Managing Megaprojects

Professor Bent Flyvbjerg

The subject of this episode of the Better Boards Podcast Series was ‘Managing Megaprojects’. Professor Bent Flyvbjerg, Oxford University Fellow, advisor to UK and US governments, and Chair of Major Programme Management at Saïd Business School spoke to Dr Sabine Dembkowski.

Professor Bent Flyvbjerg

Megaprojects – projects usually considered larger than $1 billion – are increasingly important for solving 21st-century problems – from developing carbon-neutral fuels to preventing a future global recession.

It was a fascinating discussion, where Professor Flyvbjerg identified the key ingredients to megaproject success.

Some of the key takeaways of the conversation included:

“We must establish a culture that welcomes bad news”

It’s very much the responsibility of the board to make sure that the organisation has the right governance structure. This, of course, entails many different elements. However, it is fundamental, and a prerequisite for success, that you have a culture that encourages the sharing of bad news. It is the type of news that makes most organisations uncomfortable.

“You must get the right team in place for good governance to work”

As with the most effective boards, you need to hire the right mix of people to build the most effective team and governance. It is the single most important element of successful megaprojects. And unfortunately, it is quite often not the case. You need to clearly understand what tasks and skill sets are required, and hire people who have delivered that kind of project before.

“The board is probably the one unit within an organization that is most likely to be isolated from bad news”

Most organisations, including most boards, focus on and encourage good news. In fact, the leadership doesn’t want to hear bad news in most cases. Think of your organisation: nobody wants to be the person who brings that bad news to the boss. No matter who the boss is.

And the boss is the board. The board is probably the one unit within an organization that is most likely to be isolated from bad news. The one thing you can be sure of with a megaproject is that there will be bad news. It’s going to go wrong. It’s probably going to go wrong on many fronts. The difference between a successful megaproject and a failure is that when it starts going wrong, it is noted immediately and action is taken immediately. So bad news must be welcome.

“Don’t shoot the messenger”

It is the prime role for the board of megaprojects to ensure that the board, the CEO and C-Suite, and all the way through the organisation to the shop floor, encourages a culture that, when things go wrong,  you communicate up the organisation. And this should be formalised with information entered in information systems and communication systems.

“You only start when you really know what you have to do”

Finally, front end planning is essential for any megaproject to succeed. Nothing should start until front end planning is done properly. This is the mistake that is made most often. People simply start too early. They start before they know what they’re doing or what they actually have to do.

So before anything else, develop a successful business plan, a doable business plan, and make sure that you stick to it. Most importantly, make sure you take the time that it takes to develop it.

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