What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.

cars-passing-on-streets-1769576For the title of the second in his series of posts, Martin Sherlock, our monthly guest blogger has used a phrase that he tells me he stole shamelessly from an Exec Director he worked for some years back, developing and rolling out a leadership programme. The person in question wanted people to be able to have honest conversations about their leadership, without looking to blame others or put up defensive barriers. “Imagine you are in Vegas, the old rules don’t apply, you can share what you need to without fear or favour. Be honest, be respectful, be inclusive.” Challenge is then to share the learning more widely.



“In building a foundation to enable effective knowledge management, we were always mindful of the challenges that would face us in building the next tier of our pyramid. Pyramid model

How can we create an environment where people feel safe to share and apply the difficult messy stuff, the failures as well as the successes, the work that had an emotional impact as well as the intellectual content.

We have some local examples of good practice to draw on (such as our Regional Investment Programme (RIP) North’s Learning Forum, bringing the Leeds and Manchester project delivery teams and PMO colleagues together every 6 months for a day of sharing experience, hearing from external speakers and building better relationships to collaborate). We also have some historical examples from a time pre-austerity where creative problem solving activities were the norm (such as using actors to role play a scenario for the audience to then unpack and rework – what if you changed x for y?). And of course, we can see what others have done, most visibly online, with the professional bodies’ and learning legacy sites.

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My starting point is to draw a mind-map, to flesh out possibilities: what could we do, what might it look like, how might it work, what resources are needed, do different options overlap and connect. Quick and scrappy like the map done for this blog – enough to give me ideas, not so much that it gets stuck in the weeds. I favour Mind maps rather than lists, as I don’t want to exclude or prioritise until I have to.


As is so often the case, mind-maps prompt tangents and lateral thinking: have I seen these activities done in different contexts, what measures might help us understand what success will look like?

That brings us to maturity models; our need to mature as a project and programme delivery organisation to rise to the Roads Investment Strategy Period 2 (RIS2) challenges is going to be assessed through the P3M3 model. Knowing our audience is the key here. It’s easier to target resource and focus people’s attention on specifics (where do we need to improve, what outcomes will be gained from this improvement, what steps must we take) than generally aspire to go on a journey to sunny uplands.

That got me thinking tangentially (love a good tangent) on what our cultural and behavioural maturity might look and feel like when we are great at sharing and learning from each other’s experience?

Anthropologists [1] might argue that early evidence of a community or society becoming civilised would be a healed femur. It’s the longest bone in the human body, so for an individual to have been able to heal a broken femur would indicate a level of sustained care over time by others. In other words, evidence of empathy, collaboration and feedback, sustained by trust. The injured person trusts others to care for them in the present; community members providing care are investing in a future common good; the relationship between the individual and the community is strong enough to sustain the caring relationship to a successful outcome.

These sound like great behaviours to underpin successful knowledge management activity. They need framing in an organisational context; Johnson & Scholes Cultural Web[2] provides useful starters, as long as I focus on what I can influence and control. What stories do we need to tell each other, what rituals and routines will help nurture trust and collaboration when people come together?


An example: the RIP Learning Forum; it’s six-monthly, been running a few years now, Manchester and Leeds offices take turns in hosting, it’s promoted and attended by the local leadership team, and all project delivery colleagues are encouraged to attend. Most importantly, the agenda is shaped by a small team of volunteers from within those project delivery teams. So you will get some corporate elements (updates from transformation workstreams on new systems and procedures), listen to some external speakers from the wider infrastructure sector. But most of the day will be spent on two overlapping activities – project teams sharing their experiences of different schemes at different stages of the project life cycle; and activities designed to get people talking to each other, meet new people, make random yet useful connections.

You need to take a step back to see what’s really important at these events. Yes, the sharing of experience (the liberating and the frustrating) is its primary purpose; but what you really notice is that everyone has a voice here. From the newest project support team member, apprentice, graduate to the most experienced sponsor, PMO manager, director – all are included and listened to. Every attendee is expected and supported to participate. This Vegas of the North has taken time to build. Early events often focussed on success (acknowledging that many of us like to show off from time to time) and corporate updates. It took time to notice the value of the incidental conversations and relationship building; and build in the time and activities to encourage this, give people the space and support to programme more inclusive events. Most of this learning still stays in Vegas, so the next challenge is to share more widely.

What has helped more broadly is the investment the business has made in behavioural change. Improving Behaviours Improving Performance (IBIP) is a cross Highways sector initiative to introduce and practice more collaborative behaviours. The initial approach was capturing current experience within teams through a survey, and using the data to facilitate a behavioural workshop with the team: to explore the impact of behaviours that damage collaboration and commit to personal and team changes to improve team working. The framework and toolkit have been refined and tailored over time, but the basic premise has remained: coaches and facilitators from across the sector trained to enable teams to talk about their behaviours honestly and commit to change.

Even small changes have positive impacts, and most of the IBIP changes are not rocket science. Pick up the phone rather than email by default, make the effort to co-locate and get to know your colleagues in integrated teams. This investment has had some high profile successes in delivery (the A14 Cambridge to Huntingdon Improvement Scheme is a case in point); but it’s biggest impact has been on our wider culture – it’s OK to talk about behaviours and feelings in a way it really wasn’t when I first came to Highways. It’s more important to collaborate and all get there safely than it is to get ahead on your own.

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The culture is changing slowly around us, the rituals and routines becoming more collaborative and inclusive, the stories more focused on how we do things rather than just the outcomes. Not enough yet to truly encourage rich knowledge sharing across silo boundaries, from one region or programme to another, from one directorate to another; but heading in the right direction.

We’re starting now to scope out a Knowledge Champion role to support our intentions for wider conversation and people activity. People who can promote better practice, spot those experiences ripe for capture as a case study or scenario, advocate and facilitate local activity to feed into a wider network of champions. Quid pro quo, support to learn and practise coaching and facilitation skills, a great way to capture evidence for your Continual Professional Development log, build your network and spot opportunities to develop your career. Alongside that, we will recruit Subject Matter Advisers to assure the quality of what we capture and share – what can sit as an example of great practice or a useful tool on our SharePoint Knowledge Management site? What needs to feed back into improving our standards and processes? What can they share with our champions to raise up our collective understanding? Evidence that we are listening to our project delivery colleagues, their voices are all important and their contributions valued.

It was never true that what happened in Vegas would stay in Vegas (or what is discussed in Davos always stays there.). The challenge is to share the good and the bad, both in the moment of honest discussion to check and challenge, and in the longer term sustainably through champions and online resources. The blockers are still there: the experience rich are often time poor, some will talk the talk without walking the walk, it takes time and focus for behavioural change to become the new normal. But the effort is worth it.

Vegas may look to be all schmaltz and sequins, but it needs a lot of efficient and motivated staff working safely together to deliver that experience. I want the same.”

[1] Margaret Mead, apocryphal, quoted by various sources online.

[2] Johnson, G & Scholes, K. (1999). Exploring Corporate Strategy

What’s coming up

Week 3: My perfect Zoom background is . . .

  • How are we adapting to the challenges of working in a virtual world?

Week 4: Can we truly solve complex problems.

  • Is the real challenge for us all to be able to adapt to and embrace future complexity, rather than try and fix it?

Complexity – if you can’t beat it, adapt!

ChameleonJoin us at 13.00 BST on Thursday 28th May for a Zoom Live conversation to explore the themes Martin in airing in his blog series. We are learning that complexity isn’t something to be solved but something to which we need to adapt. During the live call we’ll discuss together what does adaptation mean for you in terms of project organization, team working and personal capability?

Register for the Zoom Live

Read Martin’s other posts in this series

If you build it, will they come?

My favourite Zoom background is …

About Martin Sherlock

Currently I work as a Knowledge Manager in our Major Projects directorate. (On the side I co-chair the staff LGBT+ network). As Knowledge Manager I am part of a small central team focused on developing and maintaining the specialist skills, knowledge, systems and reporting needed to underpin and assure a large construction programme. My colleagues in the wider business are responsible for operating, maintaining and enhancing the Strategic Road Network for England. Our work is shaped by our licence to operate and our delivery plan – in other words, are we spending public money wisely and efficiently to deliver the programme of work to a standard agreed with our shareholder and our regulator.

I came to Knowledge Management with a background in advice work, learning and development and professional capability; which turned out to be a really good grounding. From advice work I learned to listen to people, pay attention to their needs, assessing the merits of requests and finding ways of meeting the reasonable / realistic ones. From L&D, understanding of different learning styles, preferences, how to coach and develop people to improve behaviours and understanding, capture content in formats people can learn from. In professional capability, I spent time getting to grips with our professional standards, the importance of effective governance and assurance, the knowledge that there will always be a learning curve to navigate. All three gave me an understanding of the importance of getting the foundations right before moving on to the people focus and relationships that give me the real challenges I enjoy.

Find out more about the work of Highways England

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