Ensuring Psychological Safety (Cultural reset of NBHR project management style)


2017 → 2019

Short Description

A unique combination of challenges, roadblocks and stresses which presented on the complex multi-stage Northern Beaches Hospital Roadworks project ultimately required a change to an innovative approach to (construction) management culture.

The traditional hierarchical management approach and departmental silos simply could not accommodate the dynamic and ever changing combination of issues and challenges that needed to be solved to safely and efficiently complete the Connectivity and Network Enhancement roadworks being designed and built by Ferrovial to service the new and politically sensitive Northern Beaches Hospital.

The need to be covered, the main goal and purpose of the innovative action

Following Contract award in June 2015, the NBHR project was continuously bombarded with unforeseen delays, particularly related to utilities.  These utilities delays became intertwined with traffic challenges, a non collaborative client, an agitated community, and a hierarchical management structure that was not able to cope nimbly enough with the issues.  High staff turnover was the tangible result of the increasingly stressful environment and the blame (and claim) culture that had developed in the project’s first two years.   This meant all momentum was lost and the project was headed for disaster, both financially and reputationally for Ferrovial in Australia.

The need:  Something had to change, Innovative thinking was essential!

In August 2017, with executives from the Client, we were able to start with a blank sheet of paper and consider “How do we avoid catastrophe and find a way to finish the project safely and positively”.  A robust and wide ranging month long conversation was able to create a way forward.

The goal and purpose:  to establish a cycle of trust, empower all project team members in their roles by creating a feeling of psychological safety within which individuals could thrive and create a one-team project-first mindset.  Ensure all team members felt accountable to each other to perform at the best.

New issues would (and did!) arise but the new mindset needed to allow the now high-performing team to tackle issues together and feel safe and empowered to contribute to the best of their ability, and not be limited or restricted by what their [hierarchical] boss might have ‘allowed’ or ‘wanted to hear’.

Description of the proposal, with a detailed explanation of the Innovation and its basic feature

This innovation proposal was the new way of thinking, wass a “Cultural Reset”, of an entire project team, including the Client, not just on an individual level but how the entire project organization was to collaborate together.  It was to create a “Cycle of Trust”

In order to manage the dynamic changeable nature of the project challenges, we had to shift away from the traditional thinking of “organizations as machines”, with pyramid hierarchy, heavy bureaucracy where staff were organised into silos and given detailed instructions.

The new thinking could be described as “organizations as organisms” where boxes, lines and hierarchy were less important in themselves and the focus was on action, with teams built around end-to-end accountability.  This new idea of a cycle of trust allowed flexibility to react quickly to changes and challenges because all team members were encouraged to feel “psychological safe” to bring forward ideas and make decisions within their realm of responsibility.  Open active comunication on sharing problems, workshopping solutions and updating progress underpins this management philosophy.

Importantly the Leadership roles, both Project Director and at Board level, morphed away from the traditional giving of instruction of how to do something… into giving direction and guidance; setting the tone in order to establish a collaborative culture; and enabling and supporting the team’s action.

Contemporary studies, notably a research paper by Google in 2015 studying team behaviours, highlight the importance of psychological safety and that it is the most consistent behaviour trait of High Performing Teams.  It can be explained as answering ‘yes’ to all of the following questions:

–          Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarassed?

–          Can we count on each other to do high quality work on time?

–          Are goals, roles and execution plans on our team clear?

–          Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?

–          Do we fundamentally believe that the work we are doing matters?

Benefits, advantages and values contributed by the innovation (time, cost, Q, E, S, corporate)

Tangible benefits, advantages and values were demonstrably achieved in all areas of project performance through the implementation of this cultural reset.

Time milestones were mutually agreed and met.

Cost forecasting was brought under control and the Client has continued to contribute significantly with productive settlement discussions ongoing to address the still critical legacy financial challenges.  Without the implementation and success of the cultural reset we would likely still be in litigation, the project unfinished, and Ferrovial’s image in jeopardy.

All of the Quality, Enviromental and Safety metrics have improved progressively but continuously following implementation and this could be explained to be the result of greatly improved staff motivation and retention.  A stable happy high-performing team was able to actively strive to continuously improve work methods and solutions to produce safer and better project outcomes.

The long-term resilience Ferrovial has demonstrated in slowly but surely turning the NBHR project, once described as “an oil tanker on a crash course for rocks”, into a safe and ‘politically’ successful project delivery has earned strong reputational goodwill within the government.  Our opportunity now is to take these lessons learnt and grow from here into sustainable success in Australia.

Potential for implementation throughout organisation

We are happy and proud to be a case study of implementing “Psychological Safety” as a behaviourial focus on projects and across any Ferrovial team or project structure.  The turnaround of the NBHR project from disaster to safe completion with an enhanced Client reputation provides an ideal example of an innovation that can become Ferrovial’s business as usual (at least until the next innovation!!…..).

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