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Proceedings - LEAD 2009 Conference

MEGA-PROJECTS: GETTING THE JOB DONE


Christian Brockmann
1


ABSTRACT
Mega-projects are the wild beasts of construction: they are hard to tame. This raises the question
of how the job can be done. To stay a bit further in the picture, to catch the beast (setting the
project up) is just one part, the taming (implementation) proves to be the more complex end. Get-
ting the job done focuses attention on the implementation phase. A bundle of tools are available
that have been developed in the construction sector over time. Some of these can be considered
as hardware, among this group are estimating and cost control as well as scheduling techniques.
They belong to the core curricula in an engineering education. For mega-projects these tools
have been refined and detailed. They are codified in project manuals. Another set of tools are
mental models of the world of mega-projects and they form the software of the management
process. These can be described as cognitive maps pertaining to the special environment pro-
vided by mega-projects. The better adapted the cognitive maps are and the more widely they are
shared by the project management, the more they serve as success factors. Cognitive maps are
implicit knowledge. While they are designed by practitioners in response to the demands of their
tasks, academicians can help to make them explicit by description and to compare them with pre-
scriptive management models. A synthesis between descriptive and prescriptive elements allows
to improve the functionality of the cognitive maps.
KEYWORDS: Mega-project, complexity, success factors, cognitive maps.

INTRODUCTION
Mega-projects have always captured the minds of human beings, let alone engineers. The
pyramids of Egypt stand for a whole culture (godliness of the pharaoh). The same holds true for
the Acropolis in Athens (unity between Athena as goddess and Athens as a community), the Co-
liseum in Rome (bread and games), or the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco (freedom of the
west). Not all mega-projects become symbols in such a way, but all are marvels of engineering
and management ingenuity. Hassan et al. (1999) describe large-scale engineering projects
(another term for mega-projects) by five characteristics:
1. High capital cost
2. Long project duration with urgency of execution
3. Technologically and logistically demanding
4. Multidisciplinary input from many organizations
5. Creation of a virtual enterprise for the execution
Miller / Lessard (2000) have researched 60 mega-projects and the contracts in their sam-
ple were on average worth 985 million US dollars while it took six and a half years to implement
the projects (two and half years for planning and four years for construction). This is meant by
high capital cost and long project duration. While these characteristics describe mega-

1
Professor, University of Applied Sciences Bremen, Bremen, Germany, christian.brockmann@hs-bremen.de
Proceedings - LEAD 2009 Conference
projects in a way, they do not give a good idea or feeling about what a challenge mega-projects
present. In the following chapter the construct of project complexity will be introduced to im-
prove understanding. The five characteristics illustrate project implementation: The capital cost
and urgency are incurred during execution, technology, logistics and the virtual enterprise play a
role only in this phase and the multidisciplinary input develops its full potential.
Getting the job done is programmatic for the focus of the paper. It evidently puts the
emphasis on the implementation stage. While quite a lot of attention has been directed towards
the strategic front end of projects (Flyvbjerg et al. 2003, Grn 2004), there is little to be found on
the operative end. As long as we think of projects in a way where the important decisions are
made during the conception stage, we will not be able to grasp the overwhelming complexity of
the execution.
The next chapter will briefly explain the research methodology used. The subsequent
chapter (basic concepts for understanding mega-projects) will not only introduce the construct of
complexity; it will also discuss the differentiation between strategic and operative project stages.
At its end, tools for getting the job done are introduced, i.e. best practices and commonly shared
cognitive maps. The following chapter (best practices) will elaborate some of the best practices
used in mega-project execution. These can be found in the management manuals of implemented
projects. The last chapter of the main body (success factors) discusses some of the cognitive
maps used by project managers. Having the best possible understanding of mega-projects can be
encoded and shared as cognitive maps and help coordinate the efforts of a multitude of manag-
ers, thus acting as success factors.

RESEARCH METHODOLOGY
Once the contract is signed for a mega-project, managers plan, organize, staff, direct and
control them during the build up, main and dismantling phases. Then they move on to the next
mega-project. It seems plausible that managers going through these repetitive cycles, perceive,
interpret and evaluate their physical, social and institutional world by forming common cognitive
maps through interaction. Knowledge thus is produced by this group and becomes intersubjec-
tive. This is a constructivist view of epistemology (Luckmann and Berger 1966)
This constructivist view matches well with the understanding that the set of mega-pro-
jects forms a specific culture. Weber (1949), based on Kant, strongly advocates that social and
cultural research cannot follow the approach of the natural sciences, where laws suffice to de-
scribe a static environment following a directly observable causality. A better approach is to dis-
cover phenomena as interpreted within the framework by the members of the focal cultural
group.
Given this background and considering the additional fact that no research has previously
been carried out on the implementation phase of mega-projects, we used ethnographic interviews
(Spradley 1979) to gather data and grounded theory (Strauss and Corbin 1998) to evaluate and to
extract theory from the data (Eisenhardt 1989). We conducted 35 interviews in Thailand and
Taiwan. An open questionnaire was used to receive comparable answers to some questions while
still keeping the opportunities for the interviewees to develop their own ideas. All the intervie-
wees had experience as managers in at least one, and in the majority of cases, in several mega-
projects. They came from nine different national cultures and represented ten different parent
companies. The interviews lasted on average a little more than one hour and they focused on
cognitive maps.
Proceedings - LEAD 2009 Conference
A newly developed variant of ethnographic interviews as described by Spradley (1979)
was used, so-called peer interviews. The core understanding of ethnographic interviews is the
start with a blank sheet so that the researcher will not influence the interviewees with the con-
cepts of his academic background. The researcher then builds theory only with the data gathered
all the while learning about the field of research exclusively from the interviewees. This assumes
that the academic background of the researcher is different from the field of research. What hap-
pens when the researcher is from the same field? Interviewer and interviewee speak the same
language, they use the same concepts. Accordingly, the research can start at a higher level. Cog-
nitive maps are created and explained through communication among peers. If the researcher is a
peer he becomes part in this process.
The interviews have been transcribed and are available at the Collaboratory for Research
on Global Projects (crgp.stanford.edu). The data were evaluated with the help of different coding
techniques (open, axial, selective, and process coding; Strauss and Corbin 1998). The software
program ATLAS.ti, version 5.0 was used for the handling of the data.
It was stated previously that very little research has been done on the implementation of
mega-projects. Thus it is not possible to draw on other works. However, a validation can be
achieved by comparing scientific findings on different singular aspects. There exists for example
a host of literature to cross-check findings on sense-making (Weick 1995) or communication
(Dainty et al. 2006). Extensive use was made in the research by comparing the descriptive find-
ings from the interviews with the prescriptive management literature.
BASIC CONCEPTS FOR UNDERSTANDING MEGA-PROJECTS
Introducing the construct of complexity allows to strengthen and to simplify the under-
standing of mega-projects. Paradoxically, while being more abstract than the enumeration of cha-
racteristics above it also helps to bridge the gap between theory and practice.
Mega-projects are mostly implemented by international construction joint ventures
(ICJ Vs) because the resources of one company are not sufficient (Badger and Mulligan 1995).
While this is the norm, it is not a necessity. Accordingly and sticking with this general case,
ICJ Vs will be the background that must be considered when discussing mega-projects. The en-
suing problems of an alliance such as an ICJ V will gain their full importance during the opera-
tive phase, increasing complexity. As a consequence, complexity is higher during this stage
compared with the preceding stage of strategic planning. There is also a shift of focus between
the two stages: While the product (i.e. the structure) is basically determined during the strategic
phase before contract signature, the process is fully developed during the operative one.
Tools for getting the job done form typically a part of the college curricula (project plan-
ning, estimating, etc). However, the tools required for mega-projects are making use of cutting-
edge technology. Cognitive maps are also developed during the education of engineers, yet their
by far largest part is added in the professional world of project management.

Project Complexity
Project complexity can be defined as a set of problems that consists of many parts with a
multitude of possible interrelations and most of them being of high consequence in the decision
making process that brings about the final result (fig.1).
Often project complexity is interpreted as task complexity. High complexity is as such a
high density of units, causal links, and consequences within a temporal and spatial frame. How-
Proceedings - LEAD 2009 Conference
ever, limiting attention to task complexity would be a disastrous oversimplification in the case of
mega-projects. Here, we need also consider the social and cultural complexity of the virtual
enterprise. Social complexity describes
the number of members and the differen-
tiation of their tasks, while cultural com-
plexity encompasses the number of differ-
ent historical experiences and sense-
making processes that confront each other
in a project.



Figure 1: Project complexity
The Bang Na Expressway in Thailand can serve as an example to describe project com-
plexity. This is the longest bridge in the world with 55 km (38 mi.). A considerable number of
innovations on the global, sector, or company level characterize the task complexity. Three dif-
ferent Thai ministries were involved as clients all following their own political agendas while
three companies formed the ICJ V trying to enforce their own project goals, this being a part of
the social complexity. 22 nationalities worked together on the project each comprising scores of
individuals with different views of life, work and the project. Altogether, five hundred em-
ployees and five thousand workers needed to coordinate their efforts (Brockmann and Rogenho-
fer 2000).
The construct of complexity is described with different words in megaprojects (chaos,
disorder, headaches, problems) but there exists a rather clear understanding of what these terms
entail (fig. 2). Especially decision making, coordination, communication, and learning are means
to reduce complexity.
Figure 2: Theoretical and practical levels of project complexity
Perceived as:
- Chaos
- Disorder
- Headache
- Problems
P
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R
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Reduced by:
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- Coordination
- Communication
- Learning
Complexity:
- Manifold,
- interrelated,
- consequential,
decision field
work
Result:
- Completed
structure
work
time
Task complextity
of construction projects
is reduced to zero
M
e
a
n
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n
g
Practical level
Theoretical level
manifold
interrelated
consequential
Decision
field
Proceedings - LEAD 2009 Conference
Strategic and operative project stages
We can discern three major project stages: conception, contract negotiation, and imple-
mentation. The conception of a project is the job of the client. Evidently, this phase can include
very different tasks. The political approval process in western countries is highly complicated
and often takes more time than the following two stages. Ten to twenty years are the norm. In
other parts of the world, this stage can be very short; a government decision is all that is needed,
taking no more time than a year. As the duration of the political process varies, so does the tech-
nical project preparation. In the design/bid/build case, the product design is completely specified
(detailed design). For a design/build project, a conceptual design is sufficient. The task com-
plexity of this stage varies with the circumstances and the chosen approach, it can range from
very high to medium. This stage has attracted intense scrutiny (Miller and Lessard 2000). How-
ever, social and cultural complexity are of little importance at this time, so overall complexity is
medium.
The contract negotiation phase is characterized by limited social, medium task, and high
cultural complexity. There are but a few groups and people involved in the process. However, in
general they come from vastly different cultural backgrounds. Task complexity stems from a
concentration on contractual and design aspects. The latter ones are of limited scope in the typi-
cal case of design/build. One important result of this stage is the agreement on a contract price.
Overall complexity can be seen again as medium.
The implementation stage has to deal in the case of design/build with a high design and a
very high process complexity with the full impact of task, social, and cultural complexity.
Strategic and operative planning are not synonymous with high or low complexity. They
describe by definition the importance of decision making on the outcome. The client makes the
strategic decisions in the conception stage of the project and so do the contractors during the ne-
gotiation stage. As described, they are not overly concerned with process planning. A contractor
needs of course an idea of the construction technology available to come up with a price, but the
final and detailed decision is only made after contract signature. This means that strategic deci-
sions about processes are made during the implementation stage. The general perception is that
strategy sets close limits to operations. In reality, strategy and operation are often two worlds
apart with a language barrier in between (Morgan et al. 2007). This is especially true for mega-
projects.
This discussion shows that the terms of strategic and operative planning are not very de-
scriptive. A billion dollar project often catapults it among the ten biggest companies in most
countries based on annual turnover. This implies that strategic decisions must be taken within the
project, although it is from the point of view of the mother company (or companies) an operative
unit.
To summarize the above, a distinction between strategy and operation is not a helpful
concept for mega-projects, one being based on comparative complexity implies on the other hand
many consequences. Complexity for mega-projects is highest for project implementation.

Project management tools
There are two types of tools for the implementation of mega-projects: engineering rules
and programs as hardware and mental programs reflecting constructs as software.
Engineering rules and programs for mega-projects are codified in project manuals and
cover in general eight topics: organizational planning, work estimates, make-or-buy decisions,
Proceedings - LEAD 2009 Conference
site installation, resource planning, construction technology, scheduling and cost control, as well
as logistics. Two examples scheduling of approval process and organization of external com-
munications will be explained subsequently.
Mental programs help us structure and understand our world. They provide the basic
layer in a mega-project for coordination, decision making, communication, and learning. We can
describe them as cognitive maps. The American Psychological Association (van den Bos 2007,
p. 190) defines cognitive maps as a mental understanding of an environment, formed through
trial and error as well as observation. The concept is based on the assumption that an individual
seeks and collects contextual clues, such as environmental relationships, rather than acting as a
passive receptor of information needed to achieve a goal. Human beings and other animals have
well developed cognitive maps that contain spatial information enabling them to orient them-
selves and find their way in the real world; symbolism and meaning are also contained in such
maps. Cognitive maps contain information for decision making in dynamic environments and
gain as such highest importance for mega-project management. Two examples for cognitive
maps communication and sense-making will be used as illustration of the concept.
A model of the tasks to be fulfilled for a mega-project represents already a cognitive map
(fig. 3). There are complex tasks to be solved, management functions, basic functions, meta-
functions to be performed, and cultural dimensions to be observed. The important point is to bal-
ance attention between all these demands. Theoretical backgrounds for this model come from
four disciplines: civil engineering, construction engineering management, business management,
and sociology. The answer to the complexity of the task is a complex task model.

Figure 3: Management model for a mega-project
Learning
Coordination
Communication
Decision making
Planning
Organizing
Staffing
Directing
Controlling
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ICJVs in a complex environment
Power distance
Uncertainty
avoidance
Individualisms
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Masculinity
Cultural dimensions (Sociology)
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Proceedings - LEAD 2009 Conference
BEST PRACTICES
Best practices have been developed through trial and error and by observation, just as it
holds true for cognitive maps. They are open knowledge and codified in project manuals. They
comprise structuralizations, rules, and programs. A type of best practice in form of a structurali-
zation is depicted in fig. 4. An organization chart is not sufficient to determine the duties and
rights of external communication since it only deals with internal communications in the most
basic way. The organization of the external communications depends clearly on the specific
mega-project in question.
The complexity of mega-
projects implies, that not all
external communication can
be dealt with by one person.
Delegation of rights and du-
ties becomes indispensable.
In the example of an ICJ V,
project management takes
care of the contact with the
partners, banks, and the
client. Other departments
have their own tasks.

Figure 4: Organization of com-
munication

As always when delegating work, coordination of information, decisions, and actions be-
comes the greatest problem. The arrows between the departments and project management ac-
knowledge the problem. It must be dealt with by establishing another tool.
An example of a program is a schedule for the approval process in a design/build con-
tract. This schedule serves as a link between the construction and the design schedule. As design
schedules are not common (not even for mega-projects) fig. 5 contains a best practice. There are
three parties involved in the process: a consultant preparing a conceptual, preliminary and de-
tailed design, an ICJ V checking for design economics and constructability, and a checking engi-
neer approving the structural analysis. The important point is to fix approval times in the contract
and to predetermine the average number of cycles in the approval process as not all drawings
will be approved in the first time. The goal of the scheduling is clear: All construction drawings
must be on site with enough time for work preparation.
Project management manuals contain hundreds of tools similar to those explained. Quite
a number of them could be standardized, others can be developed from standardized forms to
adapt them to specific circumstances. Academic work could help to compare the different solu-
tions used and to establish a set of standard procedures as best practices. Companies cannot do
this because they are always confined to their own world. Learning takes place from project to
project and not throughout the sector. Cross company learning can only be achieved with help
from the outside.



Execution
Administration
Design
E &M-
Construction
Project
Management
Finances
Banks
Contract
Client
Other authorities
Joint Venture-System
Partner J V-Board
Consultants
Experts
E&M Consultants
E&M Subcontractors
Subcontractors
Suppliers
Equipment suppliers
Accounting
Administration
Personnel
Insurances
Purchasing
Subcontractors
Proceedings - LEAD 2009 Conference


































Figure 5: Approval schedule




SUCCESS FACTORS
Success factors in management are often identified through an ANOVA-analysis, thus as-
suming a direct interdependence between a multitude of variables and outcomes. This presup-
poses that the world of management is based on laws just as the physical world. Since an article
of March / Sutton (1997) on the subject, this view is no longer tenable.
We propose here something different as success factors, i.e. the salient cognitive maps
pertaining to mega-projects. These are not based on simple causal links, they are not fixed, and
they do not represent perceived natural laws. Instead they are representations of how managers
see their world. In a similar way as geographical maps, they serve a number of purposes (a ques-
tion of scale and representation), they resemble the world trying to simplify as much as possible
(a map with the scale of 1:1 is useless because it would be a replica of the real world), and they
are changed by actions of man and the environment (as we build roads or dams or as nature
Consultant:
Prepare
Conceptual Design
ICJV:
Approval Conceptual
Design (7 d)
Okay?
yes
no
Consultant:
Prepare
Preliminary Design
ICJV:
Approval Preliminary
Design (7 d)
Okay?
yes
no
Checking Engineer:
Approval Preliminary
Design (28 d)
Okay?
yes
no
Checking Engineer:
Approval Preliminary
Design (28 d)
Okay?
yes
Consultant:
Prepare
Detailed Design
ICJV:
Approval
Detailed Design (7 d)
Okay?
yes
no
Checking Engineer:
Approval
Detailed Design (28 d)
Okay?
yes
no
Consultant:
Prepare
construction drawings
Proceedings - LEAD 2009 Conference
forms a river delta). All maps need updating. Instead of the generality of natural laws, cognitive
maps are constricted by time and space.
Success through cognitive maps comes about by aligning these through trial and error as
well as observation. A team with shared cognitive maps can sharply reduce coordination efforts,
the major task of complex projects. As academics, we can identify cognitive maps used in mega-
projects and we can exemplify and discuss them, thus helping to proliferate them.
Cognitive maps are used to make sense of our world and to make it manageable. There-
fore, the first example of a cognitive map chosen represents the sense-making process in mega-
projects (fig. 6). An un-
mistakable sign of an
ongoing and virulent
sense-making process in
mega-projects is the cre-
ation and the spreading
of rumors. These are
nothing else than trial
and error hypotheses. As
most fail, some will be
confirmed and thus
create an understanding
where previously no in-
formation for sense-
making was available.




Figure 6: Cognitive map of
sense-making in mega-pro-
jects

The sense-making process in mega-projects takes accepted goals as a reference point,
most often the pursuit of a profit. A number of factors act as noise when trying to understand the
environment and all of these are very important at the start of a mega-project: missing structures,
insecurity about direction, and ambiguity of information. The process of sense-making can be
supported by management when using a score of communicative platforms. Among them are
personal communication, formal or informal meetings, events, festive celebrations, and an intra-
net. However, management must exploit the opportunities to the fullest extend possible.
The effect of a positive sense-making process is a reduction of complexity by the devel-
opment of additional common goals (beyond those taken as starting point) and the building up of
a more binding identity. These two outcomes help shape a better performing team. The process
can be seen as an equivalent to the one that shapes a company culture for long-term entities. As
organizations implementing mega-projects have a comparatively short life, a project culture can
never be achieved. Yet, learning processes from project to project take place, and experienced
and reflective managers start at more elevated points of departure with every new project.
The basic building blocks for cognitive maps as used by managers are often rather simple
compared with the discussion in the academic world. Assuming that managers are intellectually
Sense-making
No structure
(noise)
Insecurity
(noise)
Personal
communication
Reduced
complexity
Development of
common goals
Identity
building
Team
building
Formal
meetings
Celebrations
Informal
meetings
Events
Ambiguity
(noise)
Accepted goals
Intranet
Proceedings - LEAD 2009 Conference
capable, we must conclude that too sophisticated constructs do not help to solve problems in the
world of professionals. The simple building block used for communication is the well known
sender/receiver model (fig. 7; Schermerhorn et al. 2000). However, culture as a form of noise
takes on special importance for megaprojects. Any communication can only be as good as it
deals with the different noises and the use of feedback. With a lot of noise and no feedback, there
will often be a gap between intended and understood meaning, also with a severe impact on
sense-making.
Starting point is
the perceived complexity
of mega-projects. This
requires simultaneous in-
put from different people
(delegation) without
enough time for full inte-
gration of the different
outcomes. In such a set-
ting, communication con-
tributes to the coordina-
tion process. It is the most
important means to over-
come cultural barriers. In
addition, it builds trusts
and motivates people in a
team. Of course, it also
provides necessary infor-
mation. Directly or indi-
rectly it helps to coordi-
nate and thus to increase
efficiency.




Figure 7: Cognitive map of
communication in mega-
projects

CONCLUSION
The implementation of mega-projects can be characterized by their very high task, social,
and cultural complexity. Managers need advanced tools and a clear understanding of the prob-
lems faced to succeed during execution. Tools such as scheduling or management information
systems are readily available. However, they are useless or even detrimental without contextual
understanding. This is stored in the minds of managers as cognitive maps and the correctness of
these maps assures success more than anything else. Grasping this point, an answer is possible to
the question of a company executive who wanted to know why projects with a management in-
Communication (preferred verbally)
Sender
Intended
meaning
Encoding of
message
Receiver
Understood
meaning
Decoding of
message
Channel
Feedback
Noise 1 (very important): culture
Noise 2
(characteristics, semantics, status, no feedback)
Complex tasks
Delegation of responsibility
Removal of cultural
barriers
Trust Motivation
Coordination
Efficiency
Proceedings - LEAD 2009 Conference
formation system performed poorer on average than those without one. When relying exclusively
on such a system, all the described effects other than information sharing will be lacking.
Employees will not comprehend the project, they will not be motivated, teams will not be build,
cultural barriers will remain, identities will not be sharpened, trust will be limited, and coordina-
tion will be missing.
The cognitive maps as represented through the figures in the text are formed against the
backdrop of megaprojects. Culture, understood as everyday practice, is always an answer to a
specific environment. As such, the cognitive maps form the nucleus of a megaproject culture.
They are the most appropriate answer to the problems at hand (as the outcome of a trial and error
process and they supersede behavior based on national culture, however, only in the specific con-
text of work: the presented cognitive maps are shared among managers from different national
backgrounds. A more comprehensive description of the best practices and success factors of
mega- projects can be found in Brockmann (2007).

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