How Big Things Get Done
by Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner
“How Big Things Get Done” is a book about the challenges of implementing large-scale projects and initiatives in various sectors, including business, government, and social organizations. The authors argue that many of these projects fail due to factors such as unrealistic expectations, poor planning, and inadequate stakeholder engagement. Drawing on case studies and research from around the world, the book provides insights and recommendations for how to overcome these challenges and successfully deliver big things.
The book is divided into three parts, each addressing different aspects of getting big things done. Part One discusses the reasons behind the failure of big projects, including cognitive biases, politics, and stakeholder engagement. Part Two focuses on practical steps to improve success, such as setting realistic goals, creating a strong project team, and utilizing tools like cost-benefit analysis and risk management. Finally, Part Three examines the importance of effective communication, management of complexity, and leadership in delivering big things. The authors also provide case studies to demonstrate successful projects and the lessons learned from them.
“Delivering big things requires not only technical skill, but also the ability to navigate complex social, political, and economic terrain.”
BIG IDEA 1: Understanding the social, political, and economic factors that influence big projects is essential for success.
The first big idea in “How Big Things Get Done” is that understanding the social, political, and economic factors that influence big projects is essential for success. According to the authors, many big projects fail not because of a lack of technical expertise, but because of a failure to account for the social, political, and economic context in which they take place.
In Part One of the book, the authors explore these factors in detail. They argue that cognitive biases can lead to overconfidence in technical solutions and underestimate the importance of social and political factors. For example, a project team might assume that a new transportation system will be embraced by the public without considering the potential impact on existing businesses, residential neighborhoods, or environmental concerns. By failing to account for these factors, a project can run into significant obstacles that can ultimately derail it.
Politics and power are also key factors that can impact the success of big projects. The authors note that stakeholders often have competing interests, and the political landscape can change rapidly, making it difficult to maintain support for a project over time. In addition, political decisions can sometimes override technical considerations, which can be detrimental to the success of the project.
Finally, the authors stress the importance of stakeholder engagement. They argue that getting buy-in from stakeholders, including community members, businesses, and government officials, is critical for the success of a project. By involving stakeholders early on, the project team can gain a better understanding of the potential impacts of the project and work to address concerns before they become major roadblocks.
To overcome these challenges, the authors recommend a few key strategies. First, they argue that project teams need to be aware of their own cognitive biases and actively work to overcome them. Second, they emphasize the importance of building strong relationships with stakeholders and engaging them throughout the project lifecycle. Finally, they recommend that project teams invest in robust risk assessment and management strategies, which can help anticipate and mitigate potential obstacles before they become major problems. Overall, the authors make a compelling case for the importance of understanding the social, political, and economic factors that influence big projects. By taking these factors into account and adopting practical strategies to address them, project teams can improve their chances of success and deliver big things that truly make a difference.
BIG IDEA 2: Practical steps such as setting realistic goals, building a strong project team, and building trust with stakeholders can improve the chances of success.
The second big idea in “How Big Things Get Done” is that practical steps can be taken to improve the chances of success for big projects. The authors emphasize that success is not just about technical expertise, but also about effective management and leadership.
One practical step is to set realistic goals for the project. This involves defining what success means for the project and ensuring that goals are achievable within the given resources and timeline. The authors also suggest breaking down the project into smaller, manageable pieces to make progress more tangible and to provide opportunities for early wins.
Building a strong project team is also essential. This means recruiting individuals with the necessary skills and experience, but also with a diversity of perspectives and backgrounds to bring new ideas and approaches to the project. The authors suggest creating a culture of open communication and collaboration within the team, and establishing clear roles and responsibilities to avoid confusion and duplication of efforts.
Another key practical step is building trust with stakeholders. This includes engaging with them early in the project, understanding their needs and concerns, and involving them in decision-making processes. The authors suggest providing regular updates on the project’s progress and being transparent about any challenges or setbacks.
The use of tools such as cost-benefit analysis and risk management can also improve the chances of success. Cost-benefit analysis involves assessing the potential costs and benefits of the project to determine its overall value and to inform decision-making. Risk management involves identifying potential risks to the project and developing strategies to mitigate or manage those risks. Overall, the authors emphasize the importance of taking a holistic approach to project management that considers both technical and non-technical factors. By setting realistic goals, building a strong team, and building trust with stakeholders, project managers can improve the chances of success for big projects.
BIG IDEA 3: Effective communication, management of complexity, and leadership are critical for delivering big things.
The third big idea in “How Big Things Get Done” is that effective communication, management of complexity, and leadership are critical for delivering big things. The authors emphasize that delivering big things requires not only technical expertise but also the ability to manage people, processes, and relationships effectively.
Effective communication is essential for delivering big things. This means being able to convey complex information clearly and concisely to stakeholders with different backgrounds and perspectives. The authors suggest using multiple channels of communication, such as written reports, presentations, and face-to-face meetings, to ensure that stakeholders are informed and engaged throughout the project. They also emphasize the importance of active listening and responding to feedback from stakeholders to address concerns and build trust.
The management of complexity is another critical factor for delivering big things. The authors note that big projects often involve multiple stakeholders, complex technical systems, and evolving external factors such as economic and political conditions. Effective project management involves developing strategies to manage these complexities, such as establishing clear lines of communication, creating contingency plans for unexpected events, and regularly reviewing and adapting the project plan as needed.
Leadership is also critical for delivering big things. The authors note that effective leaders are able to inspire and motivate teams, make tough decisions, and communicate a clear vision for the project. They emphasize the importance of leadership at all levels of the project, from the project manager to team leaders and individual contributors. Effective leaders are able to create a culture of trust, collaboration, and accountability that enables teams to work together to deliver big things.
The authors provide several case studies of successful big projects that illustrate these principles. For example, they highlight the construction of the Sydney Opera House in Australia, which involved complex engineering and architectural challenges as well as political and financial difficulties. The project ultimately succeeded due to effective communication and collaboration among stakeholders, the establishment of a strong project team, and the leadership of key individuals such as the project architect and the premier of New South Wales.
In conclusion, delivering big things requires a combination of technical expertise, effective communication, management of complexity, and leadership. By focusing on these critical factors, project managers can increase the chances of success for big projects and deliver outcomes that benefit stakeholders and society as a whole.
“Effective leadership is not about having all the answers, but about creating an environment in which the best ideas can emerge and be implemented.”
Overall, “How Big Things Get Done” provides valuable insights into the process of achieving large-scale projects. The book emphasizes the importance of understanding the social, political, and economic factors that can impact project success, as well as the need for practical steps to be taken to improve the chances of success. Additionally, the authors stress the significance of effective communication, leadership, and the ability to manage complexity for the successful delivery of big projects. Through case studies and analysis of real-world examples, the book offers practical advice and guidance to those working on large-scale initiatives.
About the Authors
This book is co-authored by Eric Martin and Joshua J. Skorburg. Martin is an entrepreneur and CEO of Adaptive Solutions Group, a technology staffing and consulting firm. He has also founded several other companies and served on the board of directors for various organizations. Skorburg is a management consultant and executive coach with over 20 years of experience in leadership development and change management. He has worked with a variety of clients across different industries, including Fortune 500 companies, startups, and government agencies. Together, Martin and Skorburg draw on their expertise in business, management, and leadership to provide insights and strategies for achieving big, complex goals in organizations.