Project management wisdom

I had the pleasure of working with PMI, the Project Management Institute. I learned a lot. Some very clever people thinking about project management. One of the books that I found intriguing was “ “The project revolution”.  We were working on the citizen development revolution, where everything becomes a project. Small project in particular. Making project management more and more important. Sunil Prashara was the main driver behind this.

How Big Things Get Done

“How Big Things Get Done: The Surprising Factors Behind Every Successful Project, from Home Renovations to Space Exploration” is about BIG projects. System dynamics, second stage thinking, digital twinning, strategy, scenario planning, iteration, mastery, wisdom, team as a service and LEGO all in one book. An examination of why projects fail and how to ensure they don’t. With a clear meagre at the end. We need good project management to deal with climate change. Small and big projects.

  • Project estimates between 1910 and 1998 were short of the final costs by an average of 28%
  • Only 8.5% of projects hit the mark on both cost and time.
  • 99.5%of projects go over budget, over schedule, under benefits, or some combination.
  • The actual mean cost overrun of a major building project is 62%.
  • Kmart launched two enormous IT projects in 2000. Costs exploded, contributing directly to the company’s decision to file for bankruptcy in 2002
  • NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, now almost a million miles from Earth, was forecast to take twelve years but required nineteen to complete, while its final cost of $8.8 billion was 450% over budget.
  • Levi Strauss originally forecasted their IT project to cost $5 million. The project forced the company to take a $200 million loss.

The main reason projects fail is “Think fast, act slow,” Successful projects tend to follow the opposite pattern and advance quickly to the finish line. The reason is system dynamics. Cascading effects within a project lead to failure.

The need for speed

That is why the main means of reducing risk on any project is to keep it short. You need speed. If experienced observers think a project will take two years, say you will do it in one. Commit to the project, heart and soul, and charge ahead. And in managing others, be fierce. Demand that everything be done yesterday. Like the drummer on a Roman galley preparing to ram a ship, beat the drum at a furious pace. This thinking is as misguided as it is common. Haste makes waste.

Make haste—slowly

Projects don’t go wrong. They start wrong. Planning requires thinking—and creative, critical, careful thinking is slow. Project after project, rushed, superficial planning is followed by a quick start. It starts with “strategic misrepresentation,” the tendency to deliberately and systematically distort or misstate information for strategic purposes. It is politics resulting in failure by design. Getting to that point of no return is the real goal of strategic misrepresentation. Feasibility studies” serve more as cover for engineers than as even-handed analysis.


We ignore experience. We do superficial research. As a result, alternatives are not explored. Difficulties and risks are not investigated. Solutions are not found. We apply optimistic blinkers and do not spend enough time in second stage thinking. You are not all-knowing. Commit to having an open mind; that is, commit to not committing. Don’t let yourself draw what appear to be obvious conclusions. Good planning explores, imagines, analyzes, tests, and iterates. The cause of good planning is the range and depth of the questions it asks and the imagination and the rigour of the answers it delivers.

The question

Starts with a simple question: “Why are you doing this project?” Projects are not goals in themselves. Projects are how goals are achieved. Developing a clear, informed understanding of what the goal is and why—and never losing sight of it from beginning to end—is the foundation of a successful project.

Work backwards

Do some backcasting. Backcasting starts by developing a detailed description of a desirable future state. Read “Lead from the future” / or “Working backwards”.


Experimentation in planning requires a simulation of the project to come. With that, you can make changes in the simulation and see what happens. After landing the contract to design the Guggenheim Bilbao, Gehry and Chan spent the better part of two years working through iteration after iteration, with the work moving from the decidedly analogue world of building blocks and cardboard to sophisticated digital simulation. Digital twinning. Read

Digital twinning

Digital simulation possibilities proved to be inexhaustible. Gehry and his team could alter a curve here or change a shape there, and the computer would quickly calculate the implications for every other aspect of the building, from the structural integrity (Will it stand?) to the functionality of the electrical and plumbing systems (Will it work?) and the budget (Can we afford it?). Iteration was now supercharged.

The Pixar way

Pixar gives its directors months to explore ideas and develop a concept for a movie. At that point, it is a minimal idea, no more than what a seed is to the tree it will become. That is given to a group of Pixar employees—directors, writers, artists, and executives. “People read it and come back with criticisms, questions, concerns. And then typically the person [the director] will go back and redo the outline again.” After which, there may be another round of comments and redrafting. The director and a team of five to eight artists turn the entire script into detailed storyboards that are photographed and strung together into a video that roughly simulates the movie to come. With each storyboard covering about two seconds of film time, a ninety-minute movie requires approximately 2,700 drawings. Dialogue read by employees is added, along with simple sound effects.

Next, Pixar employees, including many who have no other involvement in the project, watch the video. “You can really feel when you have the audience and when you don’t. The director also meets with a small group of other Pixar filmmakers, called the “brain trust,” who critique the film. New storyboards are drawn, photographed, and edited, new voices are recorded, and sound effects are added. This second iteration of the movie is shown to an audience, including the brain trust, and the director gets new feedback. Repeat. Then do it again. And again. And again. Pixar movie usually goes through the cycle from script to audience feedback eight times.

Why iteration works

First, iteration frees people to experiment. Second, the process ensures that literally every part of the plan, from the broad strokes to the fine details, is scrutinized and tested. Third, an iterative process such as Pixar’s corrects for a basic cognitive bias that psychologists call the “illusion of explanatory depth.” The fourth reason why iterative processes work is that planning is cheap. But compared to the cost of producing digital animation ready for theatres, which requires hundreds of highly skilled people using the most advanced technology in the world, movie stars doing voices, and leading composers creating the score, it is so minor that even making experimental videos over and over again is relatively inexpensive. Read “Black box thinking”. 


In a big project, problems are inevitable. Whatever can be done in planning should be, and planning should be slow and rigorously iterative. Planning is not merely sitting and thinking, much less a rule-based bureaucratic exercise of programming. It is an active process. Planning is doing: Try something, see if it works, and try something else in light of what you’ve learned. Planning is iteration and learning before you deliver at full scale, with careful, demanding, extensive testing producing a plan that increases the odds of the delivery going smoothly and swiftly.


You can’t build a skyscraper, see how people like it, and then knock it down and build another. Nor can you put a passenger jet into service to see if it crashes. As John Carreyrou observed, one reason Theranos got into trouble was that it used a Silicon Valley model commonly applied to software, which can afford to have initial glitches and failures, for medical testing, which cannot. Here a motto like Facebook’s “Move fast and break things” seems downright irresponsible. Users and policymakers understandably push back and insist that Silicon Valley figure out what’s wrong with its products and fix them before releasing them into the real world. We have seen what that has done…..

Maximum virtual product

When a minimum viable product approach isn’t possible, try a “maximum virtual product”—a hyperrealistic, exquisitely detailed model like those that Frank Gehry made for the Guggenheim Bilbao and all his buildings since and those that Pixar makes for each of its feature films before shooting. The fact is that a wide array of projects—events, products, books, home renovations, you name it—can be simulated, tested, and iterated even by amateurs at home. Lack of technology isn’t the real barrier to adopting this approach; the barrier is thinking of planning as a static, abstract, bureaucratic exercise. We are all makers now


Age reflects time, and time enables experience. The experience gap—or rather, the experience canyon—between the two architects is another major reason why the creation of the Sydney Opera House was a fiasco, while that of the Guggenheim Bilbao remains a model to follow. Big projects routinely do not make maximum use of experience. In fact, experience is often aggressively marginalized. We do not appreciate how deeply experience can enrich judgment and improve project planning and leadership. Aristotle said that experience is “the fruit of years” and argued that it is the source of what he called “phronesis”—the “practical wisdom”. Also read “From strength to strength”. 


The value of judgment enriched by experience is not limited to planning. But practical wisdom, the wisdom that enables a person to see what’s right to do and get it done, requires more than explicit knowledge; it requires knowledge that can be gained only through long experience. That practical wisdom is what Aristotle called “phronesis.” 

Unfrozen experience

But as important as “frozen experience” is to getting projects right, we also need to look at the “unfrozen” kind—the lived experience of people. We feel tacit knowledge. And when we try to put it into words, the words never fully capture it. We can know more than we can tell. This is “skilled intuition or mastery. Read “Mastery”.

Being first

The ambition to be the first with something is another way experience gets sidelined. The only upside to the misery was that those who went second, third, and fourth could study our experience and do better. The first-mover advantage is greatly overstated. In a watershed study, researchers compared the fates of “pioneer” companies that had been the first to exploit a market and “settlers” that had followed the pioneers into the market. Better to be—like Apple following Blackberry into smartphones—a “fast follower” and learn from the first mover.

New is not always good

The German philosopher Friedrich von Schelling called architecture “frozen music.” Technology is “frozen experience.” If decision-makers valued experience properly, they would be wary of a technology that is new because it is inexperienced technology. But all too often, “new” or “unique” is treated as a selling point, not something to avoid. This is a big mistake. Planners and decision-makers make it all the time. It’s the main reason that projects underperform. My own favourite remains the Lindy effect. There are reasons why some tinged have been around for a long, long time (chairs, Ayurveda, Roman cement, etc.).

Unique, bespoke, custom

Remove the words unique, custom and bespoke from your vocabulary. Similarly, maximize experimentation using a highly iterative “Pixar planning” process whenever possible. With good testing mechanisms that make failure relatively safe, take calculated risks and try new ideas. But recognize that the less proven something is, the more it must be tested. When something works, keep it. When it doesn’t, get rid of it. Try, learn again. And again. And again. Let the plan evolve.

Reference-class forecasting

Look for similarities with other products. Do not focus on new. Focus on similar. Look outside. Do your research. Use data from cost, time, benefits, or whatever else you want to forecast—as your anchor. Look for the averages. Keep the process simple: Define the average broadly. Keep to averages. And adjust the average only when there are compelling reasons to do so, which means that data exist that support the adjustment. The author came to call this process “reference-class forecasting” (RCF).

Black swan management

Black swans are not bolt-from-the-blue freak accidents that are impossible to understand or prevent. They can be studied and mitigated. Exhaustive planning that enables swift delivery, narrowing the time window that black swans can crash through, is an effective means of mitigating this risk. For the rest, you can develop scenarios and anticipate and prevent the risk. Read “Rethinking strategy”.

Rookie advantage

The author has an interesting perspective on ignorance as bliss, rookie advantage, fail fast, fail forward, pivoting, just do it, pivoting, pointing out that the exception of overnight success is not the rule. They are great stories, but the data shows that the losses far exceeded the gains. More than 80% of businesses fail, only some become a billionaire or millionaires, and you cannot pivot with a nuclear reactor.


After reference-class forecasting, risk management, experience, Pixar planning, and thinking from right to left comes the team. You need a team—a single, determined organism—to act fast and deliver on time. The value of experienced teams cannot be overstated. Even if they are expensive—which they are not if you consider how much they will save you in cost, time, and reputational damage. Read “The interim revolution”.


The author uses the BAA terminal T5 as an example. Some lessons

  • Identity is the first step. The purpose is the second. It had to matter that you worked for T5.
  • Give companies only positive incentives to perform well—including bonuses for meeting and beating benchmarks—it ensured that the interests of the many different companies working on the project were not pitted against one another.
  • Stick with companies it had worked with for years, and that had proven their ability to deliver what is needed.
  • Once the standards for finished work were agreed upon, skilled workers developed their own system of benchmarks to establish the quality of workmanship required for both themselves and everyone else to follow.
  • Cultivate the feeling that everyone on the project had both a right and a responsibility to speak up.

What is your LEGO?

I loved the last part of the book. LEGO and the link to climate change. A passionate plea for modularity or a fractal approach to projects (and climate change). Scale-free scalability. Modularity delivers faster, cheaper, and better, making it valuable for all project types and sizes. Modularity delivers faster, cheaper, and better, making it valuable for all project types and sizes. Small projects can be simple. Many small projects make a big one. 

It is everywhere

Look for it in the world, and you’ll see it everywhere. A brick wall is made of hundreds of bricks. A flock of starlings, which moves as if it were a unitary organism, may be composed of hundreds or thousands of birds. Even our bodies are modular, composed of trillions of cells that are themselves modular. A number of classrooms become a school. A number of schools complete a district. A number of districts become a major new addition to a national school system in which hundreds of thousands of students are learning. That’s a huge thing made of many small things.

Repeat and learn

The core of modularity is repetition. Repetition is the genius of modularity; it enables experimentation. As the old Latin saying goes, “Repetitio est mater studiorum”—“Repetition is the mother of learning.”Modular projects are in much less danger of turning into fat-tailed disasters. So modular is faster, cheaper, and less risky. That is a fact of immense importance. Cutting costs by 30%—which is still modest and entirely possible—would create annual savings in the range of the GDP of the United Kingdom, Germany, or Japan.

Here is the good news

Solar power? Solar power is the king of modularity. It’s born modular, with the solar cell as the basic building block. Wind power? Also extremely modular. Modern windmills consist of four basic factory-built elements assembled on-site: a base, a tower, the “head” (nacelle) that houses the generator, and the blades that spin. Denmark did it (Jutland is now the Silicon Valley of wind energy)., China is doing it. We can do it. And not only on climate but also on housing, infrastructure, nuclear, etc.

Global modular 

So the question every government should ask. What is the small thing we can assemble in large numbers into a big thing? Or a huge thing? What’s our Lego? Explore that question, and you may be surprised by what you discover. Now imagine the whole world asking the same question and working together. Combine that with citizen development and we might make it.


sensemaking cover


Sense making; morality, humanity, leadership and slow flow. A book about the 14 books about the impact and implications of technology on business and humanity.

Ron Immink

I help companies by developing an inspiring and clear future perspective, which creates better business models, higher productivity, more profit and a higher valuation. Best-selling author, speaker, writer.

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