How Big Is The Hole You’ve Dug?

One guide to project management suggests:

“Start digging a hole and make it so big, there’s no alternative to coming up with the money to fill it in”

Well, not really.  But you’d be hard pressed to say that isn’t how many projects start out – underestimated costs, dramatically overestimated benefits and impossible to deliver timetables.

Another says:

“Ultimately, blind faith is the only kind.”

Mason Cooley wasn’t, I think, a project manager … but you can’t help but wonder how many people running large projects pick this as their strategy.

This fabulous read on Mega Projects (for this purpose, think very large projects, whether IT or infrastructure etc), which includes the first of the two quotes above, by @BentFlyvbjerg, contains the following ten observations

1. Mega Projects are inherently risky due to long planning horizons and complex interfaces.

2. Often projects are led by planners and managers without deep domain experience who keep changing throughout the long project cycles that apply to Mega Projects, leaving leadership weak.

3. Decision-making, planning, and management are typically multi-actor processes involving multiple stakeholders, public and private, with conflicting interests.

4. Technology and designs are often non-standard, leading to “uniqueness bias” amongst planners and managers, who tend to see their projects as singular, which impedes learning.

5. “lock-in” or “capture,” leaving alternatives analysis weak or absent, and leading to escalated commitment in later stages. “Fail fast” does not apply; “fail slow” does .

6. Due to the large sums of money involved, principal-agent problems and rent-seeking behavior are common, as is optimism bias .

7. The project scope or ambition level will typically change significantly over time.

8. Delivery is a high-risk, stochastic activity, with overexposure to so-called “black swans,” i.e., extreme events with massively negative outcomes. Managers tend to ignore this, treating projects as if they exist largely in a deterministic Newtonian world of cause, effect, and control.

9. Statistical evidence shows that such complexity and unplanned events are often unaccounted
for, leaving budget and time contingencies inadequate.

Ending with this hummer

10. As a consequence, misinformation about costs, schedules, benefits, and risks is the norm
throughout project development and decision-making. The result is cost overruns, delays, and benefit shortfalls that undermine project viability during project implementation and operations.

Everyone with me?  Recognise any projects that you’ve worked on?

Read the whole paper.  Totally worth it.

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