By Alexander Nowak, MSc in Major Programme Management

A subway extension is delayed 18 months. The Olympic Games run 800 million over budget. A hydroelectric dam burst causes 100,000 acres of environmental damage.

What does it say that such headlines are greeted with sarcastic shrugs? ‘Wow, what a surprise,’ we muse.

Even with a wealth of historical data, modern technology, and the brightest minds at our disposal, major programmes always seem to run over time, over budget, and underdeliver on their promises. But why?

Major Programmes, meet Major Problems

Believe it or not, it is not because of ineffective management, corruption, or laziness – at least not fully! Major programmes – including megaprojects, which typically cost over $US 1 billion – are headed by those at the top of their fields. They collect reems of data, layers of oversight, and produce detailed plans.

Leading biases include:1,2,3

  • Over-optimism: ‘don’t worry, it’ll all work out
  • Egoism: ‘I can solve anything’
  • Over-commitment: ‘we can’t turn back now’
  • Legacy: ‘it’s going to look so pretty’
  • Influence: ‘maybe I should have consulted them’
  • Governance: ‘too many chefs’
  • Unpredictability: ‘no one could have anticipated this’

A few theories offer unifying perspectives for all these. Let’s look at a few prominent ones.

“But we’re different!”

The first builds on the uniqueness bias, raising questions of how one can successfully repeat history when they are first. For major programme managers, this mindset fuels rationalizations:

‘Since no one has built a bridge on this land, with these requirements, with this technology, with these people, etc., how can we look at past lessons learned and best practices? There is no past!’

This is built upon the ‘Black Swan’ theory,4 which supposes that rare, unpredictable events (‘unknown unknowns’) are to blame for major programme failures. It’s meant to explain events that are surprises, have major impacts, and are only identifiable with hindsight. It comes from a Latin phrase, surmising there cannot be a black swan for one has never been seen, and only upon seeing one can one explain its existence.

Complexity multiplied

A collection of theories pull together the many ways major programmes are incredibly complex as the rationale for their failings. There are simply too many actors, variables, and forces at play to manage such programmes successfully.
Many such theories place heavy emphasis on the planning phases of programmes. With good intentions and logic they emphasize sophisticated planning. Sadly, these forego the risk management principles that help build contingency plans to deal with those inevitable issues.

Whereas the uniqueness bias emphasized the randomness of rare, impactful events, the complexity bias looks to the vast amount of large and small pieces that make up a megaproject puzzle and simply throws its arms up in the air, claiming that they cannot be managed.

Stakeholder matters matter

Another perspective dives into the specific roles of the most important players in the major programme game: the key stakeholders involved and their ability to influence a megaproject.

This angle argues for the incorporation of a full spectrum of perspectives in the decision-making of the mandate. The trouble, however, is balancing stakeholders and sharing influence . . . and then trying to decipher personal motivations and interests from those of the programme.

Companies competing for bids, environmentalists protecting natural resources, politicians currying votes. There are so many stakeholders to consider and what each defines as success might differ from the programme’s. Unless you have a mind reader on the team, trying to figure which are which can be literally impossible!

What’s the solution?

If this were a multiple-choice test, we might encourage breaking the rules and circling options D and E: ‘none of the above’ and ‘all of the above.’

Like most social sciences, trying to fit one singular, all-encompassing explanation onto any phenomenon when analyzing human behaviour is never as simple as black or white. Everything from age and income to how much you slept or which train you caught can have a butterfly effect on the rest of your life.

Such is the case for major programmes: managers and economies can impact projects as much as a freak weather storm or internet reception signal.

Major programmes, meet major potential

While no single explanation for the failings of major programmes might ever appear, we do offer a ray of hope: the ingenuity of the ever-complex human mind.

So long as we exist, humans have the potential to solve any problem, come up with any idea, and achieve any dream. We’ve put men on the moon, broken the sound barrier, and eradicated global diseases. Surely one day we’ll finally get it ‘alright’ and build that bridge under budget and on time . . . right?

1 Bent Flyvbjerg, Ten Heuristics That Make Leaders of Projects and Programs Successful, 2018.
2 Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, “Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases,” Science 185,no.4157 (1974): 1124.
3 Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, “30 – Intuitive Prediction: Biases and Corrective Procedures,” in Judgmentunder Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, ed. Daniel Kahneman, Paul Slovic, and Amos Tversky (Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 1982).

4 Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, 2nd ed (New York: RandomHouse Trade Paperbacks, 2010).