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Self-help Time Management

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 (author) Bent Flyvbjerg & Dan Gardner

McClelland & Stewart
Initial publish date
Feb 2023
Time Management, Decision-Making & Problem Solving, Industrial & Organizational Psychology
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Feb 2023
    List Price

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The secrets to successfully planning and delivering ambitious, complex projects on any scale—from home renovation to space exploration—by the world's leading expert on megaprojects.

Nothing is more inspiring than a big vision that becomes a triumphant, new reality. Think of how the Empire State Building went from a sketch to the jewel of New York's skyline in twenty-one months, or how Apple’s iPod went from a project with a single employee to a product launch in eleven months.

These are wonderful stories. But most of the time big visions turn into nightmares. Remember Boston’s “Big Dig”? Almost every sizeable city in the world has such a fiasco in its backyard. In fact, no less than 92% of megaprojects come in over budget or over schedule, or both. The cost of California’s high-speed rail project soared from $33 billion to $100 billon—and won’t even go where promised. More modest endeavors, whether launching a small business, organizing a conference, or just finishing a work project on time, also commonly fail. Why?

Understanding what distinguishes the triumphs from the failures has been the life’s work of Oxford professor Bent Flyvbjerg, dubbed “the world’s leading megaproject expert.” In How Big Things Get Done, he identifies the errors in judgment and decision-making that lead projects, both big and small, to fail, and the research-based principles that will make you succeed with yours. For example:

  • Understand your odds. If you don't know them, you won't win.
  • Plan slow, act fast. Getting to the action quick feels right. But it's wrong.
  • Think right to left. Start with your goal, then identify the steps to get there.
  • Find your Lego. Big is best built from small.
  • Be a team maker. You won't succeed without an "us."
  • Master the unknown unknowns. Most think they can't, so they fail. Flyvbjerg shows how you can.
  • Know that your biggest risk is you.

Full of vivid examples ranging from the building of the Sydney Opera House, to the making of the latest Pixar blockbusters, to a home renovation in Brooklyn gone awry, How Big Things Get Done reveals how to get any ambitious project done—on time and on budget.

About the authors

Contributor Notes

BENT FLYVBJERG is a professor at Oxford University, economist, and "the world’s leading megaproject expert,” according to the global accounting network KPMG. He has consulted on over one hundred projects costing $1 billion or more for the British, American, and Danish governments, the World Bank, and the United Nations, as well as Fortune 500 corporations, multi-national banks, and technology companies. His research has been covered by Science, The Economist, the Financial Times, the New York Times, the BBC, and CBS News. Flyvbjerg has received numerious honors and awards and has been knighted by the Queen of Denmark. DAN GARDNER is a journalist and the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, and Superforecasting (with Philip E. Tetlock).

Editorial Reviews

Advance Praise for HOW BIG THINGS GET DONE

“This book is important, timely, instructive and entertaining. What more could you ask for?”
—Daniel Kahneman

“Having researched the properties of planning errors, I am confident that nobody has studied the topic more broadly and deeply than Bent Flyvbjerg. His focus ranges from Olympic games to the renovation of your dog house.”
—Nassim Nicholas Taleb
“This book distills the best scientific advice on planning big projects. And it is arguably the bargain of the century. For a few dollars you can tap into thousands of dollars of insights in executive-education classrooms—and if you happen to be a CEO or head of state, the savings will quickly run into the billions.”
—Philip Tetlock, co-author of Superforecasting

“A wise, vivid, and unforgettable combination of inspiring storytelling with decades of practical research and experience. Everyone who deals with large projects is already desperate to read this book. The rest of us will take great pleasure in learning from it anyway.”
—Tim Harford

“Over-budget and over-schedule is an inevitability. Incompetence and grift is outrageous. Bent Flyvbjerg, with this terrific data-driven book, has shown that there is another way.”
—Frank Gehry

Other titles by Dan Gardner