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Harvard Business Review: New feature makes the case for speed and modularity in projects

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A new article by APM Fellow Bent Flyvbjerg is raising awareness of what good project management is among business leaders, following its publication in the Harvard Business Review (HBR).

The article, titled Make Megaprojects More Modular, has been published in the November-December issue of the revered management magazine, to help senior managers understand how modularity and swift replicability will help them run their projects and businesses better. It explains how the presence – and absence – of replicable modularity in design affects project outcomes. It uses real-life examples of megaprojects from the transport, manufacturing and energy sectors to demonstrate how a modular approach improves speed and enables benefits to be realised more quickly, even in cases where a modular approach is contrary to traditional thinking. Tesla's Gigafactory 1, Japan's Monju nuclear power plant, UK windfarms, Dove satellites, and Madrid's metro illustrate the main argument.

“To readers and entrepreneurs familiar with tech start-ups, some of this will be familiar and logical,” said Bent. “But large corporations and governments have yet to internalise these lessons for big-ticket projects.”

“Big projects belong in the C-suite. I wrote this article to help get them attention there.”

The six-page editorial has been chosen as the spotlight feature for this issue of the HBR, lending more prominence to the topics explored.

Bent, who is the first BT Professor and Chair of Major Programme Management at Oxford University's Saïd Business School and the Villum Kann Rasmussen Professor and Chair of Major Program Management at the IT University of Copenhagen, says he hopes the feature will also highlight the importance of project, programme and portfolio professionals to business success.

Explaining what inspired him to write the article, he commented: “There is so much research on why projects fail. I wanted to see if there were patterns associated with success that could be documented at an academic level. What are the secrets of success?

“The difference is that successful projects are usually fast. Those delivering them understand that time is a window. More bad things can fly through it, the bigger it gets.

“My advice to project, programme and portfolio professionals is ‘make your project modular’. I’m Danish, so I often use the example of Lego. People need to figure out ‘what is your Lego?’ If you don't have a Lego, you need to find one or your project will be slow and expensive. If you have one, replicate and learn, over and over, to shorten delivery, bring down costs, and get to your revenues and other benefits sooner. If you look at the wind energy industry, which is currently very successful in the UK and the rest of northern Europe, they’ve found that; just a few elements that are repeated every time they do a windfarm, which get better with each iteration.”

“The opposite of modularity is ‘bespoke’. When things are low speed and low modularity, we call that ‘dumbscaling’. People should aspire to make projects high speed and high modularity.”

When asked if such an approach is exclusively applicable to megaprojects, Bent explained that it can be applied to projects of all sizes, as barriers to success are primarily behavioural rather than inherent to the project.

“There’s surprisingly little difference between small, medium and big projects, according to our data,” he said. “It’s less about technology and tools being used and much more about human behaviour. Humans are very good at learning by repetition. We’re very bad at getting things right first time. So technology must adapt to behaviour to be successful, not the other way around.

“Iteration provides scope for experimentation. Experiment with a few modules, improve the next ones and repeat. The faster you iterate, the more you learn.”

Bent's article is now available to read in the Harvard Business Review.

Alternatively, you can download the paper directly from the Social Science Research Network (SSRN).


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