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Most megaprojects fail. Yours doesn’t have to5 min read

September 26, 2023 4 min read


Most megaprojects fail. Yours doesn’t have to5 min read

Reading Time: 4 minutesReading Time: 4 minutes

Senior professor at INSEAD Stanislav Shekshnia commands attention in leadership, corporate governance, and entrepreneurial acumen. Dr. Shekshnia is a Senior Affiliate Professor of Entrepreneurship and Family Enterprise at INSEAD Business School. He has penned over 11 books, including “Leading a Board” (2021) and “CEO School” (2018), and contributed to over 50 articles on wide-ranging management topics. His advisory role at WH Advisors in Dubai underlines his global reach as he counsels and coaches business leaders worldwide. Prof. Shekshnia serves on numerous international company boards and holds a Ph.D. and Master’s degree, complemented by an MBA from Northeastern University, Boston.

In his recent article, “Inside the Black Box Crucial to Megaproject Success,” Dr. Stanislav Shekshnia delves into the complexities of managing large-scale ventures. He draws upon the seminal research “What You Should Know About Megaprojects and Why: An Overview” by Bent Flyvbjerg from the University of Oxford and Said Business School to examine what Flyvbjerg refers to as the new “tera era” of trillion-dollar projects. The paper further estimates that megaprojects account for an investment boom of 8 percent of the global GDP, representing $6-9 trillion annually.

Flyvbjerg’s analysis also lays out the “iron law of megaprojects,” which summarizes the recurrent issues of these ventures going over budget and time “over and over again.” The failure is not just in numbers but in governance and understanding the human element of projects. Dr. Shekshnia brings his extensive leadership and governance experience into the discussion, challenging conventional project management methods. He posits that as we move deeper into this investment boom, the traditional way of managing such colossal projects has reached a “tension point,” requiring a paradigm shift approach.

The article highlights the need for specialized expertise in managing megaprojects, not merely scaled-up versions of smaller projects but a unique type demanding a “jumbo jet license” in managerial proficiency. Dr. Shekshnia’s deep dive is especially critical when considering that the stakes are not financial, but also have the potential to transform society and impact millions of lives. Introducing the Project Flight Path framework, the article offers a roadmap for steering these vast undertakings. It segments challenges into two dimensions: the “White Box”, or the objective, process-related elements; and the “Black Box”, the subjective, human factors. Leaders must balance both to succeed, as evidenced by contrasting outcomes in projects like the Guggenheim Bilbao and the Sydney Opera House.

Successful megaproject management is about the necessity of a nuanced understanding of the complex interplay between hard numbers and human dynamics, not just about strict process adherence. Central to Shekshnia’s argument is that a leader’s capability stems from vision and the capacity to inspire followership. A leader’s personality traits, formative experiences, and choices shape this ability. Leadership pitfalls often include poor judgment, lackluster execution, and arrogance. Stanislav also explores the challenge of aligning long-term imperatives, such as sustainability, with the short-term expectations of stakeholders — a dilemma especially pronounced in sectors like agriculture with extended revenue cycles. Please read about it more here. The conversation forms part of the buildup to INSEAD’s Future Food & Ag Leadership program, promising participants a multi-dimensional growth experience.

Regarding current global challenges like climate change and health crises, leaders fall into three categories: those who neglect, react, and master. According to Shekshnia, mastery lies in the ability to proactively define one’s response to challenges, often reaping significant long-term rewards. To succeed in such high-impact undertakings, be it the corporate governance of a food company thinking sustainably or a multibillion-dollar megaproject, leaders must display a kind of dual awareness. They must attend to the measurable, time-bound goals (akin to the ‘White Box’ in project management vocabulary) and the less tangible but equally crucial elements of human dynamics and long-term impact (the ‘Black Box’). In doing so, they navigate the fine but critical line between near-term pressures and long-term imperatives, between the quantifiable and the intangible, and between success and failure.

Prof. Harvey Maylor Challenges Traditional Performance Metrics

Associate Professor Harvey Maylor from Saïd Business School suggests that our traditional approach to gauging megaproject performance is fundamentally flawed. His study, “Mind the gap: Towards performance measurement beyond a plan-execute logic,” highlights the disconnect between rigid success metrics and the fluid realities of large-scale projects. Harvey thinks traditional project performance metrics, which rely heavily on objective indicators, may not capture the whole picture in IT-enabled change projects. Instead, stakeholder satisfaction revolves more around their subjective perceptions and evolving expectations. Drawing from the SERVQUAL service quality model, Harvey believes that the discrepancy between stakeholder perceptions and expectations doesn’t always match standard performance benchmarks. It means that project evaluators should adopt a more dynamic and subjective lens for assessing project success and prioritize stakeholders’ actual experiences over plan adherence.

Instead of getting locked into static criteria, Prof. Maylor advocates for a more nuanced, stakeholder-focused framework that can adapt to a project’s shifting circumstances. This new model acknowledges the influence of human behavior and evolving objectives, revealing that adaptability could be the real linchpin of megaproject success. Harvey Maylor specializes in major projects and operations management. Before joining Saïd, he was the founding director of the International Centre for Programme Management at Cranfield University. Harvey has also consulted for global firms and serves on various professional boards.

For those navigating the labyrinthine challenges of megaprojects, seasoned scholars like Dr. Stanislav Shekshnia and Associate Professor Harvey Maylor serve as guiding lights. Dr. Shekshnia champions a nuanced equilibrium between cold, hard metrics and the ever-ephemeral human factor. On the other hand, Prof. Maylor punctures the conventional wisdom of fixed performance indicators, advocating for a more fluid model. Their insights provide a roadmap for mastering megaprojects that don’t just focus on the bottom line but have a broader societal impact involving governance, adaptability, and human dynamics. If you want to get better at managing big, essential projects, offers custom educational programs featuring a broad selection of industry leaders like them, marrying academic rigor with real-world insights. It will feature expert advices from top professionals in any field.