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The Past and Present of Megaprojects

The Past and Present of Megaprojects

Mega Projects, as revealed by the name, are extremely large in every aspect; their scope comprises of numerous work packages, they span over a large period of time, their costs sum for billions, they require the involvement and affect many public and private stakeholders, import substantial risks, expand in various geographical areas and bring technological, economic and social changes.

Research has shown that although mega projects should be delivering benefits analogous to their magnitude, in most cases they do not. Nonetheless, despite their negative performance, the number of similar initiatives seems to grow mostly as a response and consequence to global economic growth and improvement. This paradox has lead the project management community into finding ways to improve performance of mega projects. A way to do so is by acquiring, via research, a better understanding of the environment in which those projects are undertaken, the managerial capabilities, the technological challenges and their sociocultural dimensions.

Irrespective to the high rate of underperformance, mega projects are increasing in actual numbers. Flyvbjerg (2017) tried to provide an explanation based on the utilization of the “framework of the four sublimes”:

  • Technological, from engineers that seek challenges;
  • Political – from politicians that derive personal satisfaction and higher media publicity;
  • Economical, from business people who want to increase the prestige and profits of their businesses;
  • Aesthetic, from the pleasure that people derive out of good designs;

But why do mega projects become so challenging? Flyvbjerg (2017) identified ten main factors:

  • Risky nature, due to their extreme complexity;
  • Project leadership cannot acquire full domain knowledge;
  • Difficulty in establishing project governance mechanisms;
  • Difficulty in using prior experience since preference to innovative technologies is almost inherent;
  • Limited alternatives of projects’ approaches;
  • Low levels of optimism stemming from poor performance evaluations;
  • Significant changes in scope and expectations due to obsolescence of solutions by the time they are applied;
  • Impact of unexpected events is much higher;
  • Failure to account for complexity and unexpected events;
  • Inaccurate estimates about costs, schedules, benefits, and risks resulting in violations of baselines;

The growth in numbers of mega projects in the recent years has also affected the interest of academia and the studies related to those projects. The research especially in understanding the nature and dynamics of mega projects aimed to engage more people even outside the narrow boundaries of the project management community. It also looked into the examples of the past, where such projects had even higher impact. An additional area of focus appeared not in the decision-making process of mega projects but mostly in their internal functioning and processes. Still, research on mega projects is ongoing; but this effort is not problem free. Aiming for a better future understanding one can found four areas of concern:

  • More discussions are needed on the existence of mega projects and the root causes for their composition of vast numbers of actions. However, their analysis only from a theoretical project perspective shall not suffice; implications in other areas shall also be sought and better theories in mega projects shall be developed.
  • We also need to comprehend the inner details of these projects. So far, studies had focused on viewing them from distance, as black boxes with unknown internal structure and mechanisms. Hence insight is required in order to get a more solid understanding on how mega projects are managed and organized, how the project managers deal with bad news, how they foster collaboration and coordination.
  • Underperformance of mega projects is a known issue to consultants and scholars. But does this knowledge come from a logical comparison? Do we assume that because they are more complex they are also more prone to delivering worse results? Why don’t we think of the potential that this underperformance might be a result of not having the proper tools to evaluate mega projects? Or, even worse, not having established the proper metrics?
  • The last area of interest lies in the actual value delivered. Such projects, consume enormous amounts of resources; but do they really deliver to the society? This investigation might bring us back to the first question above; Are mega projects really needed? Maybe it is a good starting to understand why mega projects exist and also how they differ in terms of behavior, project management value and success factors.

The authors of the article (Söderlund, Sankaran, & Biesenthal, 2017), present also a summary of literature findings on the mega projects. Their analysis depicts something already known by the project management community; a project is not based on a single success factor and criterion. Contrary, success comes from a combination of factors and this is even more true for mega projects. Additionally, outcomes of mega projects affect the wellbeing of many people and hence they require much more time to emerge and realize. Mega projects are in most cases politically driven, which intensifies complexity and pushes forward for innovative governance structures to cope within a highly dynamic stakeholder environment. Another insight has to do with the methods used to research mega projects. One trajectory relates to analyzing various view angles and data while the second relates to building large sets of data and use consistent qualitative and quantitative methods. Finally yet importantly, the most critical insight has to do with the sustainability of mega projects. If they manage to deliver results over a long period of time then their selling becomes easier.


Flyvbjerg, B. (2017). The Oxford handbook of megaprojects. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Söderlund, J., Sankaran, S., & Biesenthal, C. (2017, December 1). Retrieved from Project Management Institute:

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