book cover

How Big Things Get Done

Bent Flyvbjerg, Dan Gardner
31 Aug 2023
Extremely intrigued by this book. Too intrigued that I must jot proper notes.

1. Think Slow, Act Fast

“Think” in this phrase refers to planning, and “Act” refers to delivery. Essentially the two phases of getting something done.
Think as slow as you wish - when the delivery phase starts, keep it short and neat to avoid black swans that linger on. Easier said than done. The longer a project drags on due to different reasons, the things to consider accumulate unavoidably. The vision here is pretty much as if you’re trying to capture the most beautiful sunset ever (for whatever reason). You can take a leap of faith and grab a bag and go straight into the forest and waiting for that to happen. Or the planning phase for this is asking what exactly takes for the sunset consider to be exquisite. Maybe a combination of weather (precision), location and time. Careful planning can be done with forecasts, route planning etc. This could take ages. but you will get good conclusion of what it takes to achieve the goal. Then - find the exact time frame that’s optimal for execution. And act fast. No un-necessary drag on with the also very beautiful scenery along the way up to that exact location. Because the goal here is to take the beautiful sunset picture, instead of a spiritual outing to interact with the nature.
A project begins with a vision that is, at best, a vague image of the glorious thing the project will become. Planning is pushing the vision to the point where it is sufficiently researched, analysed, tested and detailed that we can be confident we have a reliable road map of the way forward. …planning is relatively cheap and safe. Barring other time pressures, it’s fine for planning to be slow. Delivery is when serious money is spent and the project becomes vulnerable as a consequence.Planning is a safe harbour. Delivery is venturing across the storm-tosses seas.Planning requires thinking — and creative, critical, careful thinking is slow.They believe that big projects, particularly creative projects such as movies, signature architecture, or innovative software, get better results when people take a leap of faith, get started right away, and rely on ingenuity to see them through.

2. Commitment Fallacy

Rushing to commit whenever something sounds right, and realising it’s too costly to turn around when the bubble bursts.

3: Think from Right to Left

When you are obsessed with a cool idea or you are deep into designing the project or buried in a thousand and one details, the box on the right is nowhere to be seen. That’s when trouble starts.
Yep. Instead of working backwards from the goal, the excitement of the left side (where the idea tree generally branches out) is too often to be too tempting to be resisted. Often when things are getting along “great”, questions like “why don’t we add this to that, it’d be great cos that’s also relevant.” I find this thought ever so daunting - This probably is needed, so why not. With thoughts like these, it generally indicates the necessity of the ‘feature’ - which is good to have only. Not essential. AT ALL.
I think the book indicates that this “ability” is not a gift of anyone. It is really a rulebook like procedure. Most of us can totally distinguish if something is in-line with the goal, ONLY if we are well-aware of what the goal is.
Being carried away with the flow is very dangerous, it flows you to a place that probably is 99% far off from the goal. Although some may argue that sometimes life is like a box of chocolate, you might get surprised. Yes that’s true, but with the “goal” to complete something that’s going to be an infinite journey and nothing will get done ever.
If the end goal is not clear, then keep asking the “whys”. “Why is this project needed”. Logical flaws in disguise of idealism will trip us over eventually. The rationale has to be explainable in plain words that anybody can understand, that it cannot be described without jargons or slogans or buzz words or technical terms (disguises of ambiguity). (The Amazon way)
What it meant by thinking from right to left is think of what’s needed to be achieved before working backwards to find out how. Most projects have the tendency to go from how (technical details) then try to bend or fit in the goal along the way, or simply altering the goal because of the hows. which is complete non-sense, and most things happen this way.

6. So you think your project is Unique

Finishing is the ultimate form of black swan prevention.

7. Can Ignorance be your friend?

There are always stories about how the unlikely situation can cultivate the most beautiful outcome. You drop out of college and create the next unicorn, how random folks get kicked started in a career that he never knew he could have by an accident. Stuff like that. These things make us wanting to believe the leap of faith and the trinity of timing, place and people. It is possible that these Cinderella stories do happen, but they are just not going to happen to you, as suggested by data.
The Shark example reminds me of the classic Hong Kong New Year’s movie - 嚦咕嚦咕新年財。One of its most well-known lines: 牌爛未必輸硬。Creativity could come in place at the most adversed situation and turned something doomed to be disastrous into something else.
People are ingenious, but that creativity need not be summoned only when we are pushed to the corners. Mixing up the phase of planning where creativity can do its work and the phase of delivery where freestyle is likely to cause catastrophes, is the cognitive bias that general people holds.


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