The Sydney Opera House, along with Project Taurus and the FBI’s Virtual Case File is one of the canonical examples of bad project management with major budget overuns accompanying significant delays.
I was recently in Sydney and took a tour of the Opera House, it’s interesting to learn what went wrong.
Breaking The Rules
To summarize, there was no plan, only an aspiration. The original submission to the opera house design contest, which became the Opera House did not meet the competition rules. The judges put in place a ‘stage gate’ process to evaluate entries, but then were disappointed that the beautiful ‘sail’ design (the one ultimately selected) didn’t make it through, and basically chose it anyway, throwing process aside.
An Aspiration Rather Than A Plan
When construction started there was no clear concept of how the roof might be constructed. It’s not that the estimates were wrong, it’s that there was nothing to base the estimates on in the first place. Much of the delay and cost overrun was caused by iteration on roof design, eventually landing on a solution that constructed the roof out of interlocking tiles, but this solution was only discovered after a lot of time and effort.
In a sense, the Opera House shows the value of project management, in retrospect the inability to produce a ‘real’ plan from the outset – specifically for the roof – should have been a major red flag.
Do Masterpieces Require Budget Overruns?
However, the other lesson is that correct choice of metrics is key. Sure, the Opera House failed on cost and duration estimates. But it’s one of a handful of real architectural masterpieces from the last century, and that metric was not on the project plan. However, please don’t take away the idea that brilliance entails lateness, admittedly the Bilbao Guggenheim had access to more modern technology, but it was completed basically on time and budget and still won many prizes.