Delivery partnership: the model for megaproject success

What ultimately defines success in the delivery of large-scale capital projects? Safety? Schedule? Budget? Quality? Sustainability? Or the legacy of opportunity and return on investment that remain after the work is done? Why not all of the above?

Since leading mega infrastructure programmes in the early 2000s for Heathrow International Airport and the London 2012 Olympics, we’ve shown complex projects can, indeed, be delivered early and under budget, with standout performance in safety, quality, sustainability, and socioeconomic value added.

Over more than two decades, we’ve continued to demonstrate how collaborative delivery partnerships achieve “all of the above.” This remains our focus now, as the only firm serving all three of the first delivery partner mega programmes in the Americas—expanding Metrolinx GO and Subways in Canada, rebuilding resilient infrastructure nationwide in Peru, and the Hudson Tunnel Project in the US. Notably, all these major, public investments are as much about building socioeconomic resilience as they are about delivering vital capital improvements, which is precisely why they opt for delivery partnership.

Drawing on lessons from our own experience globally as well as industry observations, we’ve found that the most significant challenges affecting the delivery of megaprojects share one wildcard in common: the human factor.

While we can readily define physical and technical challenges entailed in infrastructure delivery, human influences reside in mindsets and motivations that aren’t always apparent. And, because major programmes involve so many people from various organisations, jurisdictions, contractors, and stakeholder groups, they generate a complex web of interests, issues, and interfaces that must be fully understood. Otherwise, breakdowns, disconnects and competing interests left unchecked lead to more serious conflicts, changes, claims, and cost overruns that can scuttle even the best-laid project plans.

This is why delivery partnership stands as the make-or-break determinant of megaproject success. It emphasises people-centric collaboration to bridge differences, align interests, and navigate change while driving impeccable technical execution. Adopted as a New Engineering Contracts (NEC) standard in the UK in the late 90s, delivery partner contracts caught on for complex megaprojects because they demonstrated the ability to achieve optimal performance and outcomes.

As the approach gains favour around the world, we’ve seen some attempts in our industry that haven’t lived up to the ideal. Closer examination reveals that such cases branded as “partnerships” in name only fall short when they lack essential provisions of true partnership that make the model work.

True partnership delivers

In true form, a successful delivery partnership requires close attention to get governance and culture right, with the aim of unifying project participants around a shared vision and establishing a common foundation to leverage collective resources and elevate the capabilities of all participants to deliver.

Governance sets the stage for the model to work effectively, as partners establish and agree upon decision-making protocols, rules of engagement, critical requirements, course corrections, and escalation measures. Along with governance, responsibilities must be clearly defined to resolve ambiguity and break down operational silos that impede progress. These provisions provide the essential foundation to enable agile management of people, organisations, processes, information, and technology in a cohesive operating framework throughout the life of the programme. 

Culture lies beneath the surface, and because it’s driven by human factors, shaping it is not a top-down exercise. It requires intensive engagement, transparent communication, and behaviour modelling at every level to build trust and foster inclusive collaboration among all participants so they’re inspired to work together as one team whose members are committed to serving the best interests of the entire project, not just their respective roles. As shown in the NASA example of a janitorial custodian who understood his mission to be putting a man on the moon, culture is the great galvaniser to humankind’s greatest achievements.

Transparency with consistent communication is not only essential to build trust; it’s also important to unpack and understand the aspirations, perceptions, and concerns motivating stakeholders. While it’s not possible to please everyone, everyone deserves to be heard—project staff, middle managers, front-line workers, supply chain partners, executives, governing boards, funders, politicians, and community stakeholders. Transparent engagement is a must to discover and pre-empt risks.

Other definitive elements of delivery partnership include:

Distributed leadership, wherein no singular party—neither owner nor operator—holds all of the leadership roles in the partnership structure. Rather, various partners take on the leadership roles they’re best placed to serve.

A single source of truth that unifies and transparently conveys project information, real-time data, key performance indicators, progress reports, and forward-looking insights to all participants is critical to every aspect of delivery. It eliminates information silos to keep everyone on the same page.

Accountability for delivery must be shared among all parties in the partnership such that no provider bears more or less than a fair appropriation of liability and opportunity for their work.

Incentivisation tied to accountability ensures that the compensation paid to project partners rewards performance to-plan based on transparent performance indicators, while failure to meet objectives results in reduced pay.

Full-scope engagement, enabling integrated, end-to-end management, rather than a scope limited to singular service lines like project controls or cost management is essential to effective delivery.

These partnership provisions build ownership of the vision and delivery requirements among the many parties involved in megaprojects. All are essential to enable participants to operate as members of the same team. They serve to align expectations and motivations such that when problems arise, collaborative resolution prevails as the course of action most beneficial to all.

Scope matters

Compared with traditional engineering and design-focused contracts, the partnership model combines a full scope of expertise to achieve truly transformative outcomes. This includes developing organisational and supply chain capabilities to sustain current work and successfully manage future improvements.

In this sense, the point of partnership is to elevate the art of delivery as a management discipline unto itself, providing certainty to megaproject sponsors and funders. We do this by merging deep expertise and best-practice approaches in organisational development and change management with a breadth of project- and business-management disciplines like planning, portfolio optimisation, commercial management, controls, design and construction oversight, value engineering, safety, quality, and operational assurance. 

Legacy beyond

Importantly, the full scope of delivery extends beyond developing plans; it drives efficient execution of plans while also facilitating training and education that contribute to a legacy of opportunity and ongoing growth and investment after the work is done.  

This is the value of collaborative partnership centred on the discipline of delivery to amplify socioeconomic returns on infrastructure capital. From new city giga programmes to bustling airports and transit systems, the measures of megaproject success are ultimately gauged in human terms. By how we prioritise people to advance their capabilities and earning potential. By how we promote equitable opportunities including disadvantaged and underserved populations. By building local ownership, pride, and community resilience, build generational value.

To learn more, please visit the Mace delivery partner page