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Invisible barriers to megaproject success

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We know that 65% of all megaprojects fail. Either they go over budget, over time, or both. Or they don’t meet their objectives. At a current investment of $20 trillion per year in major projects, this would be like flushing $13 trillion down the drain. That is the number 13 followed by 12 zeros: 13,000,000,000,000.

To put the string of zeros in perspective, consider that a trillion dollars would buy you a $6 Starbucks latte every day, for the next 450 million years.

Did you also know that by 2027, an estimated 88 million people will work in project management-related roles? What factors are driving this trend? At least four can be observed.

The first key is the projects and programmes needed to combat unprecedented challenges facing humanity — climate change, water shortages, and global food insecurity being just three examples.

A second driver is the massive Chinese “Belt & Road” and the U.S. “Build Back Better” initiatives designed to reconfigure, boost and expand the primary, secondary, and tertiary sectors of two gigantic economies battling for geopolitical supremacy. Both have already spurred enormous demand for advanced project leadership.

Then there is the impact of the Covid19 pandemic — governments worldwide are making significant investments to help their sluggish economies rebound.

Last but not least is the exciting lure of emerging disruptive technologies — from the Metaverse to the Blockchain, from biotech to med-tech, from fintech to AI — where business angels, venture capitalists, family offices, and wealth managers are eager to swoop upon opportunities for exponential returns.

The risks of megaprojects

The project volume is there, but so is the risk. And we have a simple choice; we will either keep going as we always have, playing major and megaprojects like a lottery and usually (two out of three projects) failing, or we will finally get to the bottom of why megaprojects systematically go wrong so we can course-correct at the root cause level and put in place the critical path to have megaprojects succeed.

A recent search for project management books yielded over 20,000 results on Amazon alone which shows just how massive the stock pile of books is. A smaller number of specialised books cover specific project methodologies such as Prince, Agile (including Scrum), Kanban, and others. The bookshelf becomes extremely sparse in providing a ground zero, eye-level view of how large projects function in real-time.

This gap stems from the fact that relatively few people have worked on complex megaprojects from initiation to final operations. An even smaller number has the time to document, analyse and articulate their experiences in a meaningful way. And virtually nobody has deep insight into the human dynamics of megaprojects. This is a significant gap in the field of project management.

An invisible system of failure

Many projects create an invisible “system of failure” that predictably derails the project and has it spinning out of control. Creating a “system for success” is about creating a project environment, a force field that sets the project up to win, even when the pressure is on, and the circumstances look ugly.

There is one thing that consistently goes wrong in megaprojects. One missing element, a critical ingredient that requires a radical re-think and re-boot of project management. This one thing is not the technical stuff. And it is not what is in the manual or the GANTT chart. It is the stuff in the background, in the shadows. It is in what people do not say. Or what they do not even see, though the writing is on the wall. They ignore the warning signs.

Opening the black box of human behaviour

When megaproject expert Bent Flyvbjerg looked at what goes wrong with megaprojects, he researched extensively the political, strategic, and operational crash factors, making vital contributions to the field. In his analysis (and theory), he has also directed the industry towards human factors, such as bias.

But, as Einstein is supposed to have said, “In theory, theory and practice are the same; in practice, they are not”. The human element, with all its facets, from blind spots to bias to culture and communication, remains a ‘black box’. We wanted to look at projects from a different angle. The angle we look from is our direct experience with projects. In this book, we open the black box. And we aim to make the human component accessible and actionable.


[Byline: Vip Vyas and Thomas D Zweifel]


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  1. Mark Fulton
    Mark Fulton 27 May 2023, 03:05 PM

    Thanks for this Vip. In short…buy the book “Gorilla in the Cockpit”… a must read for project professionals from the boardroom to the shop floor.

  2. Ashok Singha
    Ashok Singha 08 June 2023, 01:51 PM

    Mega projects always have a political aspect that drags them down.