This Is The Best Way To Get Big Projects Done: 5 Secrets From Research


Many consider the Sydney Opera House and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao to be the greatest architectural masterpieces of the past century. But how the two got constructed are very, very different stories…

The Guggenheim Bilbao came in on time and under budget. It turned Frank Gehry into one of the most esteemed living architects.

Meanwhile, constructing the Sydney Opera House was a comedy of errors. It was scheduled to take five years to build. It took fourteen. It went 1400 percent over budget. And it ended architect Jørn Utzon’s career. Murphy had a law and it was specifically about this sort of scenario.

Sure, some big projects go like Bilbao did. The Hoover Dam arrived under budget and two years ahead of schedule. Apple started on the iPod in January of 2001 and it was in customer’s hands that November. But projects like those are rare. Exceedingly rare.

How rare? Thank you for asking. Bent Flyvbjerg assembled a database of 16,000 projects from over 20 fields in 136 countries. He found that “91.5 percent of projects go over budget, over schedule, or both. And 99.5 percent of projects go over budget, over schedule, under benefits, or some combination of these.” That’s right: one in two-hundred projects arrive on time, on budget and do what they said they’d do.

Okay, I know what some people are thinking: “Eric, I am not hosting the Olympics or building a tunnel to Nebraska; I’m just renovating my kitchen and trying to get this IT project finished for work.

But Flyvbjerg says it doesn’t matter — the same principles apply. Renovating your kitchen? All you wanted was a small transfusion of happiness and somehow your home became an archaeological dig attached to a money furnace. Managing a project at the office? What seemed like a straight shot becomes an odyssey rivaling Homer’s, only with more paperwork and less seductive sirens. You’re left overwhelmed and mumbling WhydidIdothistome.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We’re going to find out how to make projects work. The book we’ll be looking at this week is “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.”

Okay, let’s get to it…


Ask “Why?”

Sounds simple but it’s vital. You need a clear sense of why you’re doing this, what you want out of it, and what that entails. And then you need to stick to it. Flyvbjerg says, “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.”

Take some time and actually think about why you’re doing this to yourself. Otherwise, the project is going to morph. And grow. And keep growing. What began as a “small backyard redesign” becomes an urge to replicate the Versailles gardens, complete with mazes and ornate fountains. And, hey, why not throw in a swan pond?

You need limits. You need clear goals. You need a guiding North Star. And you need to know “Why?”

Robert Caro is the world’s premiere biographer. Before he starts on a project he forces himself to summarize the book in just a few paragraphs. And this process is tortuous. “What is this book about?,” he asks himself. “What is its point?” He goes through endless iterations. But once he’s done, he prints that page out and pins it to the wall over his desk where it is always staring at him. He’s always looking up to make sure what he is doing is aligned with that brief summary, that he’s not getting out into the weeds. And that’s how he writes groundbreaking bestsellers like “The Power Broker.”

Think about “Why?” Analyze the project as if you were a codebreaker at Bletchley Park, trying to crack the Enigma machine. Create your North Star.

Okay, now you know “Why?” Feeling good? Well, that’s bad


Beware Optimism Bias

We are a way-too-optimistic species. Studies show the majority of drivers think they’re above average. (I’m bad at math but I’m not that bad at math.) Most smokers inexplicably believe they are less likely to get cancer than other smokers.

Naïve optimism. It’s the reason we tell ourselves that our New Year’s resolution to hit the gym every day will definitely stick this time or that our addiction to 90’s boy bands is just a harmless quirk and not a cry for help. You’re on your couch, a pint of ice cream deep, binge-watching home makeover shows, thinking, “I could do that!” The next thing you know, you’re surrounded by paint swatches, and there’s a crater in your wall where a light switch once was.

Researchers have yet to prove the “But-It-Looked-Cool-On-Pinterest!” principle or it’s corollary, the “It’s-Only-Going-to-Take-Me-a-Day” fallacy but I believe in them both.

Classical decision theory says we weigh all the options and then choose the best one. And that’s wrong. Work by Gary Klein has shown we don’t do that at all. Instead, the vast majority of the time we take the first idea that occurs to us, ask ourselves if it might work and if the answer is yes, we go with it. But when it comes to big, time-consuming, expensive projects, using the best-case scenario as an estimate is a criminally bad idea.

Decades ago, work by Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky established “the planning fallacy.” We consistently underestimate how long things will take. It was more cleverly expressed by physicist Douglas Hofstadter. He created Hofstadter’s Law: “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.”

When people tell me to “go with my gut”, I remind them that my gut once told me to eat an entire pizza by myself. We need hard-nosed analysis not “instinct” when it comes to planning big projects. The shiny optimistic glow of “THIS time it’ll be different!” will leave you penniless and insane. Flyvbjerg says, “Unchecked, optimism leads to unrealistic forecasts, poorly defined goals, better options ignored, problems not spotted and dealt with, and no contingencies to counteract the inevitable surprises.”

So do your homework. Don’t assume you know all there is to know. Don’t jump in with your first idea. Ask questions and consider possibilities. Otherwise, one moment you’re starting a “quick” project, and the next, seasons have changed, presidents have come and gone, and somewhere, a glacier has melted.

But how do we truly counter optimism bias? Being a pessimist means we probably won’t even get started. What to do?


Take The Outside View

Now, you might be thinking, “But Eric, this project is different. It’s special.” Ah, young padawan, that’s where you’re wrong. That’s what the experts call “uniqueness bias.”

We avoid uniqueness bias by taking “the outside view.” Looking at things like a dispassionate third party might see it. Your project is almost certainly not special. Unless you’re building a personal fusion reactor, people have done something like this before, and you can learn from them.

We talk about “cost or time overruns” but those are inappropriate terms. The problem wasn’t really an underestimation, it was using an “anchor” for your estimates that was wrong or too optimistic. The most proven system for budgeting and scheduling is called “reference class forecasting.” Looking at very similar projects and using the average of their budgets and timelines as a starting point.

Doing a kitchen renovation? Find 5 or more people who have done similar renovations and ask what their final cost and timeline was. Then average them. That’s a great starting point.

“Oh, but random stuff comes up and you can’t account for that.” Wrong. If you ask people what their final numbers were, not the initial ones, that accounts for all those unknown unknowns. You don’t need to know what the unknowns are, because the final numbers include everyone else’s previous unknowns. This is how you break free from the samsara cycle of DIY despair.

Alright, you did proper forecasting. Ready to go?

Well, don’t…


Think Slow, Act Fast

A “bias toward action” is common. And often recommended. And it’s a terrible, terrible idea.

Many people feel planning is wasted effort. They wanna get moving. But that’s not really a bias toward action; it’s a bias against thinking. See, a bias toward action, while sounding like the battle cry of superheroes, is less “Captain America saving the world” and more “Wile E. Coyote with a new, doomed-to-fail Acme product.” Sure, it can be fine for quick, easily reversible situations — but big projects aren’t like that.

Most projects don’t “go wrong”; they start wrong. Yes, I know, you’d rather be binge-watching the latest series about vampires who solve crimes, but you need to slow things down and plan. Planning is working. Progress in planning is progress on the project. And, most importantly it’s the cheapest and safest form of progress. It’s the equivalent of looking both ways before crossing a street, so you don’t get smacked by the bus named “Reality Check.”

Amazon has a great process. Jeff Bezos realized that after any project launched there was always a press release summarizing it along with an FAQ, all written in easy-to-understand language. So he made it company policy to write the press release and FAQ before starting the project. If it didn’t make sense or if people had big issues, better to know that now and revise it.

But a plan on its own isn’t enough. A key part of planning is testing. Trying out the fundamentals in a simulation to see if they work. To address errors before they get expensive. Testing is the difference between a plan and a reliable plan.

Before Pixar starts a movie, they do a 12-page story document that is endlessly revised. Once that’s ready, it goes to script. Time to start production? Nope. They do rough storyboards for the entire film. About 2700 of them. They have staff record voices and add simple sound effects. This takes a while but it’s a whole lot cheaper than actually making the film. Then they can actually watch a (rough) version of the entire movie. And then that gets revised – about eight times.

Sound like a lot of planning? Sure. But this is why most movies are terrible yet Pixar’s are pretty consistently great. They’re “cheating.” They already perfected the film before a single frame was animated. And then they improved it, tested it, and improved it again. They stacked the deck. A “bias toward action” might get you going but I sure don’t wanna watch the resulting movie.

Plan. Test. Iterate. Prevail.

Finally, it’s time to get started. But who is actually going to build this thing? And how?


For Big Projects, Please Hire An Expert

Every Olympics Games since 1960 has gone over budget. Summer, Winter, all of them. The average cost overrun is 157%. Why?

Because it’s “eternal beginner syndrome.” There is no central authority that plans every Olympic Games. Each time it’s a new city with a new team, reinventing the wheel. They have no experience.

So hire an expert. Someone with deep domain experience and a proven track record. Watching three YouTube tutorials does not make you a professional plumber. I get the allure of cutting corners. We’re all out here, pinching pennies, hoping our retirement isn’t gonna be a cardboard box under an overpass. But sometimes you need to rain down the cash for someone who knows the difference between a Phillips and a flathead.

Similarly, if you want a project to go as smoothly as possible, for god’s sake don’t try anything new. Don’t be first. Take the words “custom” and “bespoke” out of your vocabulary, drive them to a remote location in the desert and detonate them. Do you want a doctor “giving something new a shot” during your quadruple bypass? Then don’t do it with your roof or the new IT project at work. Use proven technology, proven materials, and proven methods. Your future, less-frustrated self will thank you.

Alright, time to sum it all up – and learn the common, overlooked error that spells disaster…


Sum Up

This is the best way to get big projects done:

  • Ask “Why?”: Unless you’re vying for the title of “World’s Most Unnecessarily Stressed-Out Human” spend the time to think about why you’re doing this, what it needs to accomplish and flesh that out to give you a “North Star.”
  • Beware Optimism Bias: Remember Hofstadter’s Law: “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.” Don’t be naïve. Do your homework and don’t rush in unless you want to be the underappreciated straight man in the comedy routine of life.
  • Take The Outside View: Your project is not unique. Find similar projects to benchmark against so your budget and timeline are realistic. If you’d don’t, your plan will not work. (It will, however, give you hysterical stories for dinner parties and ample reasons to drink wine on a Tuesday.)
  • Think Slow, Act Fast: Extensively plan. Then test. Then iterate. Do this and it will be one of the few times you don’t feel like the universe is pointing at you and laughing.
  • Hire An Expert: If Dante had written a tenth circle of hell, it would probably have looked a lot like me trying to install solar panels. Get a professional. And don’t have them do anything custom or clever. Do what you know will work.

Early in the process there may be some delays. This is common. Since it’s early, you’ll have time to catch up… right?

Wrong. Flyvbjerg’s data says this is one of the most pervasive and deadly myths out there. Those “innocent” early delays are not cuddly baby problems. They’re demon seeds that’ll grow into full-fledged apocalyptic hell-beasts that will make you wish you were back in kindergarten eating glue. Flyvbjerg says, “Early delays cause chain reactions throughout the delivery process. The later a delay comes, the less remaining work there is and the less the risk and impact of a chain reaction.”

Projects that fail tend to drag on. Projects that succeed zip along and finish. Beware early delays because more time remaining means more time for the unexpected to occur and for things to go wrong. Improve the plan and address issues as quickly as possible before they spin out of control.

Big projects are like life’s hazing rituals. But completing a big project is the adult version of getting a gold star sticker in school. It’s exhilarating. You’re like, “Look at me, I did the thing and didn’t cry in public more than twice!”

So follow the steps above and accomplish big things the right way. Afterward you can sing “We Are The Champions” and let out one of those satisfied groans you only make after eating a particularly good taco.


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