When the pressure is up, speed down.
Early in my career I learned that the only way to manage a vast project is to break it down into multiple small projects; then, control the process as if you are diffusing a landmine. Attention to the logistical details — doing things in the most efficient way and in the optimum sequence — lies at the heart of the live events industry. It’s a critical if obvious lesson, one that is easier to master in theory than in practice.
It took me a bit longer to fully grasp the knack of scalability. I think of this as proficiency in identifying the common building blocks and thinking about them as a modular quantity. As any Legos fan will attest, you can build anything if you have enough blocks. Whether our building blocks are processes, systems, virtual tools, or physical solutions, they let us apply a proven resource to accomplish each new assignment. This not only simplifies collaboration (because we are all familiar with the common elements), but also leaves us the bandwidth to focus on the unique aspects of the event.
A related life-lesson is one rooted in the design-thinking methodology we use at Freeman. It’s the process of intentional iteration — of sketching ideas, rethinking, resketching, and improving — also referred to as “failing fast.” When figuring out how to design, build, and execute an event that includes tens of thousands of people descending on a city for three days, it’s much better to identify problems and optimize solutions as early as possible. Trying to rush ahead with a half-baked plan just means it’s more expensive (and humiliating) to fix when it’s discovered later. But by spending what may feel like an inordinate amount of time getting the plan, the timeline, and the budget as aligned as possible, you have the best chance of ensuring success.
The new book, “How Big Things Get Done,” by Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner, sums up this approach as “think slow, act fast.” The book offers brilliant, data-driven insights into why many huge construction projects vastly exceed their budget and timelines, while a few rare projects deliver as promised. One notable example is construction of the Empire State Building, which followed a rigorous process to achieve completion weeks ahead of the scheduled opening ceremony while coming in 17 percent under budget.
As you might expect, the book’s formula for success regarding megaprojects also scales to more humble efforts. Here’s the key: slow down to speed up. This is a hallmark of design thinking. While I must admit to feeling vindicated by Flyvbjerg’s research, that’s not really the point. The point is that we need solidarity around this critical issue. With increasing demands to contain costs, we will all be pressured to get the machine moving more quickly. But as any assembly plant manager can tell you, that’s just a good way to build wrong things more quickly.
Business leaders on both the client and the supplier side need to resist the temptation to demand speed and instead strive for rigor. By adhering to proven project management habits, applying modularity to achieve scale, and thinking slow to act fast, we will get where we need to be, on time and in budget. Don’t confuse speed with progress. Achieving the quickest sprint time won’t matter if you don’t cross the finish line.
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