Recent research on megaprojects — defined as projects costing more than $1 billion — reveals five lessons that can help executives manage any large-scale project more effectively.
“Megaprojects” — defined as projects with budgets exceeding $1 billion — are important contributors to numerous sectors, including health care, defense, mining, telecommunications, transport, energy and water infrastructure, sporting events, science, and manufacturing. They represent a significant proportion of many nations’ economic activity and profoundly affect productivity, social cohesion, and the environment.1 Yet megaprojects have proved notoriously difficult to deliver on time and on budget; one estimate suggests 90% of them end up over budget.2 Two prominent examples are the Sydney Opera House in Australia, which was 10 years late and a staggering 1,400% over budget when it opened in 1973,3 and the “Big Dig” Central Artery/Tunnel Project in Boston, Massachusetts (original estimate $2.6 billion, actual cost $14.8 billion).
Why are megaprojects so difficult to manage? The reasons include technical challenges, changes in design and operational requirements, increases in costs, disputes over responsibility, and new regulations. Complexity usually increases with project scale, and complexity can give rise to uncertainty and an inability to foresee the difficulties, changing conditions, and unanticipated opportunities that will be encountered once the project is underway. In this article, we argue that one way to manage the uncertainties is to innovate throughout the course of the project. What’s more, we believe our suggestions are applicable to all large-scale, long-term projects — not just projects with billon-dollar budgets.
Specifically, we’ll distill five rules for innovation in large, high-risk projects, providing managers with guidance on how to modify their plans and processes when opportunities arise or conditions change. Our findings are based on more than 10 years of research into megaprojects. (See “About the Research.”) The projects we studied included:
- High-Speed 1 (1998-2007), a high-speed, 109-kilometer railway from London to the Channel Tunnel, which cost £5.8 billion (roughly $7.5 billion at today’s exchange rates)4.
- Heathrow Terminal 5 (2002-2008), a new airport terminal, hotel, car park, subway line, and air traffic control tower, which cost £4.3 billion.
- Infrastructure for the London 2012 Olympics (2006-2012), which cost £6.8 billion.
- Crossrail (started in 2007, scheduled to open in 2018), a 118-kilometer railway across London that has a budget of £14.8 billion and includes 42 kilometers of new railway tunnels and 10 new and 30 upgraded stations.