The peculiar hazards of megaprojects

Oxford Business School researcher Bent Flyvbjerg's 2014 paper on "megaprojects" is a minor classic of the project-management genre (but I hadn't heard of it until this morning, and, having read it, I can see why).

A megaproject is a project that costs $1B or more to execute ("gigaproject" never caught on, though "teraproject" is gaining currency for the burgeoning field of trillion-dollar projects). Thanks to the work of Albert O Hirschman on the "hiding hand" (which holds that these giant projects are a great way to discover a bunch of hidden techniques and capacities that wouldn't surface in more modest or stepwise advances), megaprojects are considered more heroic than risky. And since megaprojects allow their executors to make their careers and reputations, since they create so many jobs, since they have so much money flowing through them (available to be skimmed by grifters), the temptation to commit megaproject is seemingly unstoppable.

But as Flyvbjerg writes, Hirschman deliberately skewed his data to make megaprojects seem more viable than they actually are. Megaprojects are, in fact, an existential risk to everyone involved, including the communities in which they are sited. K-Mart was destroyed by a failed IT megaproject!

Flyvbjerg has some practical advice for doing big, ambitious things without turning into a grifters' paradise or a giant boondoggle, too.

This paper takes stock of megaproject management, an emerging and hugely costly field of study. First, it answers the question of how large megaprojects are by measuring them in the units mega, giga, and tera, concluding we are presently entering a new "tera era" of trillion-dollar projects. Second, total global megaproject spending is assessed, at USD 6-9 trillion annually, or 8 percent of total global GDP, which denotes the biggest investment boom in human history. Third, four "sublimes" – political, technological, economic, and aesthetic – are identified to explain the increased size and frequency of megaprojects. Fourth, the "iron law of megaprojects" is laid out and documented: Over budget, over time, over and over again. Moreover, the "break-fix model" of megaproject management is introduced as an explanation of the iron law. Fifth, Albert O. Hirschman's theory of the Hiding Hand is revisited and critiqued as unfounded and corrupting for megaproject thinking in both the academy and policy. Sixth, it is shown how megaprojects are systematically subject to "survival of the unfittest," explaining why the worst projects get built instead of the best. Finally, it is argued that the conventional way of managing megaprojects has reached a "tension point," where tradition is challenged and reform is emerging.

What You Should Know About Megaprojects and Why: An Overview [Bent Flyvbjerg/University of Oxford – Said Business School]

(via Four Short Links)