Claire Smith


Masters in Major Programme Management



By Claire Smith

Promises made, promises broken – contracts in major programmes

Commenting on one of Bent Flyvbjerg‘s posts about making life as difficult as possible for the major programme manager, I suggested applying the fairy tale framework. This blog starts with a continuation of that idea.

Contract law or managing contractual relationships? Be careful with your words. Think of the spoiled princess who promised all kinds of rewards to the frog who rescued the golden ball from the depths of a murky pool, then hopped up the steps of the palace to claim his payment. With the queen as alternative dispute resolver, checking that the princess had indeed entered into an oral contract with the frog involving meals on golden platters and  shared pillows, the princess came to realise she should have thought more carefully about her promises.

Dominic Cook reminded us about the contract reflecting the business plan, not the other way around. The ugly sister who wanted to cut off her toes to squeeze her foot into the glass slipper  missed the point of the exercise completely- it was about identification, not shoe size. The desired end state was to marry the handsome prince, not acquire a pair of highly impractical dancing shoes.

Themes from other episodes in my life came together during the module. We talked about lawyers as legal advisers. Beware the organisation, permanent or temporary, which cannot make its own decisions, but passes on the responsibility to others. Adversarial litigation rather than mediation or arbitration is preferably the last resort, but may be necessary to signal determination, to set a boundary, to deter. We used to discuss NATO nuclear weapons doctrine in another era, before the Berlin Wall came down, symbolising one of the greatest transformational major programmes in Europe. Maybe the £750 million court case is the equivalent to the deployment of battlefield nuclear weapons – you will suffer damage, as will others, but you may live to fight another day.

Midway through our course, speculation about what next as we passed the half-way point. How will we put the MSc to good use? Those engaged in a perpetual game of online blind man’s buff with potential employers might consider the hiring fairs of rural Britain. Flora Thompson in Lark Rise to Candleford describes one not so far away from Oxford. The skilled dairymaid and the experienced farmhand packed up their possessions in a box, were transported by cart to the annual fair in the local market town and waited for employers to make an offer. The form of contract between employer and employee was clearly basic, but usually effective. The power of the cohort, supportive employers and Saïd Business School has created another version, and it is firmly in my diary for the autumn.

Brexit floated in and out of our conversations. There are more reasons than Brexit to set sail for distant lands. Like the famous Chinese admiral Zheng He, you might die on the voyage, but you will have seen exotic sights denied to those who never leave sight of land. Before the module, a small group of us went to Ampleforth Abbey in North Yorkshire for the weekend. The contract governing that major programme was drafted about 1500 years ago and has undergone a few variations in implementation and translation. The operating environment has seen some turbulence over the years, too – a useful yardstick for anyone reading this and still wondering about committing to two years of disruption, overloaded schedules and competing commitments.

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