Major infrastructure projects have the potential to create positive and enduring change to how communities' function. They can drive growth, deliver social value and enable the transition to net zero. However, the scale, complexity and ambition of projects can create challenges on delivery, timescales, and finances, making it difficult to realise a project’s full transformational value.

Policymakers and industry have been grappling with these challenges. In May 2018 the Infrastructure Client Group launched Project 13, a cross-industry response to infrastructure delivery models that fail, providing a forum for discussion, learning and a wealth of resources. In a recent article for Project 13 Melissa Zanocco argued that shifting to an outcomes focus is the key to infrastructure projects that succeed, neatly articulating an example focus on outcomes as: “We don’t want a hospital, we want healthcare; we don’t want a school, we want education.” This change in emphasis, says Zanocco, is the foundation on which success is built.

This new way of thinking focusses less on what and more on why. Instead of prescribing what is going to be done, successful leadership defines the outcomes, the why, and articulates a vision of the future.

My Arup colleague David Hughes, Director of Major Projects, says he’s seen this clear focus on outcomes deliver results. ‘The Northern Line extension project, from Kennington to Battersea Power Station, benefited from the outset from a really clear focus on the desired outcome, which was to unlock growth in the Battersea / Vauxhall / Nine Elms area of London, and make sure that that growth could be captured to ensure the required infrastructure to be largely self-financing. Similarly on Crossrail, the underpinning rationale for the project – the ‘why’ – was always very clear. That’s one of the reasons why – almost uniquely for a transport project of its scale – Crossrail never encountered any serious opposition. The public could see that the project just made sense, at an intuitive level; that linking four key drivers of the south-east's economy (Heathrow, the West End, the City and Docklands) would drive economic growth,’ says Hughes.

In these examples, the outcome became the DNA of the project, creating a basis on which decisions and trade-offs were made during the lifecycle of the project.

Various mechanisms are being explored for achieving an emphasis on outcomes, such as changes to procurement and the role of integrators on projects. As an expert in people and change I’m particularly interested in how leaders’ approaches influence projects and believe that they are the root from which all success grows.

So, how can leaders create a strong outcomes-led foundation? One that becomes a golden thread running through everything and keeps the project on track.

As collaborative leaders our challenge is to let go of our need to know the answers. Instead, what we really need to do is focus teams on the key question “why?” and also help leaders manage trust in their teams so that they can deliver outcomes collaboratively. This demands a much greater tolerance of ambiguity. This requires us as collaborative leaders to listen for longer, staying in the uncomfortable space of not knowing, whilst solving problems in an outcomes-focussed way.

For example, on North London Heat and Power, an ambitious £1.2bn plan to redevelop a more than 50 year old facility at an operational, brownfield site, we set out to create a collaborative working ethos from the outset. We supported the leadership to learn as a team, including reflecting on their role and behaviours. This was particularly important given the number of organisations and leaders involved including AECOM, WSP, Grimshaw, Ramboll, Stephenson Harwood, Adams Hendry, ACCIONA and Taylor Woodrow. One way we have done this is to use coaching skills with our teams and leaders, demonstrating enabling styles of leadership. I’m pleased to say that, so far, the project has won ‘Best Sustainable Brownfield Infrastructure Scheme’ and ‘Best Public Sector Brownfield Project’ at the Environment Analyst Brownfield Awards 2023.

As David Cullen, then Programme Director for North London Heat and Power said shortly before he retired in June “I am really proud that I am leaving a project that is in good shape. I am pleased to say that four and a half years in we are on time and on budget. I believe this is the way projects should be approached and have been proud and inspired by the way the teams have come together to solve these problems.”

Establishing a project culture that is built on behaviours of openness and trust, one that is more asking and less telling, is the cornerstone of focusing on outcomes. And it’s in this way that leaders maximise the chances of a project’s success; because they are enabling teams to better listen and respond to a multiplicity of stakeholders and – ultimately – trusting them to find the right solutions.