The Context

The Rt Hon Francis Maude says: “90% of Government policy is now delivered through projects.” However, for all the investment in world class project management research and education, many national critical and politically sensitive, high cost projects still fail to deliver the outcomes that their sponsors and stakeholders expect. The UK government Major Projects Authority (MPA) reports that only 30% of government major projects are delivering to cost, quality and time, in spite of significant improvements in the last two years. The MPA also notes that some of the toughest projects are not engineering, infrastructure or IT projects, but are about implementing radical policies and transforming delivery practices - essentially, implementing social and structural change. (MPA Annual Report 2014)

This is not simply a UK phenomenon. The big challenges facing society are getting more complex, more contested, more technically demanding and arguably more serious than at any time in human history - and the responses required to address them are concomitantly complex.

People are generally agreed that we cannot carry on as we are and expect different outcomes.   So, what is to be done?

Working with clients who lead major and complex projects, we have developed a framework for exploring the issues in leading and implementing complex projects. The framework builds on what is already working well in professional project management and introduces fresh approaches, new ideas and concepts from other disciplines, such as complexity, systems and critical theory. It has proved remarkably resilient and helpful in assisting clients to make sense of their experiences and improve their practice. We are now expanding our programme of Action Research in Projects Leadership to develop this theory and practice.

Why action research?

Action Research is different from traditional research because it is all about practitioners taking action and developing knowledge to support improved practice, in the company of colleagues who have similar ‘skin in the game’. It is fundamentally a participative and inquiry-led research method that aims to bridge the often cited gap between academic theory and the messy, unpredictable world of the practitioner’s experience, developing fresh approaches which draw on good theories in service of improved outcomes.

Our role, then, is to work alongside leaders of complex projects, to provide enabling facilitation and rigorous action research methodologies. We assist them to craft new ‘actionable knowledge’ drawn from, and having an impact on, real, live and important issues of pressing concern, to curate and share this with their communities of practice.

Under the guidance of the Advisory Council, we will develop core research strands; building on the work we’ve done, we’re likely to be exploring these areas:

  • Reframing the 'knowing-doing gap'
  • Leading in complex project contexts
  • Developing new architectures for learning in project environments
  • Better metrics for complex projects
  • Women in major projects leadership

Research Team

This project is being led by Sue Pritchard and builds on previous research in the area of complex projects. The programme of action research is overseen by an Advisory Council drawn from leading figures in the field of complex projects and from participating organisations. Programme faculty will comprise both Ashridge members and ‘Visiting Fellows’, all of whom are seasoned project leaders and reflective practitioners in their sectors.

To find out more about this project, including how to take part, contact Sue Pritchard. To learn about Action Research at Ashridge, visit the Ashridge Centre for Action Research.