BY KIM BELLARD
Last week the esteemed Jane Sarasohn-Kahn celebrated that it was the 65th anniversary of the famous LEGO brick, linking to Jay Ong’s blog article about it (to be more accurate, it was the 65th anniversary of the patent for the LEGO brick). That led me to read Jens Andersen’s excellent history of the company: The LEGO Story: How a Little Toy Sparked the World’s Imagination.
But I didn’t think about writing about LEGO’s until I read Ben’s Cohen’s Wall Street Journal profile of University of Oxford economist Bent Flyvbjerg, who studies why projects succeed or fail. His advice: “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’s our Lego?”
So I had to wonder: OK, healthcare – what’s your LEGO?
Professor Flyvbjerg specializes in “megaprojects” — large, complex, and expensive projects. His new book, co-authored with Dan Gardner, is How Big Things Get Done. Not to spoil the surprise (which would only be a surprise to anyone who hasn’t been part of one), their finding is that such projects usually get done poorly. Professor Flyvbjerg’s “Iron Rule of Megaprojects” is that they are “over budget, over time, under benefits, over and over again.”
In fact, by his calculations, 99.5% of such projects miss the mark: only 0.5% are delivered on budget, on time, and with the expected benefits. Only 8.5% are even delivered on budget and on time; 48% are at least delivered on budget, but not on time or with expected benefits.
As Professor Flyvbjerg says: “You shouldn’t expect that they will go bad. You should expect that quite a large percentage will go disastrously bad.”
He has two key pieces of advice. First, take your time in the planning process: “think slow, act fast.” As Dr. Flyvbjerg and Mr. Gardner wrote in a Harvard Business Review article recently, “When projects are launched without detailed and rigorous plans, issues are left unresolved that will resurface during delivery, causing delays, cost overruns, and breakdowns….Eventually, a project that started at a sprint becomes a long slog through quicksand.”
Second, and this is where we get to the LEGOs, is to make the project modular; as Mr. Cohen puts it, “Find the Lego that simplifies your work and makes it modular.”