Megaprojects demand Great Souls not just Great Engineering – A Response to Bent Flyvbjerg

August 15, 2021

At VISION Consulting, we have long admired Bent Flyvbjerg.  He is the dean of megaproject research and understanding.  He spotted the importance of megaprojects early and just as early spotted their glaring flaw.  Missing budget, schedule and promised benefits is the rule not the exception.[1]  And they tend to miss big time.  Budgets run to multiples of the original.  Benefits come in at half those expected.  Flyvbjerg is no Jeremiah.  In recent years, he has looked at positive ways to avoid cognitive biases.  In the November-December 2021 Harvard Business Review, he has come out with a new solution (download it here), which we believe is correct—workable—but not true–enduring  Flyvbjerg advises us to build megaprojects by rapidly iterating modules that are non-monumental, do not require new technology, and can be quickly assembled.  Previous exemplars of megaprojects that have beat the odds were London’s Olympic Stadium or Heathrow’s Terminal 5 or the older Apollo and Manhattan projects.  Now, Flyvbjerg points us to new exemplars Tesla’s lithium-ion battery plant Gigafactory 1, the Madrid Metro, and, most exemplary of all, windfarms.  Flyvbjerg used to say that their founders conceived of megaprojects while in the throes of technological, political, economic, or aesthetic sublimes.  “Sublime” was a bit arch, but he was on to something that architects and missionaries have long known.  Megaprojects spoke to our desire to see our greatness realized in the world.  His new accountant’s sublime might, for a while, give us megaprojects delivered on time and budget. But, it is not the origin of greatness. Hitting budget and schedule in itself is not enough to create the communities of contractors willing to sacrifice personal advantage for the good of the whole.  The sublime provides the motivation necessary to build greatness. It can also easily lead greatness into disaster. But, despite the danger, the sublime (not the accountant’s sublime) is necessary for the will to conceive of megaprojects and then make appropriate sacrifices to complete them as planned.

Let our point be this.  To keep the tradition of great megaprojects alive—in addition to bringing them in on time and budget–we need projects in the name of whose nobility and vision managers can cajole, coax, command, daunt, imprecate, importune, and inspire people to join together and make sacrifices for each other and the project to make it succeed.  Managers need a project around which they can form a community where usually competing contractors put aside their thousands of past wounds, trust each other’s numbers and explanations, and pick each other up when they fall, often sharing a bit of skill or knowledge that they consider proprietary.  The art is to create a community that resembles an Amish barn raising community.  Not only the narrow engineering goal of the project has to be worth it.  The project’s monumental creation has to be an enduring statement that guides those living in the project’s light and shadow.  That was the lesson of the older successful megaprojects from the Manhattan and Apollo projects to London’s Olympic Stadium.  Building a megaproject is building a community centred on the project itself.  Successful managers have to know how to build those communities.  They have to be able to gather the combined sacrifices to produce shared wealth and glory.

But what of modularity and using tried and true technology?  Imagine fields of glistening wind turbine blades waving in the breeze.  Their megaproject manager did not likely inspire more than a handful of people on the teams with that sight.  No doubt the teams were saving the planet from warming.  According to Flyvbjerg, Madrid’s metro builders spent their evenings in non-modular tapas bars comparing notes and figuring out how to compete with each other the next day.  A community built out of practical wisdom resided in those bars.  And that was enough for the Madrid Metro.  But the spirit to produce the eternal return of the same flags fast.  We might have the spirit to produce the eternal return of the same in Tesla’s Nevada desert.  But imagine building the Madrid metro around the world again and again.  With modular building comes modular souls, and with modular souls, community dies.  No tapas bar is good enough.  No sacrifice makes sense.  Modularity and tried-and-true technologies are especially good in factories where each worker has her individual space to do her individual task.  But megaprojects are community affairs where so much is happening that contractors are bumping into each other, tripping over and picking each other up.  Modularity and tried-and-true technology have their place in megaprojects, but they are not the project’s heart and soul.

We call on Flyvbjerg to work out the new balance between the technological, economic, political, and aesthetic sublime and the accountant’s sublime. For more on the megaproject community building sublime, see our recent thought leadership. 

[1] For instance, 70% – 90% of megaprojects have cost overruns and schedule overruns and benefit shortfalls are similarly common. For an overview, see, Flyvbjerg, B. (2017). The Oxford Handbook of Megaproject Management, Chapter 1.

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