How Splitting Megaprojects in Smaller, Shorter Projects Brings Huge Benefits

Following up from our posts ‘How Infrastructure Projects Cost Has Increased Dramatically in Developed Countries‘ and ‘How to Increase the Effectiveness of Infrastructure Projects in Developed Countries‘, this HBR article by Pr Bent Flyvbjerg provides some answers: ‘Make Megaprojects More Modular’

Bent Flyvbjerg is a Danish university professor that has been studying public infrastructure projects for a long time and is now professor at Oxford. He has written numerous articles showing that public infrastructure projects always have their cost underestimated and their benefits overestimated at investment decision, mainly for political reasons.

Anyway in this article, he explains the benefits of having smaller projects that also benefit from some series effect learning curve rather than going for very large, very long and one-of-a-kind projects that are necessarily going to suffer overruns and generate disappointments. “Two factors play a critical role in determining whether an organization will meet with success or failure: replicable modularity in design and speed in iteration. If a project can be delivered fast and in a modular manner, enabling experimentation and learning along the way, it is likely to succeed. If it is undertaken on a massive scale with one-off, highly integrated components, it is likely to be troubled or fail.”

Bent Flyvbjerg continues by explaining why speed is essential for megaprojects, because of our inability to predict the future beyond a few months or years. Iteration is also essential to improve, while picking existing and proven technology is also a major success factor.

There is a definite trend towards smaller infrastructure including series effect. Still, all projects cannot be made in a short time and using only proven technology. However, those are projects where we should accept a measure of cost and schedule overrun; most infrastructure projects can certainly be done using proven technology and on a smaller scale. The question of keeping consistency of a programme combining several smaller, shorter projects is also a challenge.

Still, to tackle excessive cost and delays of large infrastructure projects, splitting large projects into smaller, shorter projects using proven technology is certainly a way to go.