Dealing with unknown unknowns

“Paolo, in major programme management we do not know what we do not know”. This is what a programme manager in the Oil & Gas industry stated during a class I was giving on accounting for the unknown.

Major Programme Management is a particularly interesting locus to challenge conventional management and its taken-for-granted assumptions and even more what people normally think accounting and management control is about. Why? Because if one does not know what one does not know, that is, if one is in the realms of unknown-unknowns what is accounting there to represent and management to control? Uncertainty is everywhere but in programme management is so blatantly everywhere that one cannot pretend it does not exists, it can be tamed, decision making processes and change is linear and stable.

Programmes have multiple objectives, which often cannot be aligned and still have to be managed concurrently, stakeholders are emerging, data is never given but subject to political, strategic and intrinsic misrepresentation. Programme managers find themselves in a perfect ‘garbage can’ model of decision making where, to paraphrase Jim March, many things happen at once, with people, technologies, problems and solutions only loosely linked to each other (if at all), with people wandering in and out of decision making arenas and policies are often designed but not implemented.

In this context, major programme management represent an ideal theoretical and empirical space where to explore cutting edge reporting, governance and leadership issues. I do so in collaboration with various private and public research partners.

Through an ESRC accelerated impact grant, I collaborate with the Infrastructure and Project Authority (IPA) of the UK Cabinet to conduct research on how to improve the quality of decision making in Major programmes (see details on IPA Project X). I am also a member of their Major Programme Leadership Academy run by Oxford and Deloitte, which has trained a now substantial amount of SROs and PDs of the UK civil servants involved in managing and overseeing UK government’s programme portfolio.

In collaboration with the PhD students that I supervise at the University of Edinburgh, we are developing for the IPA a series of impact cases studies to show how some of my research has improved reporting and governance practices in various departments of the UK government and share lessons learnt (here some details on the Prison Unit Cost Programme of the Ministry of Justice and the UK’s Submarines Acquisition Programme). We are collaborating with the IPA and Arcadis, a leading international programme management firm, to develop an index to assess the how ‘maieutic’ reporting and governance practices are in major programmes, that is, to audit the ability of programme managers and their practices to interrogate the unknown and profit of the ambiguities that programmes always present.