New Book Summary: How Big Things Get Done by Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner

Published 2 months ago • 1 min read

Why did the Sydney Opera House ruin its architect’s career? What can we learn about megaprojects from Pixar’s movies? My latest book summary is for How Big Things Get Done by Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner, which explores why so many megaprojects are disasters and how to prevent these failures.

As usual, the key takeaways are below, and you can find the full summary by clicking the link above.


  • Most megaprojects fail. Less than 1% of megaprojects come in on time, on budget, and deliver the claimed benefits.
  • Planning is essential to a megaproject’s success:
    • Megaprojects are typically rushed, with only superficial or slapdash plans. There’s often an action bias — people want to see “shovels in the ground”.
    • Some argue that we underestimate our creativity under pressure, and that planning just leads to paralysis. But the data doesn’t support this.
    • Others argue that planning obstructs creativity. However, the authors argue planning enables creativity as you can experiment during the planning stage, which is relatively cheap.
  • How to plan well — good planning is:
    • Broad. Start by asking what your goal is. Projects are a means to a goal, not a goal in themselves. Are there other ways of achieving your goal?
    • Slow and detailed. Detailed planning may be expensive in absolute terms, but cheap relative to delivery. You want to flush out as many problems as possible in the planning stage. Bad planning leaves problems to be figured out at the delivery stage.
    • Active. Planning is not just sitting and abstractly thinking about what you’ll do. It’s about making a model or simulation, testing it and refining it.
    • Risk mitigation. You can study the black swans that tend to come up in your type of project and plan for them. One way is to simply reduce the project’s duration, leaving less time for black swans to crop up.
  • Experience is underrated, usually for two reasons:
    • Domestic bias. Politicians prefer to award contracts to local companies to create local jobs, instead of outsourcing to foreign companies who have the relevant experience.
    • Uniqueness bias. We like words like “biggest”, “unique” or “bespoke”, but we should really be wary of them because anything unique is inexperienced.
  • The megaprojects that go wrong can go really wrong (the distribution is “fat-tailed”).
    • However, modularity can reduce risks. If you can break down your project into smaller, repeatable chunks, you can learn as you go and things won’t get too far off track even if you screw up.
    • Modularity is a matter of degree. Some people are now looking at ways to make traditionally non-modular projects like nuclear or hydroelectric dams more modular.

As usual, you can find the full detailed summary on the website. If you found this summary useful, consider forwarding to a friend that might enjoy it—especially if they're leading a megaproject!

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