Why our megaproject fix works
Read the final article of our four-article series on megaprojects by Connor Butler, Billy Glennon, Chauncey Bell and Charles Spinosa.
Making good neighbours
In the first two articles of this series of four, we explored the importance of megaprojects to civilisation and why they so often fail to be delivered on time on budget and with all their promised benefits. Then, crucially, in the third article we explained how to fix megaprojects for good.
In this final part of the series, we explain why our fix works and why it’s different to the assembly-line school of project management that simply cannot handle the complexity of megaprojects. We’ll also show how successfully leading a megaproject is like building a community, making good neighbors from narrow, calculating actors.
All four of us have experience of using this approach to successfully steer megaprojects, and applying the same insights to other business-critical capital projects. We hope you have found this series interesting, and please see the links at the end of the article for further information.
When we take our clients to visit Intel, one thing they regularly say is: “I had to keep pinching myself to remember that I was talking to Intel and a group of its suppliers and not one team from one single company.” And this happened months after we, Intel, and their suppliers had completed the work. How could there still be this solidarity?
Megaprojects put us in a very different world from other projects, where achieving and working with clear causal chains and role definitions usually solves problems. They require a completely different approach from conventional project and factory management.
Our approach, combining integrated project delivery with Commitment-Based Management™, draws on the way we act as members of a community, and the way that communities manage complexity and role integration. But this is not what we’re used to doing in business.
Our predecessors created amazing institutions: highly-disciplined military organisations (think of Napoleon’s armies or the Prussian military), hospitals, prisons, factories, grade schools and scientific laboratories.1 In these institutions, people had narrow roles and were drilled in narrow skill sets. Managers observed and corrected relentlessly. People were classified by their propensity to learn certain skills and then by their competence. Managers kept records. These organisations were amazing because, by design, they functioned according to causal chains. Indeed, one of the founding ideas was to keep causal chains as independent as possible. That was obviously essential for scientific experimentation. But it is also critical for maximising the benefits of division of labor.
On the assembly line, you want the person who puts the top on the bottle to be brilliant at that and the person who washes the bottle to be brilliant at that and you do not want one person trying to do it all. With such independent causal chains, it becomes possible to identify root causes when something goes wrong and then to make repairs.
Communities not individuals
The French philosopher Michel Foucault describes how we came to think that many of our institutions were of this sort, and if they were not, that we should try to shape them up to function that way. The mistake that the world has made with megaprojects is to run them like these institutions. And the mistake that people working in megaprojects have made is to think of their role as the role of the individual, rather than being part of a community.
Individuals make over-optimistic predictions of outcomes. They make autocratic decisions that prove defective. They give in to people on the ground, relax performance standards and miss deadlines. They lose their legitimacy. They create winners and losers. The way to resolve this is to think as a community rather than as an individual. That’s what commitment-based management delivers.
Our approach creates good neighbors from narrow, calculating actors. We bring them under the influence of an heroic leader who passionately builds the community. And, as time passes, the leader puts others in positions of authority, where they learn to work together. When they play games, their behavior gets called out.
Once the budget holder and suppliers have seen enough of each other’s books to believe that they have an open view and have been working together successfully on smaller issues, then negotiation over scheduling, initial and follow-up plans, and ultimately the risk and reward agreement is no longer merely a resolution of differences enabled by a lawyer who acts as an arbiter. Generally, it arises out of a moment when the suppliers say to each other and to the budget-holder: “All right, we can make this work.” It’s a genuine breakthrough.
A history ensues. The actions inside the meetings are not acts of bargaining but acts of brainstorming, sometimes joyful brainstorming, to find better solutions. When one is found, it is a joint achievement celebrated and remembered by all. It is glue and a foundation for binding people even more closely together in following meetings. Everyone lives as part of something larger.
Anyone can reject foolish proposals
But what about the workers who are not in the consensus-driven meetings? The power of our rolling planning system is precisely that it brings everyone into the community. No one acts according to a narrow role. Anyone on the ground can reject foolish upper-level proposals. Their judgment as community members counts, and they are therefore generally happy to do whatever advances their talents. Never forget the pride of the worker pointing to the majestic achievement and describing her or his role in creating it. We already know how to do that. We work to make the neighborhood better so that we can all take pride in it.
It’s this thinking that allows us to build successful megaprojects. We’ve named the Intel fabs and Heathrow’s Terminal 5 but other famous successes, such as the Bilbao redevelopment project, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and the metro extensions in Madrid,2 created communities too. Think too of the communities we had in the US during World War II and just after. Note that the Manhattan, Atlas, and Polaris projects came in on time, within cost assumptions and with the expected benefits.3
To continue to build these glorious monuments without mega-heartbreaks, delays, cost overruns and reduced benefits, we have to build (and can build) glorious communities. That is what integrated project delivery with commitment-based management offers. You might have to pinch yourself to believe it, but it’s true.
If you are involved in a megaproject or smaller capital project, our thinking and insights can help you now.
Listen to our Megaprojects podcast series.
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(Commitment-Based Management™ is a trademark of VISION.)
1 Michel Foucault wrote the contemporary classic. Foucault, M. (1979). Discipline and Punish. New York, NY: Vintage is the contemporary classic. Of course, Max Weber preceded Foucault with the basic picture. See Weber, M. (2019). Economy and Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
2 B. Flyvbjerg (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Megaproject Management. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, p. 12.
3 Lenfle, S. & Loch, C. (2017). p. 24.
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