Heuristics for big projects

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I’ve spent my career doing big transformation projects. A few years ago, I was fortunate to complete the Major Projects Leadership Academy at the University of Oxford, where I studied with other people who do big projects in Government. We found our projects had more in common than not, whether these were delivering new schools, transport infrastructure, Government services or (in my case) digital transformation in the NHS.

“The role of the major project leader is best conceived as the CEO of a large, temporary organisation.

Major Projects Leadership Academy


One of the many things that has stuck with me from the academy was a talk by Professor Bent Flyvberg on becoming a “master builder”: people experienced in doing big projects who rely less on rules, and more on intuition and “heuristics”, in making decisions. Bent has just written a new book by the way, “How Big Things Get Done”.

So here are my heuristics for big projects:

1. Start on the right trajectory

Projects that start well tend to end well, and it’s significantly more costly to course correct a project the further it gets. You need to put in the hard yards upfront to ensure everyone is signed up to the vision, outcomes, business case, delivery model and plan.

2. Don’t swim against the tide

Big projects don’t take place in a vacuum, so they need to be aligned with their operating environment (i.e. political, economic, sociological, technological, legal and environmental) if they’re going to work. Project leaders must understand, and adapt to changes in, the operating environment – to look outwards as well as inwards.

3. Beware optimism bias

Optimism bias is our natural tendency to overestimate positive outcomes and underestimate negative ones. For projects, this means we tend to think we can deliver them better, faster, and cheaper than anyone else. You can compensate for this by adopting external benchmarks and views.

“Most of us view the world as more benign than it really is, our own attributes as more favorable than they truly are, and the goals we adopt as more achievable than they are likely to be.”

Daniel Kahneman

4. Take a different view

When working on big projects, it’s easy to get lost in the details, or even to adopt a siege mentality. Make sure you get the right governance and assurance in place and find the space and time as a team to see the big picture. I like the analogy of moving between the balcony and the dancefloor (adaptive leadership). I find my role as a high-risk review team leader for the Infrastructure and Projects Authority helps me to take an external perspective.

“Sometimes a change of perspective is all it takes to see
the light.”

Dan Brown

5. Great teams do great things

This is a simple one. People deliver projects, so build the best team you can, including the right partners, and give them the tools they need to do the job.

“If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better.”

Ed Catmull

6. Keep it short, go fast

The problem with big projects is less their scale and more that they take too long and don’t adapt to change. Divide them into short, deliverable chunks, and move with pace and agility. We did this well in the NHS during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time.”

Desmond Tutu

7. It’s always about the people (not the tech)

“Digital transformation” is about improving services for the people that provide and use them. NHS England’s recent usability survey of frontline staff highlighted that how well systems are implemented has a much greater bearing on usability than the systems themselves. Make sure you understand the problem, people’s needs and goals; work together to design and deliver future services; and share skills so you can continue to develop as people’s needs change.

8. System change needs system thinking

Big projects generally deliver change across complex systems, involving many organisations and stakeholders. Think about the roles and interactions they have, and how to influence them and develop effective coalitions that deliver the project’s outcomes.

9. Follow your North Star

Although the journey is often uncertain, it’s important to start with a clear vision (North Star) that people can get behind, and that you can use to collaboratively make decisions and resolve conflicts along the way.

“Keep your eyes on the stars, and your feet on the ground.”

Theodore Roosevelt

10. Trust your gut

How many times in delivering projects, or in life in general, have you known things weren’t right before they went wrong? Don’t be afraid to act on your intuition – if it doesn’t feel right, it’s not right.

“Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion.”

Steve Jobs


And finally…

11. Be well

Doing big projects is tough, so it’s vital to look after yourself, and your teams. Have good support networks in place, take the right advice and find your “happy place”.

About Paul

Paul works in partnership with healthcare organisations to deliver people-centred transformation that improves services for patients and staff. He has 25 years’ transformation experience, with 15 years leading national programmes and services in the NHS. He is a graduate of the Major Projects Leadership Academy, a high-risk review team leader for the Infrastructure and Projects Authority and a mental health first aider.

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