The essence of the “Theory of Management of Large Complex Projects’ can be captured in three central thoughts. First, that project readiness is a good but not sufficient first step in the broader project initiation process. Project readiness typically presupposes that the owner’s organization is itself ready to undertake the project. This is more...
Mind wandering happens when one train of thought, related to a current undertaking, is interrupted by unrelated thoughts. The detection and evaluation of mind wandering can greatly help in understanding the attention control mechanism during certain focal tasks. Subjective assessments such as random thought-probe and spontaneous self-report are the...
In his book, The Improbability Principle, David Hand, former president of the Royal Statistical Society, provides a tour de force treatment of uncertainty and how improbable events happen, over and over again. It is a highly recommended read but not for the faint of heart. In this Executive Insight the lenses described by Hand are used to look at large projects and their unacceptably high failure rates. Application of best practices would suggest these failures should be improbable or at least less frequent than reported failure rates suggest. If the industry repeatedly experiences the improbable, it is perhaps better that the improbable be understood. This will only become more important as our projects and their settings become ever more complex. The lenses can best be described as comprising a set of laws. Each will be examined here and how they shape the views on the failure of large projects.
A growing world requires improved and expanded infrastructure. Juxtapose that with the need for massive public investment driven by pandemic created economic weakness and the prospects for significant investment in infrastructure is improved, but as history has taught us not necessarily assured. We have been through other infrastructure stimulus programs focused on so-called shovel ready projects and have been disappointed. But whether we define them as "shovel ready" or otherwise we need infrastructure projects, especially the largest of them, to be successful. In this paper we will look at common reasons large scale infrastructure projects fail and importantly suggest some strategies and tactics to improve their success rate. The observations are based on the author's experience in reviewing, troubleshooting and overseeing over one hundred billion dollars plus projects. The extensive end notes are intended to give the reader the opportunity to explore specific items more fully. Framework for considering large scale infrastructure projects Over the course of the author's work, he has drawn certain views as to how we should think about and consider projects such as the large-scale infrastructure projects which are the subject of this paper. Much has been written by others on why large infrastructure projects fail ranging from optimism bias to strategic deception and that is not reviewed here. The author's framework is founded on the following core observations: • Project management theory (classical PM theory) as promulgated by Gantt and Fayol fails at scale and complexity. These are the very characteristics of large complex infrastructure projects. • A neo-classical PM theory is required that addresses the challenges of scale and complexity such as that exhibited by large complex infrastructure projects. This new theory of project management must: 1 How to cite this paper: Prieto
This Executive Insight looks at large complex programs from a systems perspective recognizing that such programs are not as well bounded as classical project management theory, as espoused by Taylor, Gantt and Fayol , would have us believe. Rather, they behave in both independent and interconnected ways in a dynamic systems environment. They demonstrate the evolutionary nature of all complex systems. They face uncertainty and emergence that comes with human actions and interactions. Large complex programs struggle from insufficient situational awareness, treating the program to be more well-bounded than reality would suggest and using simplified models to understand the complexity inherent in execution. Best practices from project management were typically not derived from such environments and, worse, have fallen short on other large complex programs. Large complex programs are characterized by boundaries that change in response to changing environments; emphasize coping with challenges and change; go beyond uncertainty and require a change in perspective; face a high level of unknown unknowns and unclear/incompatible stakeholder needs. Systems theory represents a different way of seeing, thinking and acting Systems are viewed as greater than the sum of their parts. A system’s holistic properties can never be completely known. Different perspectives will provide different views that may overlap and not be completely compatible.