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How to Develop Olympic Project Management Skills

Ian Needs

Ian Needs

This is a contributed article by Ian Needs, Marketing Manager at KeyedIn Solutions.

It’s been about a year since the London Olympics. Imagine you were the manager of transportation programmes during the Games. That’s a huge responsibility.

Where would you start? How would you stay organised?

For most of us, Olympic project management is a hypothetical issue. But for Sue Kershaw, it was day-to-day life.

As the Deputy Director of Transport for the Olympic Delivery Authority since 2010, and previously the Head of Project Management to the ODA’s Transport Team, Kershaw oversaw all the transport projects involved in preparing for the 2012 London Games.

From maintenance and improvements of London’s existing public transport infrastructure, right through to the creation of the northern ticket hall of King’s Cross station and the extension of Greenwich Pier, her guidance and support enabled high-value projects to succeed.

So how do you develop your project or programme management skills to an Olympic standard?

Build on your experience

Sue Kershaw is one of the few female Fellows of the Institution of Civil Engineers in the UK (since 1999). She’s also one of the only two women in the UK to be made an Honorary Fellow of the Association for Project Management (in 2011), and is the former head of Transport for London’s Project Management Centre of Excellence.

As a specialist in large-scale and high-profile construction projects, Kershaw uses her 25 years of experience in the industry to gain deeper insight into construction project and programme management.

Her popularity as a public speaker on the topic is largely down to her unique perspective and her ability to make project management principles transparent to her audience, both of which are a result of her long years in the field.

Lesson learned: Just because you can manage a project even without relevant industry experience, doesn’t mean you should. Build on your experience, either by working in fields you already know or by seeking out experience in new fields that interest you.

Don’t keep it to yourself

Just because you can manage a project without relevant industry experience, doesn’t mean you should.

Kershaw’s career provides a model for aspiring project managers to follow. Her publications of legacy reports and best practice documentation have made her an ambassador for project management in general, and the “clienting” side of project management in particular.

To maintain productive collaboration between more than 40 different organisations, Kershaw had to know who had what information. Collaboration and information sharing go hand-in-hand, even in a much smaller programme.

In this case, Kershaw needed to make sure that everything from transportation demand forecasts to progress reports went to the right recipients at the right time and that the information’s implications were understood. “Collaborative working was essential at all levels from Board to operations,” the Institution of Civil Engineers legacy report on the programme affirms.

Lesson learned: Everybody appreciates being given useful information in a way they can easily understand. In your projects, track information sharing so you know it’s reached the people who need it, and make it as ready-to-use as possible. Don’t forget how important it is to share relevant information with clients and educate them on best practice.

Use the right tools for the job

Kershaw had access to a multitude of tools to help keep the Olympic transportation programme on track. For your own projects and programmes, you’ll need to choose tools that suit the scope and scale of your endeavours.

Lesson learned: Project management software is used in most organisations these days, though one or two project managers still maintain their preference for a pen-and-paper approach. The many project management applications on offer are varied and flexible – often highly customisable – so take time to look into your options before choosing such an important tool.

About the author: Ian Needs is Marketing Manager at KeyedIn Solutions, who create PM and PPM software in both the UK and USA. Click here to visit KeyedIn Projects USA, or here to visit the KeyedIn Solutions UK site.


This video shows the follow up for a project I first heard about at Synergy 2011: using project management techniques in UK schools to equip young people for school projects and also their future working lives. This video shows the end of that particular initiative and what happened at the school after the project management training sessions completed and the students had to present their projects.

This video is about 8 minutes long and I first saw it during International Project Management Day at PMI Synergy 2012.


PMI Synergy Conference: video diary

Here is my video diary of my day at the PMI Synergy event for International Project Management Day. In it you’ll see Lord Digby Jones, Dame Tessa Jowell, Thomas Juli and some other footage from the day to give you an idea of what the conference was like. This video is approximately 7m37s long.


Building the Olympic Park: a PM success story

The Olympic Park and the new tower. Photo credit: msdeegan on Flickr

Louise Hardy, infrastructure manager for the construction work for the London Olympic and Paralympic Games, gave a presentation at a PMI event about the project work involved in preparing for London 2012.

She said she had been involved in the programme for five and a half years and that as part of the delivery partner team, her role was to deliver the infrastructure. The Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) spent public money on the infrastructure, which included 20km of roads, 13km of tunnels, 26 bridges, 7 underpasses, 79 hectares of landscaping and 11 venues.

However, most of the money spent has gone on what the Olympic programme team call ‘legacy’ – in other words, making sure that the Olympic Park and the other venues don’t lie empty when the athletes have gone home. Overall, the infrastructure programme costs from the ODA ran to £2bn.

The challenges: low confidence, unexploded bombs and access

One of the challenges faced by the infrastructure team was the lack of public expectation that they could pull it off. “We did exist in an environment which was very low confidence,” Hardy said. There was a drive in the team to build confidence, knowing that the programme dates were fixed and that they had the eyes of the country (and eventually the world) upon them.

The progamme was not without challenges. Access was a problem. There were 500 vehicle movements, 4 trains and 6 barge movements per day. There were only 2 vehicle access points and 5 personnel access points so managing the logistics of freight and people in and out what difficult.

But the biggest risk was the land contamination. The Blitz hit the area hard and there was the chance of coming across unexploded bombs. The land had also been used in the past by tanneries which had led to further contamination, and there was a big fridge mountain to move.

Dealing with land contamination

The bid for the Games was partly won on the sustainability and green agenda, and so the infrastructure team found creative ways to deal with the contaminated land. Soil was excavated and sent to the ‘soil hospital’ where it was washed and stored so it could be used in the park at a later date. That also meant there was no need to transport old soil out and new soil in, reducing the carbon footprint and environmental damage caused by lorries.

Improving the safety record

Another issue faced by the programme team was safety. Hardy said that as far as she knew there had never been an Olympics without fatalities during the construction phases. She explained that taking the average health and safety statistics for a programme of this size would predict 4 deaths across the programme lifecycle. At the time of her presentation there had been none, and the work was all complete.

Achieving the goal of zero fatalities required working with all the contractors on site. There were around 10-12,000 staff on site, so reaching them all with the safety message was a challenge. “We knew there had to be engagement from top to bottom,” Hardy said. The team focused on getting the message across to supervisors. They introduced common standards and when they noticed “a worrying trend in near miss statistics” they held a forum with contractors to unpick the issues.

Finishing the build projects, a year before the opening ceremony, took a lot of effort. Once the build was complete, Hardy and her team moved to focusing on the project close out processes to avoid disputes with contractors.

The Games start in just a few days, so we’ll see the venues and infrastructure properly in action then!


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