By Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner (2023)

Pages: 304, Final verdict: Great-read

If I told you that your next project has a 99.5% chance of failing, would you still do it?

Read How Big Things Get Done, and you will.

After more than two decades researching why most projects end up with time or budget overruns, Bent Flyvbjerg, distinguished professor of Major Programme management and founding chair of Oxford's BT Centre for Major Programme Management, set out to write about what underlies the most successful ones. And why most of them get f*cked.

That's a worthwhile endeavor. Most projects (in fact, 99.5%) of the projects are late, over budget, and underdeliver.

In total, only 8.5 percent of projects hit the mark on both cost and time. And a minuscule 0.5 percent nail cost, time, and benefits. Or to put that another way, 91.5 percent of projects go over budget, over schedule, or both. And 99.5 percent of projects go over budget, over schedule, under benefits, or some combination of these.

That should be enough to kill the inner project manager within you. But no so fast. Flyvbjerg and Garner found something else: there is a path to shipping projects on time. The book packages that path into nine overarching principles that offer a somewhat predictable and repeatable path to project success.

Some, like the importance of detailed planning, might seem obvious. But what makes How Big Things Get Done an entertaining, captivating book is not the articulation of the methodology of those principles, but in its exploration of human behavior.

Flyvbjerg and Garner dive deep into biases like the Commitment and Planning Fallacies, laying bare their oft-destructive influences. His dissection of the Optimism Bias is especially interesting. In particular, they show how ignoring conventional window and falling prey to ambition of working on a project that 'has never been done' leads hundreds of project astray.

Or worse, take France's municipal project budgets, which are politically accepted but often bear little relation to technical realities. In order to secure funding, municipal projects budgets are almost always knowingly unrealistic, because sharing the real budget forecast would impede its construction. Talk about the power of incentives.

Flyvbjerg and Garner make clear that projects aren't just about numbers and plans; they're deeply intertwined with politics, human emotions, and societal pressures.

France, there is often a theoretical budget that is given because it is the sum that politically has been released to do something. In three out of four cases this sum does not correspond to anything in technical terms. This is a budget that was made because it could be accepted politically. The real price comes later. The politicians make the real price public where they want and when they want. That’s a long way of saying that estimates aren’t intended to be accurate; they are intended to sell the project. In a word, they are lies—or spin, to use more polite language.

Flybjerg is the right person to write a book about megaprojects. He compiled the largest database of such projects in the world with more than 15,000 examples across industries from IT to Nuclear energy.

But raw data can be sterile. Thankfully, Flyvbjerg understands this and meshes his findings with personal stories. Like the story of Jørn Utzon, the architect behind the Sydney Opera House. The now iconic Opera House was 14 times over budget and 10 years delayed. Things got so bad that Utzon was expelled from the project and left Australia. He died in 2008, never having beheld his completed masterpiece with his own eyes. It’s a tragedy fit for an opera.

Equally fascinating is the chapter where Flyvbjerg shares the implications of archaeological finds on projects, one of the leading causes of delays in transportation projects, especially in historically rich regions like England (it just happened in Porto's new metrobus system 🇵🇹). On the surface, it may seem like a niche problem, but it symbolizes the unforeseeable challenges that can emerge, turning a project's trajectory on its head.

To counter that, Flyvbjerg and Garner call for reference-class forecasting and hiring for field expertise when assembling the project team. Reference-class forecasting - a planning method where the project budget/timeline starts from a baseline of similar projects and not from a bottoms-up project plan - appears to be particularly successful, specially in projects with high-uncertainty.

Bottom line

How Big Things Get Done is more than just a book on project management. It's a deep dive into the complexities, challenges, and the very human aspects of building big stuff. More than anything, it stood out to me as a good high-level mental model to think through and plan a big project.

While Flyvbjerg excels in discussing megaprojects, his analogies to the startup world, especially in relation to the MVP culture, feel a lot less compelling. Maybe that's just my bias of thinking my baby is different from the others.

Whether you're about to start on a kitchen renovation or design a new airport terminal, this book deserves to be on your shortlist.

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