How Big Things Get Done Book Summary - How Big Things Get Done Book explained in key points
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How Big Things Get Done summary

Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner

The Surprising Factors Behind Every Successful Project, from Home Renovations to Space Exploration

4 (145 ratings)
15 mins
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    How Big Things Get Done
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    The iron law of megaprojects.

    We’ve all been there – you’ve started a big project with high hopes in mind, just for it to end in failure. Perhaps you embarked on a home renovation project and ended up with an empty wallet and unfinished bathroom. Or you watched a friend take on a project that seemed simple, only to spiral out of control and end in disaster. Well, if this is the case, you are not alone. In fact, according to data from various fields and countries, the majority of big projects, whether they be government-funded or small home renovations, tend to go over budget and take longer than anticipated to complete.

    This is where the iron law of megaprojects comes in. It explains that huge, complex endeavors like building a new airport or a high-speed rail line almost always go over budget, over schedule, or both. It turns out that only 8.5 percent of the 16,000 projects studied by the authors hit their targets for both cost and time. That's a staggering statistic! 

    Why is this the case? Because megaprojects rely on complex systems that are inherently difficult to predict and control. Unforeseen events, changes in requirements, and mismanagement can all contribute to delays and cost overruns. What’s more is that megaprojects often involve numerous stakeholders with varying interests – this can lead to disagreements and delays in decision-making. 

    Now, you might be thinking, "But I'm not a government official or corporate executive, so this doesn't apply to me." But that's where you're wrong. Even small projects, like that bathroom renovation, are susceptible to cost overruns and time delays. Why? Because almost everything we do these days is embedded in complex systems. From energy production and distribution to the spread of viruses, we are all part of complex systems that are prone to disruptions and delays.

    For example, take a couple who, after buying a run-down house, get a builder to estimate the cost of a complete renovation. The builder quotes them $260,000, but 18 months later, the couple has already spent $1.3 million and the project is far from done. That's the kind of cost overrun that we would expect to find in a fat-tailed distribution, which is a fancy way of saying that extreme events are more common than we think. 

    And while big corporations and governments can just borrow more money or raise taxes to fund these overruns, most of us don't have that luxury. If a small business or individual gets caught in the fat tail of the distribution, they can be wiped out completely. That's why it's so important to take these risks seriously, no matter the size of the project.

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    What is How Big Things Get Done about?

    How Big Things Get Done (2023) explores what it takes to make large-scale projects work. It tackles tough questions like why so many big projects fail, and what makes the ones that succeed stand out from the rest. With real-life success stories as well as cautionary tales, its lessons can be applied to projects of any size, shape, or form. 

    Who should read How Big Things Get Done?

    • Project managers looking to hone in their skills
    • Anyone about to embark on a new project or start a new business
    • Fans of Elon Musk wanting to learn how he works his magic

    About the Author

    Dan Gardner is a Canadian journalist and bestselling author, with a focus on psychology, social trends, and public policy. He has written several books, including The Science of Fear and Superforecasting. His work has appeared in major publications such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Ottawa Citizen.

    Bent Flyvbjerg is a professor of planning at Oxford University's Saïd Business School and a leading expert on the politics and management of megaprojects. He has published extensively on the subject, and his work has had a significant impact on the field of planning and project management.

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