284 pages; published 2023; read March 2024

TLDR: Bent Flyvbjerg is an expert on megaprojects and why most fail to finish on time and budget. Only 0.5% of megaprojects are under budget as well as on time, he says. In this book he covers the why, and how you can get these megaprojects done in time and under budget. Good, easy read with lots of interesting examples. As with all business books, I felt it could have been much shorter though.

Chapter 1 

Bent Flyvbjerg introduces what he describes as the iron law of project management. The chart below illustrates the iron law. He says that only one in 12 mega projects complete on time and under budget, whereas only one in 200 mega projects finish on time, under budget and yield the desired benefits. More than 50% of projects don’t finish on time he says.

The principle ‘think slow, act fast’ is the key mantra of the book. Every project can be envisaged as a phase of planning, and then there is a phase of delivery or execution. What Bent Flyvbjerg, a guru of mega projects and their cost and time overruns, suggests is that it is best to approach the planning stage slowly and methodically, and not make haste there, and then act fast and speedily in the delivery and execution phase where every day matters. He advises this approach to everything from making movies to construction of roads and building nuclear power plants and any big project including say an IT project.

In pages 19 to 21 of the book, he lays out the structure of the book and details chapter contents, giving you an overview of the book.

Chapter 2

In this chapter, Bent lays out the concept of what he calls speedy premature lock-in to a specific path without carefully exploring alternatives; this is often spurred by psychology and politics, each mutually reinforcing each other as the key cause for why projects are fated to go over budget and over time. This is referred to by Bent as the commitment fallacy. Often in politics, Bent says there is strategic misrepresentation to get the proposal planned and quickly started.

Chapter 3

Bent talks about not jumping to conclusions or solutions fast and instead dwelling on the problem a tad longer; he also talks about not losing sight of the goal and then working backwards from the goal objective to the means to achieve it best. He says this is the ideal path rather than jumping to a specific solution rapidly.

As an example, he talks about how an island can be connected to the mainland. This is actually a real life example from Denmark. He says, in lieu of the bridge, which is the typical solution that is laid out, you should understand what is the reason, what is driving the need for connection. If it is just connectivity, then can a better internet solve it? If it is healthcare and because you need to connect to the mainland for a better hospital, can you instead put a hospital on the island, which may be cheaper than the bridge? Can it be increasing the number of ferries, say with space for cars to travel on these ferries? All of these are potential solutions as much as a bridge is and might be cheaper and even better.

Chapter 4

He gives the examples of Amazon’s PR / FAQs and Robert Caro’s book summary as examples of great planning processes. Sorry. Chapter four, Frank Gehry’s maximum virtual product or digital twin, thanks to the CATIA software, as well as Pixar’s 12-page outline leading to a 120-page first draft to the storyboard of 2,700 drawings detailing the movie are great examples of slow, methodical, and detailed planning that takes time, but reduces delivery and overall costs, and overruns in the long run.

Chapter 5

Experience matters. Frank Gehry was 62 when he embarked on the Bilbao project that made his reputation. Jorn Utzon, in contrast, was just 30 years old when he started on the Sydney Opera House project. Experienced practitioners have what Aristotle termed as phronesis, a Greek word that translates to practical wisdom. This comprises immense tacit knowledge and skilled intuition honed over long years of practice, helping them anticipate what can go wrong and knowing where to rush and where not to. Bent Flyvbjerg contrasts Frank Gehry with Jorn Utzon, architect of the Sydney Opera House. He also brings up the examples of the Olympics; each time the Olympics are held in a new city and is typically plagued by huge debts for the city. He says it suffers from eternal beginner syndrome.

Chapter 6

Often project owners or managers get the forecast for project length or costs wrong. This is because the anchors are often wrong. This can be avoided by what Bent Flyvbjerg terms as ‘reference class forecasting’. That is figuring out what broad reference class this falls in for example, high speed rail projects, historical biographies, etc. and finding out the average / median completion time and costs for these projects, and thereby arriving at the right anchors.

Chapter 7 & 8

Didn’t find any specific insights worth summarising.

Chapter 9

Page 173 has a fascinating chart of different project types classified on the basis of whether they are fat tailed or thin tailed only five project types: solar farms, wind farms, coal powered plants, electricity transmission plants and electricity transmission projects and roads are thin tailed where project overruns are less likely to be extreme. These five are characterised by high modularity that is repeatability of parts or stack ability of the same parts atop each other.

On the other hand, nuclear power plants, Olympics are highly fat tailed. Project overruns are extreme here. This is because there is very little modularity a) They are rarer, less frequent b) Typically, the crew involved in construction is different and hence there is less scope for experience effects to build up and for learning to inform the project.


Pages 185 to 190 have 11 best practices such as ‘think slow, act fast’, ‘take the outside view’, etc. All of these add up to a summary of the recommendations in the book.