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Billy’s Book Bag – July Book Review

How Big Things Get Done: The Surprising Factors that Determine the Fate of Every Project
by Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner

Published February 2023

Do you believe you truly understand what makes major capital projects succeed or fail? In my experience working with hundreds of project teams and leaders, whether they’ve led one project or ten, each believes they know the reasons behind project failures and successes. However, many seem resigned to the notion that big projects can never be completed safely, on time, on budget, and within scope. Everyone has their theories, but few possess the full or accurate picture of why their projects fail.

In today’s high-stakes environment, with everything at risk, this is simply unacceptable. As we transition to renewable energy, and with numerous groundbreaking renewable energy projects of all sizes underway, we can no longer afford to overlook the consequences of unaccountable project decision-making from inception to execution.

In Bent Flyvbjerg’s “How Big Things Get Done,” he provides extensive data and a comprehensive analysis of why most projects fail and how we can prevent this from happening. Flyvbjerg’s research offers project leaders a detailed framework to reassess their approach to managing large-scale initiatives. This book will reshape your perspective on how to initiate and manage capital projects, helping you to avoid being another unsuccessful statistic.

Below is Flyvbjerg’s reframing for reimagining major capital projects, addressing everyone from politicians and executives who lobby funding to frontline project supervisors and everything in between. There’s too much at stake, so let’s get it right.

  1. Importance of Realism Over Optimism
    With so many jobs, capital, and reputations on the line, we have seen over-optimism play out a thousand times. Flyvbjerg emphasizes the prevalence of optimism bias and strategic misrepresentation in project planning. As someone accountable for major projects, you need to understand the critical importance of grounding initial project estimates in realism rather than optimism. To avoid the pitfalls of underestimating costs and timelines, implement what he refers to as “reference class forecasting (RCF)” to compare the current project with similar past projects and use statistical evidence to inform estimates. Encourage a culture of realism within your team, rewarding accurate forecasting over overly optimistic projections.
  2. Embracing Complexity and Uncertainty
    The book underscores the complexity and uncertainty inherent in large projects. Accepting this reality, don’t go in blindly. Conduct thorough risk assessments early in the project planning phase, identifying potential risks and developing mitigation strategies. Allocate contingency budgets and time buffers to handle unforeseen challenges. Doing this too late in the project can derail it.
  3. Prioritizing Front-End Planning
    Flyvbjerg’s research highlights that successful projects invest significantly in the front-end planning phase. Most everyone in projects knows this to be true, yet it’s rarely done well. You need to advocate for more extensive feasibility studies, stakeholder consultations, and scenario planning before committing to project execution. Ensure that the project scope is well-defined and agreed upon by all stakeholders, minimizing scope creep and changes during execution.
  4. Stakeholder Engagement and Enrollment
    The book points out that stakeholder engagement is crucial for project success. Develop a comprehensive stakeholder engagement plan, ensuring continuous communication and alignment with all partners involved. Facilitate regular stakeholder meetings to address concerns, gather feedback, and maintain support throughout the project lifecycle.
  5. Learning from Past Projects
    Flyvbjerg emphasizes the value of learning from past projects. You need to establish a project “repository” that documents lessons learned, best practices, and pitfalls from previous projects. When people leave a project, they rarely take the time to capture important lessons that can serve themselves or the next project team, and this is a huge mistake. Implement regular project reviews and lessons-learned sessions to capture insights and improve future project planning and execution.

Reading “How Big Things Get Done” will shift your focus from merely executing projects to significantly more strategic planning. The foundation for a successful project is laid long before the first shovel hits the ground. As a project manager, your role extends beyond managing timelines and budgets; it involves:

  • Engaging deeply with stakeholders to align expectations and build a supportive coalition.
  • Ensuring thorough and realistic planning to set the stage for smooth execution.
  • Building a culture of accountability, transparency, and willing vulnerability.

At Genii Earth, we emphasize the importance of engagement, accountability, and transparency in project execution. To foster this culture, we encourage you to:

Promote open communication within your team, encouraging everyone to voice concerns and provide input without fear of retribution. Start with yourself.

Implement transparent reporting mechanisms that provide stakeholders with accurate and timely information on project progress and challenges to support quality decision-making.

Adopt a proactive rather than reactive approach:

        • Conduct regular risk assessments and scenario planning sessions to anticipate and prepare for potential challenges.
        • Encourage your team (management to the frontline) to identify and address issues early, rather than waiting for problems to escalate.
        • Invest in Continuous Improvement and Learning:
        • Invest in professional development for yourself and your team in the form of coaching and leadership development.
        • Foster a learning environment where lessons from each project are systematically captured and used to enhance future performance.

Reading “How Big Things Get Done” by Bent Flyvbjerg will profoundly influence your approach to leading major capital projects. Getting projects right is a global imperative. The consequences for poor project decision-making and delivery are more severe than ever before. Conversely, getting projects right will be the most rewarding achievement a project leader can accomplish, as the results today will have far-reaching transformative impacts.

To deliver exceptional project results, choose Genii Earth as your strategic partner for alignment, planning and leadership development.

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