How Big Things Get Done by Bent Flyvbjerg

How Big Things Get Done by Bent Flyvbjerg

How Big Things Get Done by Bent Flyvbjerg is one of the best nonfiction books I’ve read in the past couple of years. It digs deep (pun!) into the world of projects – why they are so expensive, why they are so slow, and how we can all do them better (because it is possible!).

On a hyper-personal level, I’ve been watching the Atlanta BeltLine get built a few blocks from my house at an agonizingly slow pace. I also have a half-finished patio project in my backyard that is…not going well. It turns out that they both have the same issues in common. That’s what the book is about. It’s fast, entertaining, and very useful. It reminded me a lot of Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt – a book about something we all deal with everyday…but seems so vague and daunting…but also so useful when we learn just a little bit about how things actually get done.

What I Liked

I loved the stories, examples, and structure of the book. It was memorable and useful. I love how the book isn’t a dry academic book for engineers – it’s a truly useful book for anyone planning any project (because the things rarely fail because of the engineers…they fail because of normal, everyday human shortcomings).

I loved how the editor pushed all the nitty gritty details to the back – it’s full of appendices, bibliography, and more. I explored all of them without having the book disrupted.

I also loved that the author is the guy who literally wrote the book and built the database on how projects get done. He’s not a journalist writing about the topic – he’s the guy who had the idea to start tracking project estimates and completion rates around the world for 30+ years. He actually has the data and expertise to write the book. Love it.

I also loved the last chapter where he sums up all of his takeaways. There were so many things I wanted to note while reading, but the existence of the last chapter allowed me to chill and really understand the stories.

What I Didn’t Like

Not a whole lot. I mean, I’m always a fan of a few photos, illustrations, etc. But the text narrative did fine.


Here are the takeaways from the last chapter plus my notes.

Think slow, act fast.

The most expensive failures happen when executing a project. Plan slowly with lots of pilot tests, scenario-planning, and evaluations. But once the plan is locked – GO and get it done as fast as possible.

Plan with the end.

Start with your ideal final product and back into the plan. Do not let the planning process (or worse, the construction process) determine your final product.

Planning is cheap.

Spreadsheets, PDFs, pilot tests, site visits, purchasing data, etc – even if you feel like the time and money is a waste…**it’s not**. Planning is always cheaper than a halted construction project, an in-progress change order, or wasted material and labor. Look for reference class projects (i.e., a project similar to yours) and use it to account for every possible cost. The Empire State Building had every rivet counted before construction commenced.

Know that your biggest risk is you.

You (whether it’s literally you or the group in charge of commissioning the project) are almost certainly the reason the project will fail – mainly because you do not truly know what you want or the goal in mind.

Make friends and keep them friendly.

Basic team building is shockingly rare – and that includes voters, partners, spouses, etc. Kicking off actual construction will not solve relationship issues.

Say no and walk away.

If you can’t get the plan right or start construction without a good plan, it’s ok to stop. Sunk costs are awful, but better than 10x sunk costs.

Watch your downside.

Be clear-eyed about every risk that could happen – and then cap that risk as best as you can. Big projects are scary, but if you can turn a potentially catastrophic failure into a potentially normal failure, do it! It’s cliche, but an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Look for ways to prevent spiraling failure.

Take the outside view.

Take frequent breaks in planning to take an outsider’s view of the project. Get feedback from people who are not involved in the weeds of decision-making.

Build with Lego.

Bespoke and custom are recipes for expensive failure. Humans have been building things for thousands of years. Few projects are truly one-of-a-kind. Even if you are building something new, use as many modular and off-the-shelf parts as possible. As in the Empire State example, the builders knew how to build one floor really well. Building the rest was just a matter of building it over and over again. Humanity’s oldest, still-standing project is literally the same stone blocks stacked on top of each other.

Ask why.

Figure out the truly deep reasons why you want the project done. Sometimes, it might turn out that you don’t need the project. And if you do, you will be able to focus on exactly what success is.

Get your team right.

Don’t build with people who have never built something like your project before.

Hire a master builder.

If someone has built your project before, just hire them to do yours. It sounds cliche, but seriously. Human experience is really that valuable. Low bids from people who have never done your project is a recipe for spending much more time and money than you ever thought possible.

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