From high-speed rail to the Olympics, why do big projects go awry?

L.many countries There are large construction projects that are synonymous with ineligibility. In America, the “Big Dig” highway project that has plagued downtown Boston for years costs him five times its original budget. Built for the 1976 Montreal Olympics, the stadium was affectionately known as “Big Owe” after a significant cost overrun. The debt from the game was paid off after just 30 years. Even Germans get megaprojects wrong. A groundbreaking ceremony took place at Berlin’s Brandenburg Airport in 2006, and he made his maiden flight in 2020, ten years behind schedule.

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The embarrassment caused by Britain’s biggest construction project will continue for years yet. HS2, down the spine of the UK, approved by the government in 2012. With any luck, it will be his 2030s when the first passengers can board. The cost was double his original estimate. Part of the route is cut. And the train doesn’t go as fast as originally planned.

mega projects like HS2 is the subject of an interesting new book “How Big Things Get Done” by Oxford academic Bent Flyvbjerg and journalist Dan Gardner, who specialize in such things. Flyvbjerg, who is the editor of a database of over 16,000 projects, tells a terrifying and consistent story of missed deadlines and busted budgets. By his calculations, only 8.5% of his projects have achieved their initial estimates on cost and time, and only 0.5% of projects have achieved what they set for cost, time, and profit.

Flyvbjerg’s advice is no guarantee of success. HS2. But he and Mr. Gardner have a compelling picture of why projects, big and small, tend to go wrong.

Overly optimistic time and cost estimates stem from both psychological and political biases. That is, relying more on intuition than data, and what Flyvbjerg and Gardner call “strategic misrepresentation.” This is when budgets are deliberately kept low to keep things going, on the premise that nothing will be built if politicians move around accurately. The sunk cost fallacy, where people are reluctant to shut down a project because the money spent appears wasted, means it is rarely unplugged once work has begun.

Planning is too often done in haste. The authors applaud Pixar’s methodical approach to developing and testing their films in great detail before they go into production. He also talks about how Frank Gehry’s meticulous architectural models helped ensure the success of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. By minimizing the amount of time the project is actually in the works, careful planning reduces the chances of unforeseen events derailing things.people running HS2 seem to disagree. In theory, recent delays could allow the UK government to spend less each year. In fact, it only increases the risk of more things going wrong.

Large custom projects can be particularly troublesome. The more you can break down your project into replicable processes, the better the prospects. Flyvbjerg’s database shows that solar and wind installations are the most likely to go wrong. One reason, he says, is that standard components can be combined into arrays and turbines. On the other end of the risk are his one-off initiatives as huge as nuclear power plants and the Olympics.

It is possible to mitigate the risks inherent in large custom projects. Some believe that the future of nuclear energy lies in modular reactors. Paris, the city that will host the Summer Olympics next year, is using existing facilities for most of its sports facilities. Standardized design and manufacturing processes for everything from tracks to viaducts allowed China to build the world’s largest high-speed rail network in less than a decade at the beginning of this century.

Projects face problems not only for general reasons, but also for specific reasons. Britain’s morass of planning rules, for example, is not something China needed to worry about. Also, the timelines, scrutiny, and objectives of large-scale public infrastructure projects differ from corporate initiatives. But there are lessons here for managers of all kinds. The more you plan and standardize as much as possible, the less likely you are to fall into a hole.

Read more from management and work columnist Bartleby:
A little solace for office irritation (March 9)
Use and abuse of hype (March 2)
Unobtrusive abilities bring disadvantages as well as advantages (February 23rd)

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