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Bent Flyvbjerg’s secrets of project success

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Megaproject expert Professor Bent Flyvbjerg’s new book, How Big Things Get Done: The surprising factors behind every successful project, from home renovations to space exploration, digs deep into what makes major projects a success and how these factors can be replicated across any project, no matter what size.

Think slow, act fast

One of the critical factors to a project’s success, argues Flyvbjerg, the first BT Professor and inaugural Chair of Major Programme Management at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, is whether enough thinking time has been put into the planning of the project. By countering our natural human urge to think swiftly, we must slow ourselves down to carefully consider what needs to be done.

“A big project is the kind of thing that is not suited for fast thinking,” he says. “The fact that it is big means that it has big consequences… you actually need to think slow to be successful.”

Giving yourself the space to think through every aspect of a project with the consideration it deserves puts you in a great position to deliver the project swiftly. And this is critical to the success of a project. By closing the window of activity (or “the window of doom”, as Flyvbjerg puts it) as quickly as possible, you reduce the risk of things going wrong.

“It’s actually time that is the killer for projects, not size. This is something that has never been documented before. By acting fast, you can reduce your risks enormously, especially if you have been thinking slow.”

Think right to left

Flyvbjerg explains that successful projects always have a team who clearly understand what their purpose is, and then throughout the delivery phase, always keep one eye on how what they are doing will help deliver this.

“For anybody who's doing a project, first sit down and ask yourself: why are you doing the project? You need to have a very good answer to that question before you start so that you actually know precisely what the reasons are. Then, after you know that, you can start,” he says.

The best project teams will think backwards from what they want to end up with.

“Thinking ‘right to left’ refers to the process chart – classically the Gantt chart – that is used in most project planning and management, where you have the end result or the outcome on the right, and then everything that needs to happen left of that,” he says.

“You start all the way on the left, and then you eventually end up on the right. I say reverse that process; start on the right, then work your way backwards to the left, and then you start delivery while you keep your eyes on the right.”

Make it modular

“It’s crazy, but the average practice in project management is a disaster, and good practice is an outlier,” says Flyvbjerg. But in new research included in his book, he documents which type of projects perform well and which don’t. He found that the best-performing projects are renewable energy projects, like wind and solar – and the reason for this is their modularity, he explains.

Think of a project being made of building blocks (like Lego), he suggests.

“The sound of a successful project is click, click, click – it’s like putting Legos together,” he says. A wind turbine, for example, can be broken down into the four same components that can be fitted together over and over, and replicated to scale quickly. “That’s thinking slow, acting fast in a nutshell,” he says.

The lesson for project professionals? By searching for ways in which to introduce modularity into your project, you will inevitably increase your chance of success.

Listen to APM Podcast’s interview with Bent Ftalyvbjerg, where he talks in-depth about his new book How Big Things Get Done, on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts.


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