How Big Things Get Done: The Surprising Factors That Determine the Fate of Every Project, from Home Renovations to Space Exploration and Everything in Between by Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner

  • Projects can be divided into two phases
    • Planning (drafting table):
      • "Pushing the project’s vision to the point where it is sufficiently researched, analyzed, tested and detailed so we have a reliable roadmap of the way forward".
      • The planning phase is a low commitment phase.
    • Tests and experiments in this phase are relatively cheap.
    • Delivery (construction site):
      • This is when you implement what you’ve crafted in the planning phase
      • The delivery phase is a high commitment phase (e.g. due to contracts being signed and hard deadlines set, etc.)
    • Tests and experiments in this phase (whether intentional or unintentional) can be very costly or lead the project to shut down completely
  • It is tempting to go into the delivery phase faster, thinking planning is a waste of time. However, superficial planning usually only makes people happy at the start. Once you get to the delivery phase, the project starts to face problems that should’ve been identified and dealt with within planning. You end up "putting out fires" rather than "smooth delivery".
  • While planning can involve varying levels of bureaucracy, it should be understood as a time to carefully consider purposes and goals, explore and test alternatives, sketch ideas, build models/MVPs, investigate difficulties and risks and find solutions to these difficulties. It's an iterative process and helps correct the illusion of explanatory depth (bias) of the planner: When a person is forced to build a model/MVP of the project, it forces them to explain and make sense of the project to themselves and others.
  • Window of doom: The time that passes from the decision to do a project to its delivery during which an event can "crash through" and create trouble. That event can include a black swan. To reduce risk, keep the window of doom as small as possible by delivering fast. Active planning is one of the main strategies to accomplish this.

The author also mentions modularization (aka Lego bricks): Break your project down. Use standardized modules as much as possible.

Modularity delivers faster, cheaper, and better, making it valuable for all project types and sizes.

It’s common to look at big projects as one huge, unique thing. Yet,

If you build like this, you build only one thing... And that translates into slow and complex.

Instead, break it down.

What is the basic building block, the thing we will repeatedly make, becoming smarter and better each time we do so? That's the question every project leader should ask. What is the small thing we can assemble in large numbers into a big thing.

What are the benefits of modularity?

  1. Learn from experience (ride the learning curve!)
  2. Enable experimentation and iteration
  3. Uncover issues and risks early
  4. Improve economics: deliver value earlier at smaller scale

Other takeaways:

  • Work from right to left: what is the goal and why? Distill it to ≤ three paragraphs and come back to it often
  • Speak in junior to senior order
  • Treat projects like the Apollo project: try out the individual pieces and keep charging forward
  • Don’t be the first, use of the shelf components and tools
  • The best plan maximizes experience and experimentation (iteration, evolution) and includes a leader (and the leader’s team) that has phronesis (wisdom through long experience)
  • Modularization cuts the tail, it can allow you to transform the construction site (project delivery) to the assembly site where you're just integrating components that already exist.


  1. Higher a master builder
  2. Ask why
  3. Build with Lego
  4. Think slow act fast (POC)
  5. Take the outside view
  6. Watch your downside (de-risk, don’t lose)
  7. Say no and walk away
  8. Make friends and keep them friendly
  9. Know that the biggest risk is you

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