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Cover of How Big Things Get Done, mostly orange with yellow lettering

Penguin Random House

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 by Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner

Published in February 2023

Whatever your academic role, faculty or staff, you are likely managing projects.

Professors don’t think of themselves as project managers, but they are. Writing a book is a project. Designing a course is a project. Indeed, working on departmental or universitywide initiatives and serving on committees carries with it an element of project management.

For staff, much of our work is project related. Anyone who has ever worked on developing a new online program, managed a facility renovation or participated in the launch or migration of a campus technology is engaging in project management.

Bent Flyvbjerg has made a career of studying and consulting on megaprojects. His specialty is discovering why and how projects go wrong. Having assembled the world’s largest database of megaprojects, Flyvbjerg has the evidence to show which projects go wrong and why.

Are you planning a campus IT project? According to Flyvbjerg’s database, the average cost overrun for all IT projects is 73 percent. Fortunately, universities don’t attempt many nuclear storage initiatives (average 238 percent cost overrun). Nor are we hosting the next Olympic Games (157 percent over budget). But we do attempt lots of IT projects.

It turns out that fewer than half of all big projects started are on budget, and fewer than one in 10 big projects comes in on budget and on time.

How have the big university projects that you’ve been involved in gone?

For Flyvbjerg, there are some simple things that project managers (and university people leading projects) can do to inoculate themselves against failure. Let’s take the hypothetical that a university is working on launching a new online degree program. Rather than jumping directly into course development (implementation), a school should spend considerable time planning out all aspects of program and course design. Planning should be slow and deliberate. Implementation should be fast.

Another piece of advice from How Big Things Get Done that we can apply to universities is found in the chapter “Thinking Right to Left.” Returning to our online degree program example, a school should start with the goals of the degree and the objectives related to learning and the learner experience. Only when these goals are clear should program and course design go forward.

In sharing effective practices for large projects, Flyvbjerg grounds his data-driven analysis in stories that went well (such as Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao) and projects that are disasters (such as California’s ongoing high-speed rail project).

Projects that run vastly over budget and behind schedule tend to be run by inexperienced teams working with unproven technologies. Projections of project timelines and costs that don’t rely on the experience of similar projects are invariably inaccurate.

There is no doubt in mind that the frameworks, lessons and practical advice found in How Big Things Get Done are directly applicable to university work.

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