What makes big projects fail?

Some megaprojects, like the Empire State Building, are success stories while others, like Boston’s Big Dig, flop on a massive scale. Bent Flyvbjerg, First BT Professor at Oxford and VKR Professor at ITU, Copenhagen, joins host Krys Boyd to discuss grand-scale projects and why some become famous, while others become infamous. His book, co-written with journalist Dan Gardner, is “How Big Things Get Done: The Surprising Factors That Determine the Fate of Every Project, from Home Renovations to Space Exploration and Everything In Between.”

This episode originally aired Feb. 8. 2023.

Blog Post: The hardest thing about projects? Being realistic.

—By Brianna Flores, Think Intern

We always have projects. They might be small, like a kitchen renovation, or huge, like rebuilding school systems in Nepal. 

No matter the size, a lot of the projects we start will end up failing. This often happens because we tend to not be realistic when starting a new project.  

Our guest, Bent Flyvbjerg, dives deeper into why we attempt to do things cheaper and faster when we want to complete a project. 

“So, this is normal behavior, and it comes out very clearly when you study human behavior and the human experience,” Flyvbjerg says. “We are all planners… we are an incredibly optimistic species. We do see the future through rose-colored glasses.” 

Our positive outlook leads us to believe that some projects can turn out better than they actually do. However, when the outcome does lead to a disaster, it can still be beneficial to us. 

“That’s what we call positive learning,” Flyvbjerg says. “And we all know this from our private lives. Like you do something the first time, it feels like your hands are all wrong in doing it. But then when you do it the first time, you’re getting the hang of it. And that’s the way to do projects big and small.” 

Positive learning and repetition are key to building our experience. Flyvbjerg explains that when we gain knowledge, we get better and can bring more useful skills to the table. 

On top of having experience, Flyvbjerg expresses the importance of thinking slower. Sometimes we may need to say no to project work. 

“Commit to not committing,” Flyvbjerg says. “That’s actually the key of thinking slow, which is what we recommend. And what happens if you don’t do it is you think fast, but then you are forced to act slow later because it’s not like the problems go away if you haven’t thought about them. They’re going to hit you later when you’re delivering the project.” 

Listen to the podcast above to learn more about what factors can determine if a project will be successful — or a huge flop.