Improving the Odds of Project Success: Review of “How Big Things Get Done”

I’ve taught project management for the last six years. I’ve been a project manager in one way or another for over fifty. I’m somewhere better than average but nowhere near the best project managers I’ve known and worked with.

If I were to teach the subject again, How Big Things Get Done would be required reading. Very little of it is about the tools and techniques that occupy the standard texts. Looking instead at success and failures in well-known, large-scale projects, Flyvbjerg and Gardner provide insight into how to navigate the organizational and political contexts that surround any effort to create something new and consequential.

While it can be more fun to read about the failures, the deeper lessons fall out of understanding how the successes happened. The lessons aren’t hugely surprising;

  • Time invested in planning is a lot cheaper and more effective than rushing into doing.
  • Going with a proven team eliminates many risks and sets you up to handle the risks you can’t dodge.
  • Iteration is your friend. Never depend on getting it right the first time.

The hardest part of their approach is the search for modularity; to find the basic building block that you can organize the effort and the plan around. Their closing chapter is titled “What’s Your Lego?”. Here’s their closing bit of advice:

Get a small thing, a basic building block. Combine it with another and another until you have what you need. That’s how a single solar cell becomes a solar panel, which becomes a solar array, which becomes a massive megawatt-churning solar farm. Modularity delivers faster, cheaper, and better, making it valuable for all project types and sizes. But for building at a truly huge scale—the scale that transforms cities, countries, even the world—modularity is not just valuable, it’s indispensable.

If projects are part of your portfolio, How Big Things Get Done belongs on your reading list.

Case Research of Knowledge Work Practice

You can observe a lot by just watching.

Yogi Berra

I’ve long argued that invisibility constitutes a major impediment to improving the practice of knowledge work. What we need is to see more practice.

So, I’m setting out to collect and develop stories and case studies of knowledge workers doing their work. Right now, this is exploratory research to discover categories and concepts that might prove useful. My conjecture is there’s an underlying set of skills and practices common across multiple instances of knowledge work.

Further, I suspect these commonalities aren’t immediately evident or obvious. They are “hidden” within the craft elements of different knowledge work jobs (e.g. reporter, consultant, systems analyst, programmer, data scientist, media planner, teacher). The initial goal is to figure out productive questions.

A starting point is to examine accounts of knowledge workers who have shared their journeys in ways that we can extract insights about their methods and practices. For example, Tiago Forte’s Building a Second Brain presents his solution for a personal knowledge management environment. He does so by sharing a good bit of how he got to his answers. Regardless of whether you find his destination suitable to your needs, you can learn from his journey. Supplement the book with the materials he has shared elsewhere online and we can craft a useful case study.

There’s a decent collection of knowledge workers (authors, scientists, entrepreneurs, etc.) who have shared enough about their methods and practices to form an initial sample from which we can develop the outlines of a theory of knowledge work. Once that exists, we can reach out to other knowledge workers to explore their practices and elaborate a richer model.

Learning to do learning by doing better

I’m a believer in learning by doing – both as a learner and as a teacher. As a learner I’ve largely been content to hack away at things in the belief and lived experience that I do figure something out eventually. I’m a bit more disciplined and intentional when I put on my teaching hat. There, I make a more mindful effort to design doing with the intent of nudging learners to do things I expect will impart the lessons I intend.

If learning by doing is a powerful strategy, shouldn’t we make an effort to develop that skill? What might happen if I bring more of my teaching strategies to my own learning by doing?

Let’s start with one learning by doing strategy. “See one, do one, teach one” is a strategy that’s long been effective in medical education. While typically deployed in the context of a broader curriculum where you can make assumptions about prerequisite knowledge and coaches to keep the learners in bounds and out of trouble, can I adapt it to my individual needs?

My hunch is that that “seeing” is the trickiest part in this equation. I’ve asserted that one of the fundamental problems of knowledge work is that it is largely invisible. What can we do to make it easier to see our own work?

One prior element in making my work easier to see was to worry about the naming of things. Which helps at the later stages of knowledge work. How about earlier stages? I think this is the potential within the world of note-taking/note-making apps and environments.

Ideas are rarely so accommodating as to show up fully formed. Sometimes they arrive as a phrase or as a handful of words. Sometimes as a sentence or two. They’re often rude enough to intrude when I’m half asleep without a writing implement nearby. I’ve had to accept that many will escape before I can write them down. However, I have slowly gotten better at capturing a reasonable percentage before they disappear.

Way back when, I did much of this capturing by hand in notebooks. Now, I capture these evanescent items in Obsidian. I don’t generally know what I will do with an idea at that point. But, bits are cheap and better to have a record and decide to throw it away later than miss collecting a gem. (One of these days, I will have to do a piece on why I am suspicious of the notion of the collector’s fallacy).

Gradually, I’ve been building a collection of my ideas that I can “see” from something resembling a single vantage point. It includes everything I’ve posted to this blog since 2001, everything I’ve highlighted on my Kindle (via the excellent Readwise Reader), and my journals going back to 2019. It leaks. And, there are remaining pools of thinking and ideas worth integrating over time. For now, the view is still fuzzy and incomplete but it’s moving in a good direction.


Moving from Tools for Thought to Thinking as Craft

The notion of “tools for thought” is undergoing a resurgence from niche topic to something approaching a fad. Everyone’s got a new tool for making notes or a course on how to optimize their Zettelkasten. Too few of them seem familiar with the prior art fueling their work. You might want to start by adding Howard Rheingold’s Tools for Thought: The History and Future of Mind-Expanding Technology to your reading list.

The problem is that we mostly get trapped talking about tools in isolation. The folks marketing and selling tools focus on what sets their tool apart from others. People looking at a new tool are seduced into comparisons between individual tools. Discussion threads revolve around narrow questions of “how do I force this tool to behave like the tool I already have” or “how can I import my collection of left-handed, Gregorian chant, meditations”. We don’t appear to have a principled way to talk or think about how a new tool might fit into a collection of tools and how tools (plural) enable and support the craft of thinking. We slide past the phrase “tools for thought” without giving much thought to where that might take us.

There’s more to quality work than any individual tool. 4.0. My wife is a photographer. If you want to irritate her, suggest that she must use a very expensive camera. She takes better photos with her iPhone than I can with $10,000 worth of equipment.

The eye behind the lens matters more than the camera. Or the mind at the keyboard.

Talking about tools is easy. Thinking about craft is hard.

Working out how tools enable better craft is the nub. George R.R. Martin still writes with Wordstar. Anne Lamott was pushing yellow legal pads in a recent workshop. John McPhee was rearranging index cards on the floor. I don’t take any of this as recommendations to adopt their tools. But it does make me wonder how I ought to think about how tools and craft intertwine.

A starting point is to turn Sturgeon’s Law into a working strategy. Sturgeon’s Law asserts that “90% of everything is crap.” Churn out a lot of output and learn to distinguish the 10% from the 90%. Becoming a better photographer consists of throwing away most of your shots. Same for writing. Step one in getting better is producing something to critique. Over time, you can begin to wonder about producing things worthy of critique. To start, focus on pure production.

Two things become possible once we’re producing something. One, we can begin to compare our outputs with one another and with similar outputs out in the world. Two, we can pay attention to how we’re going about our production. Both of these can work as individual practices. With a bit of confidence, you can expand your comparisons to others.

I’m an average photographer at best. I haven’t put in the reps that my wife has. She’ll take a dozen shots of a scene and throw eleven away to get an image worth keeping. Most of what she throws away put my efforts to shame. Slowly, I’ve learned there’s a body of knowledge about what separates a good shot from a mediocre one.

I’ve put in more reps at writing than I have at photography. This blog post is about 600 words at this point. There’s another thousand words of notes in the window next to this one and I’ve probably thrown away another 1500-2000 so far. There’s an extensive body of knowledge about blogging in particular and writing in general. I’m familiar enough with both to know the rules and to be comfortable breaking them when it suits my purposes.

I’ve got plenty of output that I can assess and evaluate. The second development path to explore is the production process. The tools I employ are pretty easy to identify. Teasing out the process is trickier. Discerning where improvement opportunities lie is harder still. It is most definitely a work in progress.

I’m on record that knowledge work should be treated as a craft. Lately, I’ve been lamenting that there aren’t enough case studies of knowledge work in action for us to learn from. Let’s see if we can start to generate and collect some to see what we might learn from one another.

Do You Need a Second Brain

There’s a lot to like about Tiago Forte’s Building a Second Brain if you are a knowledge worker of any sort. In today’s world that’s most of us. Like any ambitious work, it’s a mix of strengths and weaknesses. Understand the limitations and take advantage of the wealth of good ideas and advice.

The book grew out of Forte’s own efforts to cope with the flood of information that we all swim in. That led to a course/coaching practice to share his insights with others wrestling with similar challenges. Add a growing online platform and you end up with a book deal. As some wags have put it, Forte is trying to lay claim in the Personal Knowledge Management space to the position that David Allen grabbed in the personal productivity realm a few years back.

If you opt for the conventional publishing model, you’re bound by the current assumptions and expectations of that model. Yes, you can compress much of the value of the book into a handful of blog posts or articles. Yes, you will be expected to insert a collection of anecdotes about the famous or important people demonstrating elements of your system in their work. Blame that on Malcolm Gladwell. Forte is working within the constraints of the market that exists.

You have a different set of questions as a potential reader. Does this particular package suit your constraints for adding to your knowledge base? Perhaps you would do better seeking out those blog posts. Or, your time/value tradeoff makes a course environment a better choice. Having good ideas available in multiple formats and environments is a feature not a bug.

I’m not a particular fan of the Second Brain metaphor. Unfortunately, it’s hot right now and marketing momentum takes precedence over actual relevance. If it appeals to you, great. If it doesn’t, focus on the examples and general discussion of PKM issues and principles.

In point of fact, I first encountered Forte’s ideas in his online environment. I paid for access to his online writing. I chose not to invest in his online course. The cost of adding the book itself to my knowledge environment was trivial. The cost of my time and attention to work through the book (a couple of times) was significantly less than the value I’ve realized.

I’ve taken the time to walk through this tradeoff analysis because it makes a point about PKM; you are in control and it is your responsibility to be in control of your knowledge environment. I’ve been advocating for PKM since at least 2005 ([Why You Need a Personal Knowledge-Management Strategy). I might be envious that Forte is seeing traction for these ideas that I never dreamed of, but the universe is a better place for it.

The principal value of Building a Second Brain is as an extended case study/example of one successful strategy for establishing and working within a PKM environment. Forte is at this strongest when he shares and works through examples of how his system works for him. When he tries to meet the Malcolm Gladwell expectations, he has a tendency to reach a bit farther than he should. For example, at one point, Forte claims that

every change in how we use technology also requires a change in how we think. To properly take advantage of the power of a Second Brain, we need a new relationship to information, to technology, and even to ourselves.

I think you can safely ignore that claim and still get full value out of the book. I’ll close with the best advice that Forte offers

As your needs change, give yourself the freedom to discard or take on whichever parts serve you. This isn’t a “take it or leave it” ideology where you must accept all of it or none of it. If any part doesn’t make sense or doesn’t resonate with you, put it aside. Mix and match the tools and techniques you’ve learned in this book to suit your needs.

Finding Your Voice and Honoring Your Sources


There is no new thing under the sun
Ecclesiastes 1:9 (KJV)

What is originality? Undetected plagiarism.
William Ralph Inge

I’ve spent my career wandering back and forth between business and academe. One of the smartest hires I ever made (smart in the sense that she was smart and my decision to hire her was equally smart) will be rolling her eyes right now if she reads this. Opening with a quote annoyed her no end; two quotes will likely push her over the edge.

New ideas are the driving force now for both business and academe. How new ideas are treated, however, is quite different. In academe everyone cares about intellectual capital provenance. Ideas have a history and the history matters. There are a host of practices and norms for maintaining that provenance.

In business new ideas have been the purview of a handful of specialists, despite recent debates about patent waivers for Covid-19 vaccines (for example, With a Covid-19 vaccine patent waiver likely, time to rethink global intellectual property rules - CNN). What you can do with an idea is much more pertinent than where the idea might have come from. Academic practices for connecting new ideas to their history don’t have much of a foothold in this realm. Certain ideas become linked to names—Porter’s 5-forces, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Christensen’s disruptive innovation—but more often than not ideas simply appear without attribution or genealogy.

Why does any of this matter? Treating ideas as free floating entities becomes a problem as decisions are woven out of more complex, interconnected webs of ideas and analysis. You want to be able to deconstruct both successes and failures to be able to keep making progress.

Efficiency ignores obsession

Came across an interesting piece from Smithsonian Magazine from 2012 (Teller Reveals His Secrets). In it Teller, of Penn & Teller fame, writes about magic and psychology. Teller writes, of course, because Teller is the silent half of Penn & Teller. (I first saw them perform when they were the hot ticket Off-Broadway in 1985.) Teller’s argument is that

Magicians have done controlled testing in human perception for thousands of years….Neuroscientists—well intentioned as they are—are gathering soil samples from the foot of a mountain that magicians have mapped and mined for centuries.

One element of that understanding sheds light on contrasting efficiency and effectiveness. It’s a safe bet to assume that our cognitive and perceptual systems are fundamentally lazy. Our senses and our brains work efficiently by taking shortcuts whenever they can. The field of behavioral economics grew out of the work of people like Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky exploring what those shortcuts were and why they worked.

Magic works by understanding and exploiting that laziness. Often, by investing a degree of effort well beyond any efficiency calculus.

Teller is an artist, not a scientist. He, and Penn, are prepared to obsess if that’s what it takes to achieve an effect. This is an element of effectiveness I hadn’t considered until now.

Learning to fail

I grew up in the Midwest. It is as flat as advertised. Snow meant days off from school, snowball fights, and snow forts. Mountains were something I visited in the summer. That they sometimes had snow on top was of photographic interest only.

Life brought me to the East Coast and children brought me to ski lessons in my 40s. When I was 48, my youngest took up snowboarding and I decided to follow along. You don’t learn to ski or snowboard in a classroom; you do it on the slopes. So, you fall down a lot. Then you fall down less. What makes it work is instant feedback. That’s what good instructors offer. One of the best pieces of feedback I got was to accept that a snowboard run was nothing more than a connected series of controlled recoveries.

If you weren’t on the edge (figuratively and literally) of falling down you weren’t doing it as well as you could. Learning and doing were inseparable.

The world of efficiency pretends that you can separate learning and doing. If you control enough of the variables, you can get away with this strategy for chunks of time. If you stay on the bunny slopes, you can control the variables. But only at the expense of learning. If you avoid the edges, you never get better.

You can choose to stay away from the edges. The problem is that the edges keep moving. Often in your direction, despite your best efforts. Better to accept the world as it is and develop ways to operate with that reality.

Effectiveness is the shorthand I’ve adopted for this spot. More than anything else, it depends on accepting that you can’t separate learning and doing. It’s an accident of history that we’ve been able to pretend otherwise.

Sure, you can find guardrails while your doing is clumsy. But you have to be seeking out the edges where things get scary. The best way to manage the scary is to find others looking for the edges.

Our edges and our comfort zones never align. Collectively we know more and can do more than any one of us can individually.

Effectiveness depends on community

My sister-in-law and her husband owned a retail business for 45 years in the town where they, and my wife, grew up. Conversations at their dinner table often revolved around people they went to elementary school with and still interact with.

This mystified me for years. When I married into that family, I had lived in over twenty different places. Outside of my immediate family, I had no connections to the people I had grown up with. I’m not sure I had the concept of having grown up with someone who wasn’t family.

I’ve heard it said that the vast majority of humankind is born, lives, and dies within 25 miles of their birthplace. I understood this as an intellectual datapoint. Not so much as an emotional anchor.

Charlotte and I have been married for coming up on 39 years. We’ve had multiple addresses over that span. Most recently, we’ve been living in Nazaré, Portugal.

The cliche here would be that we have each other as anchors. While there’s certainly truth to that, the more interesting observation is that we’ve been part of two church communities. Ten years in Boston, Twenty seven in Chicago. Mainline Protestant (despite, or perhaps because of, my Roman Catholic upbringing). Neither the theology or the liturgy are central. What is central is a commitment to making community work.

I’m pretty sure you can’t be effective without community. You need something that resembles the history and connections that my sister and brother-in-law take for granted. You have to be able to predict how others will react to the unexpected. It takes time and effort to build and maintain community. Organizations are reluctant to invest in the long slow work of building community and resilience.

Organizations prefer to deal with the unexpected by eliminating it. This is the false appeal of efficiency. Lock everything down and define every response. The universe, however, insists on being unpredictable.

Making Art Happen

In high school I started to do some work in theater. It was a way to meet girls. At an all boys school, there wasn’t any way to do that in the halls between classes. There were, however, joint productions with a sister school. I was much too shy to attempt any performing roles but there’s always a need for people willing to work backstage.

I got to Princeton in the early days of coeducation there. Perhaps three quarters of the students then were guys. During Freshman Week I was enticed into a performance of the Princeton Triangle Club by a cute blonde passing out flyers outside McCarter Theater. Knowing one end of a hammer from another made me more than qualified to join the tech crew.

Four years later, I had done pretty much any backstage job that went into putting on a live performance. From stagehand to electrician to production stage manager I learned what went into making art happen on stage. And what supported that art offstage.

There’s very little about staging a play that’s efficient. I’ve stood behind a set piece on stage to keep it from falling during a performance. Don’t be seen and fix it later. Gaffer’s tape is your friend.

“The show must go on” is a real thing. Internalizing that sets you up to keep your wits about you in the midst of chaos. Turns out that’s a pretty important set of life lessons and skills.