I read a number of project leadership books each year but usually I find only one or two which really make an impact. Professor Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner‘s book “How Big Things Get Done” is one of the latter.
I have never had the opportunity to lead a megaproject (the term is typically used for those with a budget in excess of $1 billion), but over the last fifteen years I have read a number of the articles published by Prof. Flyvbjerg on the subject and always learned lessons which were applicable to the projects I was involved with.
In the book, the authors provide many case studies supporting eleven heuristics derived from Prof. Flyvbjerg’s decades of research into large, complex projects. While the term “heuristic” is apt as each is a useful mental shortcut, they could also be used as principles.
Given that twenty-two out of the twenty-three categories of the projects evaluated are physical projects (e.g. construction, mining, aerospace), it is tempting to assume that these heuristics are only relevant to projects delivered with a predictive approach.
That would be an invalid assumption as out of the eleven heuristics, I found that most are equally applicable to adaptive delivery. Here are just a few which fit well.
Hire a masterbuilder: we want to have someone with significant domain experience and a proven track record of success leading the work. Whether we are looking to fill the role of a project manager, an agile lead (e.g. Scrum Master) or a product owner, relevant experience and knowledge are critical.
Get your team right: The first value statement in the Manifesto for Agile Software Development is “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools”. And as Prof. Flyvbjerg states, the main job of the masterbuilder is to pick the right team members to get the work done.
Ask “Why?”: While the scope of a project is expected to emerge over its life when using an adaptive delivery approach, it can be a fatal mistake to not spend sufficient time upfront identifying an expected end vision. This North Star enables the team to challenge work items which will not achieve the desired outcomes and reduces the likelihood of an adaptive delivery approach being a random walk to nowhere.
Build with Lego: The idea of creating large systems from smaller components is a natural fit with the incremental nature of adaptive delivery. When a team takes a large work item and figures out a way to slice it into smaller pieces which still individually deliver value they are applying this heuristic.
Think slow, act fast: On the surface, this heuristic sounds like an invitation for big, heavy, upfront paper-based planning which agilists eschew. This is not what Prof. Flyvbjerg is advocating. What he is recommending is to reduce the cost of trial and error by taking the time to identify key areas of uncertainty which could impact successful delivery and to learn and find ways to address them effectively as early as possible in the project’s life cycle. The examples which are provided about how Pixar plans its films or how Frank Gehry designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao both demonstrate early de-risking which is a core attribute of adaptive delivery.
Say no and walk away: Prof. Flyvbjerg highlights the importance of focus when delivering complex projects. If an action does not contribute to achieving the project’s outcomes, skip it. This aligns well with the tenth principle of the Manifesto: “Simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount of work not done–is essential.”
While I have not covered all of the heuristics and their adaptive delivery applicability in this article, I hope that I have encouraged all of you to read this book, regardless of the domain or the approach used to deliver your projects.
(If you liked this article, why not read my book Easy in Theory, Difficult in Practice which contains 100 other lessons on project leadership? It’s available on Amazon.com and on Amazon.ca as well as a number of other online book stores).