The Oxford Handbook of Megaproject Management

/The Oxford Handbook of Megaproject Management

By Bent Flyvbjerg (Editor) 

The Oxford Handbook of Megaproject Management provides state-of-the-art scholarship in the emerging field of megaproject management. Megaprojects are large, complex projects which typically cost billions of dollars and impact millions of people, like building a high-speed rail line, a megadam, a national health or pensions IT system, a new wide-body aircraft, or staging the Olympics.

The book contains 25 chapters written especially for this volume, covering all aspects of megaproject management, from front-end planning to actual project delivery, including how to deal with stakeholders, risk, finance, complexity, innovation, governance, ethics, project breakdowns, and scale itself. Individual chapters cover the history of the field and relevant theory, from behavioral economics to lock-in and escalation to systems integration and theories of agency and power. All geographies are covered – from the US to China, Europe to Africa, South America to Australia – as are a wide range of project types, from “hard” infrastructure to “soft” change projects. In-depth case studies illustrate salient points.

The Handbook offers rigorous, research-oriented, up-to-date academic view of the discipline, based on high-quality data and strong theory. It will be an indispensible resource for students, academics, policy makers, and practitioners.

Available through Amazon here.

Reviewed by: Andrew Pyke
Every now and again a book emerges, that must join the professional library of Project Managers of large, complex projects. This is one such book.
Practitioners have long understood that there is something different about large complex projects and their propensity to fail. There has been a rising sense that ‘conventional’ project management is missing something. This book is one of the best attempts at zeroing-in on this problem.
It begins by posing the question: ‘What are megaprojects’. Sparing you a chapter of definition, I was particularly taken by the proposition that megaprojects are ‘trait making’ that is, they are designed to ambitiously change the structure of society, as opposed to smaller and more conventional projects that are ‘trait taking’.  The global megaproject market is estimated at    US$ 6–9 trillion per year, or approximately 8% of total global gross domestic product. Flyvbjerg discusses his ‘megaprojects paradox’, where, on one side of the paradox, megaprojects as a delivery model for public and private ventures have never been more in demand, and the size and frequency of megaprojects have never been larger. On the other side, performance in megaproject management is strikingly poor and has not improved for the 90-year period for which comparable data are available. So, this book is about serious business indeed.
The book is brutal in stating what many in the industry have learned: ‘Conventional project managers should not lead megaprojects.’  And Flyvbjerg notes that we may soon be moving beyond megaprojects, to ‘teraprojects’, as Defence planners grapple with the Joint Strike Fighter program – the first teraproject in human history.
Somewhat amusingly, the book examines ‘the four sublimes’ that drive megaproject management, including technological, policital, economic and aesthetic ‘rapture’. 
In something readers will immediately recognise, the book points out that ‘Front-end planning is [usually] rushed and deficient, bad projects are not stopped, implementation phases and delays are long, costs soar, and benefits and revenue realisation diminishes and recedes into the future.’. In the case of megaprojects, ‘all you do when you hit the ground running, is fall’, says the book.
The book draws lessons from history and case studies, opining that ‘Put simply, the trick is to combine uncertainty in dealing with the difficulties of long time horizons and non-standard technologies with stakeholder complexity as expressed through the involvement of multiple powerful interested parties’, and notes how impossible it can be to plan for everything—and parties then slip into a damaging fight for control that results in multiple redesigns and additional costs. Again, in this reviewer’s experience, this is very true.
This book is not just another examination of the problem, however, offering a range of possible treatments. It suggests that ‘System engineering and technical complexities are well understood, but uncertainty and stakeholder complexity are still the big challenges for megaprojects. Avenues have been identified to address these challenges that require behavioural changes: these include resisting the temptation to press one’s own advantage with contractors; accepting some loss of predictability and control; patience in bringing the multiple sides to the table that are always present in megaprojects; and the discipline to maintain a common direction that allows progress-directed decision making rather than merely conflict-avoiding compromises.’. Yes!
The book goes on to examine many case studies, including fascinating topics like ‘City and Nation Building with Debt-Financed Megaprojects in China’ and to cause of failure like ‘commitment escalation’ and ‘project death marches’. 
The book proposes an intriguing idea for project sponsors, that megaprojects are best viewed as ‘Games of Innovation’ rather than as linear engineering endeavours.  It proposes that megaprojects require special attention to ‘power and sense-making’, something that reviewers of projects will well recognise.
There is so much more, out of scope of this review. Hopefully this has given a taste.
One area I felt that was under-done in the book, was the special challenges of software-intensive projects. The lessons from large infrastructure projects are very relevant, but these can be greatly amplified where deliverables are opaque, ubiquitous, intangible and subject to privacy and security challenges at a global scale. Perhaps the next edition can address this.
All-in-all, Oxford and Flyvbjerg are to be congratulated on a most useful book. Definitely a ‘must buy’ for the megaproject manager or manager-to-be. (And full disclosure: I bought my copy and have never met Flyvbjerg!). Enjoy.
About the Reviewer
Andrew Pyke is owner-director, founder & principal of Keyholder Pty Ltd, a company specialising in supporting Boards and Executives responsible for making complex programs succeed. Andrew has a track record of Executive and Board-level leadership in business, engineering and complex projects. Andrew is a highlyrated leader, with strong strategic, client relations, people and analytical skills. He is an Associate Partner of the International Centre for Complex Project Manager (ICCPM), a Certified Practicing Project Director (CPPD) and a qualified Company Director. Andrew’s experience includes extensive public and private sector projects, advanced technologies and mission-critical products, with significant commercial challenges.  Andrew has recently acted as the Program Director for a major interagency national infrastructure program and a negotiator on complex multi-party contracts and and has lectured in Lean Six Sigma business strategy for an executive audience, as part of an Australian University team.
Available through Amazon here.