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How Big Things Get Done: A Conversation with Prof. Bent Flyvbjerg

The search for practices to increase the success rate of projects can be found in the planning of successful mega projects such as the Empire State Building, Heathrow Airport Terminal 5, and Pixar’s movie hits.

In a recent webinar hosted by the University of Sydney, Professor Bent Flyvbjerg offered invaluable insights gleaned from his extensive expertise in the field. Surprisingly, a fair amount of Flyvberg’s insights was unrelated to the execution of a project and focused on the acceptance and front-end planning as the key to project success. His examples of successful mega projects really highlighted his point of thinking fast and acting slow as the ‘rhythm’ of successful.

Rhythm of Successful Projects

It was evident that for projects to have a higher chance of success, quality at entry needs to be ensured with adequate preparation and the correct strategic perspective. For the Empire State Building, that was designing a majority of the skyscraper to be repetitions of the same floor allowing the construction team to become increasingly efficient doing the same job.

One year was spent on refining the design of the Empire State Building, compared to the one and half years it took to build. For Pixar they go through 8 iterations of the film with feedback every round before the shooting phase commences. His example with Heathrow Airport Terminal 5 identifies its project design was based on a thorough pre-study and appraisal, and a systematic analysis of reality to learn from the lessons of previously similar airport projects.

The main goal is to find the correct strategic perspective which BAA were successful in doing by taking on full risk responsibility from contractors and incentivising them to commit to timely and high-quality delivery without the financial risk typical of their contracts.

Sydney Opera House was an example of a failed project due to its unorganised front-end planning. Unlike the Empire state building, Sydney Opera House’s project plan did not establish the final design before the construction started, therefore the builders were building a ‘wrong building’. We believe that having a weak project plan for any sort of project will lead to a failed outcome therefore it is essential to spend the time and resources to create a thorough plan so the execution can be managed smoothly. This follows Flyvbjerg’s recommendation of focusing on the front end of the project.

"Flyvberg's emphasis on quality at the project's outset and the importance of strategic perspective resonates deeply. Learning from past projects and ensuring thorough preparation can pave the way for smoother project execution and greater success."

Iron Law, Psychology & Power

Flyvbjerg stated it is important to note the Iron Law of Project Management, where the odds tend to be against the success of a project with it likely being over budget, over time, or under benefits. The root causes of these odds are either psychology based, or power based. Psychology causes are not conscious thoughts including cognitive biases. The risks to a project are not the problems, it is our interpretation of these risks due to our non-deliberate cognitive biases. Power causes are conscious thoughts such as strategic misinterpretation to make the project outcome look ‘better’ than what it truly is. Understanding the psychology based or power-based root causes helps project managers be more realistic about what to expect.

"Knowing the Iron Law of Project Management helps project managers maintain a realistic perspective on project outcomes. It's crucial to anticipate potential challenges and plan accordingly to mitigate risks."

From Plans to People: Navigating Project Success

The key takeaway to a successful project is to spend the time and resources to develop a detailed and clear plan before starting project execution. Having a thorough plan allows a smoother execution as everyone knows exactly what they are doing. It’s also important to detect and avoid the cognitive biases, like being too optimistic, can mess up projects.

Observing the collaborative process at Pixar, it becomes evident that people make projects look better on paper than they really are. Being aware of these things helps project managers make better decisions. Another thing to highlight in dealing with big projects isn't just about getting the work done; it's also about understanding the people involved and

the culture they come from.

"The key takeaway to a successful project is to spend the time and resources to develop a detailed and clear plan before starting project execution. Having a thorough plan allows a smoother execution as everyone knows exactly what they are doing."

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