Ajay Kumar


Masters in Major Programme Management







By Ajay Kumar

Major programme managers as Kings

One enterprising member from the 7th cohort in MPM, plans to run for the office of the highest-elected position in his country.

Plato argued as thus: “there will be no end to the troubles of states… humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in the world…”

This is my take — suppose the ruler of a polis was to be a major programme manager instead, like my colleague in the cohort; would a city not be able to transform itself on budget and realize all expected benefits before the ruler’s time is up? — Isn’t it a better alternative for the city’s navigator, a stargazer, to be a major programme manager?

“[A] true pilot must of necessity pay attention to the seasons, the heavens, the stars, the winds, and everything proper…” (The Republic, 488d). — a fortiori, this is in essence, a metaphoric list of responsibilities of a major programme manager when dealing with programme risks.

For 4 days, in the first week of December, the cohort, comprising of future kings and others, was taught, to pay attention to the seasons, the heavens, the stars, the winds, and other risk events, through ground breaking, cutting-edge concepts, by the one person who probably knew more about this topic than anyone else on the planet, Professor Bent Flyvbjerg.

Over the duration of the course, we learnt that flaws in the classical risk management technique, was not so much in the methodology per se but in the fact that it assumed homogeneity in our perceptions of risk.

The lectures also opened up our minds to the cognitive limitations of the human brain to understand and process risk probabilities, especially high impact, very low probability risk events— black swans or as Bertrand Russell called them ‘dead turkeys’.


It was also demonstrated that things get much worse when we try to simulate (imagine) multiple (successive) probabilistic events. For example, If you try to simulate the impact of a billiard ball with other billiard balls on a table, calculating the trajectory of the first impact is easy, the second more complicated; computing the ninth impact requires you to take into consideration the gravitational effects of a person standing next to the table and by the 56th impact, every single elementary particle in the universe must be accounted for (even an electron 10 billion light years away!) (Taleb, 2010).

During the course, a query that had intrigued me for most of my professional life was also resolved. Major programmes usually start out to deliver outcomes, based on certain cost and time parameters. By the time the programme is delivered, almost all parameters have changed significantly—is it still the same programme? Like the ship of Theseus, at what point does the original programme cease being itself? i.e. suffer an identity crisis. Prof. Bent’s suggestion was to start projects anew (along with renewed approvals) when the parameters of the original project change or when the outcomes are repurposed significantly. To me, this was the sanest alternative to the constant tirade of change requests that disfigure most projects.

In keeping with an evidence based approach to delivering this course, Prof. Bent, Dr. Atif and Dr. Alex, presented case studies built on the MPM department’s extensive data on global major programmes, arguably the largest and most comprehensive of its kind, to help the participants understand the levels of uncertainty in initiatives, vis-à-vis, their size, duration, industry segment and complexity.

Throughout the course, a highly curated list of reading materials was prescribed, which included Nobel Prize winning work. Every single aspect of the module was modelled to avoid obsoleteness; from high-quality journal articles which had not yet found their way into mainstream text books to exciting research work, such as looking at the causes of cost overruns in the Olympic games.

During the afternoons, we were given time off to come up with a risk management strategy for an actual case. Each team had to choose a real mega project, which was either in progress or delivered, and at the end of the week, the teams were asked to present their solution, as they would, if they were presenting to the board of directors of the respective companies.

The energy levels on this activity was intense and teams worked late into the evenings, dissecting the case to understand the causes and cures for risk. On presentation day, the supervising academics told us that the level of insight, the data driven findings and the identified solutions that the teams presented, were in-line with what a consultant would have done, if this was a real-life assignment.

Our team presented a solution to a bank struggling with an out-of-control, SAP implementation and amongst our group, our solution was adjudged the best, by the other participants.

In the midst of all this learning, the social queens and other volunteers organized a slew of activities to ensure that the social aspect of the programme was kept alive. The night before the module started, some us went on a “ghost-walk” tour around the Oxford town.

Being a medieval city, Oxford is touted to have a significant number of paranormal infestations. The ghost-tour guide told us stories of unrequited love and jilted lovers roaming as apparitions in Oxford’s myriad streets and lanes. The guide even ventured to point out a haunted corner, where “ghost-like” figures seemingly appeared on photos taken in the area. The twenty-four of us, in the group, could not replicate the phenomenon and this turned even the half-believers into sceptics.

Nevertheless, the whole experience was fun and a walk through Oxford in the night can give you the creeps, if you are biased to believe that sort of stuff.

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On Thursday night, the management and the social queens organized a cohort Christmas dinner in the beautiful Trinity College. Everything about the dinner was fantastic: the long, quaint dinner tables, the amazing food, and most importantly the surprise entertainment events.

During dinner, a few members from the cohort spoke of their national traditions, their aspirations and reasons for being on the programme, all of which was very inspirational and touching. Two of the cohort members entertained us with a medley of popular songs. The night closed, with everyone joining each other on stage, in singing a selection of Christmas carols. In all, it was a very memorable evening filled with fine wine, good food and wonderful, intellectual company.

When Friday came, we were handed our assignment questions and we left the module wiser than we had been, when we had stepped in, with the bitter-sweet realization that we, as humans, need caution in our thoughts. The realization of biases and the fallacies in our cognitive abilities may not make our lives and endeavours entirely risk free but by acknowledging them, we nudge ourselves one step closer to understanding the world and events around us and in the process, lose some of the “epistemic arrogance” that currently hinders our ability to recognize and manage risks effectively. We left enabled to drive our programmes, intentions and actions to wherever we wanted them to be.


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