What embracing change and an ultra-structured project manager can accomplish.

The complex IT project that went according to plan

Denmark’s energy giant, Energinet.dk, has triumphed with a true Mission Impossible: a complex, approx. EUR 14.5 million IT project was completed on time and on budget. In this article, CIO Morten Gade Christensen reveals what embracing change and an ultra-structured project manager can accomplish.

Interview with CIO Morten Gade Christensen, Energinet.dk

The integration of renewable energy into Denmark’s energy grid is moving fast. So fast that time was running out for Energinet.dk’s control system, which is what guarantees that every Dane can start the day with hot coffee and turn on the lights when the sun goes down. And so in 2013, the energy supply giant launched an ambitious project to upgrade and future-proof the IT system.

“The old control system would not have been able to manage the flexible energy system that Denmark is in the process of developing. In order for IT support to keep up, an upgrade was necessary. At the same time, we wanted to meet the company’s need for a more robust, secure system,” explains Morten Gade Christensen, who has been CIO of Energinet.dk since 2013.

Strongly anchored in the organization

It’s irritating if you update your corporate website and there’s a single page that doesn’t work. But if you’re an energy provider and you make a coding error in the engine room that causes a blackout in an entire county, you have a real problem. For this reason, the upgrade project demanded, if not a zero-error policy, then an intense focus on identifying the potential challenges that could develop into severe threats to the energy supply. And so Morten Gade Christensen’s first step was to ensure that the project was strongly anchored at executive management level as well as in the rest of the organization:

“In connection with many projects you have to prioritize what’s important, and we’ve done that. The upgrade was integrated into the corporate strategy as a target that had to be reached, and the importance of the upgrade was clearly communicated: drop whatever else you’re doing immediately if there is a
need for you.”

Untraditional choice of project manager

Normally, a project manager with serious industry experience and SCADA expertise would be chosen for such a high-profile, critical pro-ject. SCADA is the type of IT system Energinet.dk uses. One of the two heavyweight project managers presented to the CIO by ProData Consult had this kind of background. The other had an unconventional profile: former CEO in an investment company and a trained lawyer. Her name is Helen Holdt, and although she had no knowledge of the energy sector, she had extensive experience with structural issues from a complex bank project. She
demonstrated that she knew how to keep a project on a short leash – something that gave Morten Gade Christensen a good gut feeling:

“Helen’s experience with major banking systems resembled our critical infrastructure: in the financial sector, it hurts when systems don’t work, just as it would have unimaginable consequences for Energinet.dk if we turned off the power in Denmark.”

Structure, structure, structure

The choice fell on Helen Holdt, who immediately started describing roles and responsibilities, drew up logs of decisions, structured meetings and got her mandate clarified. Everything was hammered into place in one go. Even the project participants who failed to deliver on time and who should have feared her most were enthusiastic: she never went after the man, but instead focused single-mindedly on clearing obstacles out of the way so that everyone could move forward.

The untraditional choice turned out to be the right one. The CIO finds it interesting that the perfect match can be a project manager with no sector experience, as long as he or she has experience with some of the same fundamental issues:

“We are an energy supply world leader with a complex, critical infrastructure. It’s exciting that it was possible for Helen Holdt, who has a background in finance, to leave Energinet.dk with a deep knowledge of the energy sector.”

Effective steering committee and a dynamic contract

Prioritization and a talented project manager aren’t the only secrets to Energinet.dk’s success with the SCADA upgrade. An effective steering committee was a priority for Morten Gade Christensen, who made sure to include the executive director of French GE, the largest supplier, on the steering committee. Though this is not standard practice, the CIO wanted to bring people on board who knew how to make decisions:

“We invested a great deal in physical meetings, and I got it included in the contract that GE’s representatives on the steering committee had to be ‘on location’ at Energinet.dk once a month, so we could decide from meeting to meeting whether a phone call was enough."

Morten Gade Christensen also had a strong focus on Energinet.dk’s contract with GE. Traditionally, you describe the desired product, and the supplier quotes a price. Then you spend the project fighting about everything that’s not described in the contract – and who’s going to pay for it. Instead, GE was asked to estimate a price for the total package and to develop a structure to ensure faster and better delivery. As the CIO explains:

“In this way, GE would earn more, while we would save money and avoid delays. In short, it was a much more dynamic contract that gave the project manager full transparency and that made it easier to manage the project.”