BCG Henderson Institute

How Big Things Get Done with Bent Flyvbjerg

“As humans, we have a tendency to think fast – we really like to take our first thought and run with it. This causes us to act very spontaneously. In management, that’s a huge problem […]. You need to slow down first and think about what it is you're doing. […] And then you can move fast – and that is also key to success [because] the longer a project is, the more risk it is exposed to, including black swan risks.”

Bent Flyvbjerg has a sobering statistic to share: 99.5% of major projects fail to deliver their targeted results on time and on budget. His new book How Big Things Get Done, coauthored with Dan Gardner, explores this phenomenon—from infrastructure projects to major sporting events to corporate transformations.

Flyvbjerg, the first BT Professor of Major Programme Management at Oxford’s Saïd Business School and VKR Professor of Major Program Management at the IT University of Copenhagen, is the world’s foremost expert on megaproject management—a subject on which he has published prolifically.

He recently joined Martin Reeves, Chairman of the BCG Henderson Institute, to discuss the patterns and drivers of the failure of big projects, as well as potential solutions that can help executives overcome these dramatic odds. For example, cognitive biases, particularly at the C-suite level, cause leaders to act too spontaneously—when they would be better off acting fast only after first thinking slowly and deliberately. They explore not only conventional project success but also how the thinking can be applied more broadly – from personal projects to climate change.

Key topics discussed: 

[01:16] The Iron Law of megaprojects
[04:03] Patterns of failure
[09:02] Solutions (think slow but act fast, think from right to left, reference class forecasting)
[17:28] Continuous vs. episodic change
[20:47] Tackling climate change: a megaproject?
[23:03] Impact of technology
[25:46] Practical recommendations

Additional inspiration from Bent Flyvbjerg: 

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