“If you fail to plan, you plan to fail” is a quote (supposedly by Benjamin Franklin) that seems to be a cornerstone of project planning management. And nowhere is this truer than in highly publicized mega projects within major international cities.

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By definition (per the friendly Wikipedia site), a mega project costs more than US$1 billion and attracts a lot of attention because of the substantial impacts on communities, environment, and budgets.


One such mega project unfolded in my back yard – the Central Artery/Tunnel project that was dubbed “the Big Dig” in Boston. Essentially an old network of elevated highways running through the center of Boston was replaced by an underground highway, two new bridges, and more than 30

0 acres of open space. Recognized as the most expensive highway project in the U.S., the Big Dig was continually plagued by escalating costs, scheduling overruns, and material and design flaws. The project ended up being completed nine years later than anticipated, at approximately 190% over budget.

Hmm, so when something like this happens, what failed?

A retrospective look at what works – and doesn’t – in mega project planning

Whether a project that costs in the billions succeeds or fails, there are always lessons to be learned. A retrospective look at the root causes of either outcome can certainly help future projects avoid painful pitfalls and ensure greater success.

With that in mind, Harmut Wegener and Dr. Axel Uhl explored two Hamburg-based projects in a recent issue of 360° – the Business Transformation Journal. One has been dubbed a success – the Airbus plant expansion – while the other, the construction of Elbphilharmonie concert hall complex, is still in the midst of overcoming challenges.

The Airbus plant met its financial objectives, project deadlines, and quality requirements. On the other hand, the final analysis for the Elbphilharmonie is still unknown. The project has missed its targeted 2010 completion date (the new one is the end of 2016), and the construction costs have already doubled and could end more than tripling original estimates.

Invaluable project planning lessons learned

The reasons why the results of these projects deviated so dramatically are discussed in depth in the article but here are a few of the highlights.

One of the key factors for success in the Airbus project was a strong trust among the steering group and a close collaboration of all parties involved. This allowed for better decision making, the selection of the right solutions for the project, and a high degree of reliability and credibility.

The project also included formal and informal reporting methods of the project’s progress and the strong role of the program manager as a catalyst between the parties involved. And finally, there was a strong risk assessment by all project participants.

For the Elbphilharmonie project, the reasons for its difficulties became apparent in retrospect. There were unrealistic cost expectations right from the start, and the project’s complexity grew as different user interest groups become involved. The diverse interests of the stakeholders, along with time and cost restraints that generated pressure and volatility for all involved, added complications to this project time and time again. In addition, there were vendor relationships that didn’t work, public relations scandals, unclear team member roles, and a lack of political support.

If you’d like to explore the full analysis of these projects, you’ll find the article here:  “Success and Failure Factors for Mega Projects.” The article also includes the authors’ recommendations for better project management and planning for those undertaking mega projects of a nature similar to the Airbus and Elbphilharmonie initiatives.

360° – the Business Transformation Journal is produced by the Business Transformation Academy, a thought leadership network devoted to providing cutting-edge insights on innovation and business transformation. For more business transformation articles on the SAP Community Network, please visit the 360° – the Business Transformation Journal library.

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