The Northern Spire
The Northern Spire is a new landmark crossing over the River Weir in Sunderland. The bridge, boasting its 105m-tall central pylon, is the North East's tallest structure and visible from the centre of neighbouring Newcastle. It has had royal approval with a visit from the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge as well as celebrity approval, featuring on TV's biggest show Strictly Come Dancing. The project has won 13 awards to date including Project of the Year from organisations as diverse as the Association for Project Management (APM) to the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) and is already seen as a major success for Sunderland and the North East. So why has the project been such a success?
In one word: collaboration. Complex projects of this scale require a wide range of skills, involve many different organisations and affect many stakeholders. As project managers, the Atkins and Faithful+Gould team worked from the outset to build a single project team ethos across all organisations engaged in the project. The focus of this ethos was to deliver the benefits, such as creating regeneration opportunities, attracting inward investment and improving public and sustainable transport. This focus prevented parties reverting to divisive motivations generated by contracts and appointments.
The contractor, Farrans Victor Buyck, was a complex organisation with a joint venture made up of two joint ventures; a construction joint venture of Farrans Construction and Victor Buyck Steel Construction and a design joint venture of BuroHappold Engineering and Roughan & O’Donovan. To prevent the inevitable commercial boundaries becoming fault lines in the project, it was essential that we establish an ethos of one project collaboration. Central to this was open leadership. Faithful+Gould established a hierarchy of meetings that would provide the forums for open, constructive conversation focused on delivering the project benefits – not meetings for meetings sake! The example was set at the top with the Principals’ Meeting. Attended by the client’s and contractor’s project managers, and with representation from senior management of all organisations involved, the Principals’ Meeting was the pressure relief valve where the example of open and honest conversation was set and the drivers for benefits delivery were enforced. The leadership shown by the two project managers and their teams ensured that this openness was reflected down through the project to every level.
True collaboration is set in motion through open leadership but is tested in the fire of the unforeseen. The Northern Spire had its share of unforeseen circumstances, resulting in unplanned changes to project execution with associated cost and time implications. In these situations, it can be a default reaction to refer to the contract terms. Collaboration does not hide behind the defences of contract terms, nor does it ignore those terms. Collaboration addresses the implications of a given situation on delivering the benefits, identifying the options to resolve these in the full light of where the contract terms have placed the risk, in order to find the right solution. On the Northern Spire, risk had been carefully apportioned to the party best positioned to handle it without excessive risk sitting with one party. This meant that there was a natural balance of risk that allowed the parties to focus more on the solution than to whom the costs would fall.
To be a success, the project must deliver the benefits each stakeholder expects of it. The success of the Northern Spire was far, far more than delivery on time and to budget. The project needed to be seen as a wise investment that was delivering the benefits by the whole community, from commencement and well beyond completion. The communication strategy was vital to the perception of success. The project included a dedicated communications team, who, working in close collaboration with the delivery team, were focused on managing and delivering stakeholder expectations. Through communications strategies that spoke to local businesses throughout the scheme, made best use of the visual aspects of the scheme, hosted every primary school in Sunderland in a site visit and engaged with the press, we were able to communicate with each individual stakeholder the benefits of the project to them and how and when they would be delivered.
There are, of course, many facets to project success, but without collaboration to oil the wheels of the machine, achieving it can be a goal too far.