Adventures In Missing The Point: Addressing Assumptions People Make About Flyvbjerg’s Work

During the past week, I have dug into various of the topics that Professor Bent Flyvbjerg (Linkedin, Twitter) and I discussed in our excellent 90 minutes together. He and Dan Gardner’s highly recommended new book How Big Things Get Done: The Surprising Factors That Determine the Fate of Every Project, From Home Renovation to Space Exploration and Everything in Between falls on February 7, so it has been timely. I’m happy to note that there is an Audible version of it as well.

As a reminder, Flyvbjerg and Gardner contacted me about a year ago to request permission to include material I had been repeating for a few years, a look at the natural experiment of wind, solar and nuclear installations in China. I was happy to say yes, but can say unequivocally that my recommendation of this book would be just as strong without my material in it.

Having estimated, planned, run and directed large multi-continent technology and transformation projects in my career, both failed and successful, this book should be read carefully by anyone involved in estimating, planning, approving, selecting and delivering projects. And focused as I am in my new career as a decarbonization strategist, guiding investors, boards, policymakers, and startups through the thickets of our rapidly changing world, this book should be read carefully by people considering their strategic investments of time and resources.

But having said that, the reactions to my pieces and more generally to Flyvbjerg’s work have been brilliant. This article highlights a few trends in the remarks and points out some of the rules of thumb Flyvbjerg and Gardner have drawn together to ensure that no one is left with the assumption from my short pieces that it is a one-dimensional perspective or that their favored aspect of project – or program management is not taken into account.

One of the obvious things, in retrospect, was that Sinophobia reared its ugly head. Many of the comments on the articles themselves or on LinkedIn (my primary social media hangout) were focused on the ugly aspects of China, not the material. Often they missed the point that the natural experiment in nuclear, wind and solar was made possible by China’s more centrally planned economy and the national government’s greater ability to override local NIMBYism, regulatory variance and squeeze out the corrupt profiteers. Complaints from nuclear advocates related to Western public fear and over-regulation are washed away, leaving only the technologies and their ability to be implemented. And wind and solar surpassed nuclear in relative and absolute terms, significantly exceeded targets and continue to accelerate despite the programs starting a decade after the nuclear program, which remains slow-moving and not meeting its targets.

This is not to suggest that China’s model of government is appropriate for the West or that it does not have significant drawbacks. It remains on the side. But for those who are interested in this topic, I highly recommend Kishore Mahbubani’s Has China won?Zak Dychtwald’s Young China and Ray Dalio Principles for dealing with the changing world order for a much-needed perspective that is often lacking.

Image of project categories that meet time, budget and deliverables expectations versus those that don't from How Big Things Get Done by Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner

Image of project categories that meet time, budget and distribution expectations versus those that don’t How great things are done by Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner

I continue to use this graphic in these pieces because it is so insightful. It is from the data set of around 16,000 projects that Flyvbjerg and the team have collected quality data for. It shows which projects are much more prone to cost overruns and which are less prone, based on a statistically significant, mostly global data set. (Data for individual Chinese projects is still difficult to obtain.) I consider this to be the most important graphic from the book, and that it and the rules of thumb in Coda should be posted on the walls of planners, strategists, policymakers, and investors around the world.

And this brings us to the next set of reactions. Nuclear advocates really don’t like this chart, and will find any excuse to ignore or dismiss its lessons. Often the same people who miss the point of the natural experimental material will turn around and say it’s the fault of regulatory overzealousness or Greenpeace or unwarranted terror of radiation whipped up by the American and Japanese film industries. As I’ve written elsewhere, it’s the economy, not the fear.

Another group rejects one of Flybjerg’s primary orders, think slow and act fast (which I seriously assume was considered the title or subtitle of the book and is called as a rule of thumb in the Coda), in favor of just start and build a dream model. But that argument demolishes Flyvbjerg. He leans into economist Albert Hirschman’s highly influential paper from decades ago that argued that planning was a bad idea, surprising creativity sees us through big projects, and that big thinkers should just do it. As Flyvbjerg notes, Hirschmann is either right, or Flyvbjerg is right. There is no middle ground. What Hirschmann and others such as Gladwell, the Brookings Institute, and Sunstein ignored was the survivorship bias, the absurd costs and budget overruns, and the failure to deliver any promised benefits of this credo. Chapter 7, “Can ignorance be your friend?,” addresses this deeply held and foreign misconception, utilizing examples as diverse as Jimi Hendrix’s purpose-built studio, the Sydney Opera House, Frank Gehry’s architectural masterpieces, and the film Jaws. Anyone trying to argue against Flybjerg’s thesis must read and understand this chapter.

Others complained that I did not write about the essential requirement of having an experienced team. Well, they’re right. I didn’t make that point and wasn’t trying to write a comprehensive book review, but to explore specific aspects of our conversation in more depth. But assuming Flybjerg doesn’t cover it, that’s a remarkable leap, yet countless people made the leap, leap, and leap of logic required. In fact, Flyvbjerg cites it for both the highly successful Madrid metro and Heathrow Terminal 5 projects as a key condition for the success of these programs. The planners intentionally thought slowly about project risks, understood that broad group and contractor alignment and cohesion were critical, and did extensive work to ensure that highly predictable fat-tailed risks did not adversely affect their projects. Chapter 8, “A single, specific organism,” is devoted to this topic.

Megaproject and infrastructure implementation consulting organizations such as the excellent Vision, with its focus on engagement-based management, lean heavily into this aspect of successful programs. (Note: one of my regular collaborators works with Vision on projects in North America and Europe and has helped me understand and adopt the fundamentals of their approach.) But I don’t mention this aspect when discussing high-speed rail vs. transmission project variances, why small modular reactors are unlikely to find an optimal point on the physics vs modularity continuum, or the iron law for projects that only 0.5% achieve schedule, budget and benefit targets, does not mean that Flyvbjerg does not address this at length in the book, or that I am not aware of it.

A few years ago, I had this conversation with the woman who taught me more about solving problematic projects than the vast majority of people have ever learned, Sharon Hartung, the global technology company’s project manager, who was absurdly good at it. (Sadly, she passed too soon recently, but her memory lives on among the people who respected and loved her.) I pressed her on exactly this point: “How much of it is the team?” Her role at the time required her to lean into the process aspects and Sharon was excellent at delivering global strategies for the company so this was uncomfortable for her. But we agreed. The team was a large percentage of the reasons for success, both getting the right people and making sure they were aligned and managed for success.

And Flyvbjerg has a certain rule of thumb on the Coda, Get your team right. As Flyvbjerg says, “This is the only heuristic cited by every project manager I’ve ever met.”

Other commenters were remarkably arrogant, claiming that they had perennial successes in projects and that the point I happened to write about was something that did not apply to them. It is possible that they are correct. There are extraordinary people out there who know how to get great things done and keep proving it. When I was working for a large Canadian bank on a massive branch technology transformation – 1,400 physical locations, 32,000 computing devices, brand new network infrastructure and telecommunications, retraining 50,000 branch staff – the bank hired one of the largest technology infrastructure services companies in the world and got Al Eade, a guy, who had spent his entire career doing this, over and over. I learned an absurd amount from Eade during that program, and ended up as one of the top three managers of the process, along with him and another employee. Without Eade or someone with his depth of experience driving slow thinking for 2.5 years, the 10 month rollout with no branch disruptions, with near 100% branch satisfaction ratings and running on budget would not have happened. (Yes, I have been fortunate many times in my career to work with extraordinary people on extraordinary projects.)

And Flyvbjerg also addresses this with the rule of thumb Hire a builder. He also draws out examples of this in the previous chapters. the coda, Eleven heuristics for better project management is an excellent reminder of how to succeed with projects.

And so I come to the end of another moderately long piece about the book that has only scratched the surface of its wisdom and insight. There are eleven rules of thumb in the Coda, and I’ve written about maybe three or four of them here. I encourage people who think about Flyvbjerg’s work and who ask themselves, “But what about this critically important aspect of project success?”, not to assume that it is not covered deeply, well and in conjunction with other factors. Withhold judgment. Get the book. Find out that you are probably wrong in that assumption.




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