Tag Archives: Sydney Opera House

What Failed Projects Have In Common

I’ve written about a number of failed projects (see the Project Failure link at the top of this blog). There is a common thread across all of them. Lack of clear requirements. It is the lack of clarity that is the key point.

The US Census devices had “thousands” of “unreconciled” requirements, the Sydney Opera House had an attractive picture, but no hard factual underpinnings for how the design could ever work, the FBI’s virtual case file project were “ill defined and evolved as the project progressed” and during the H1N1 vaccine project the scope of work changed materially. All of the projects I’ve just described failed.

Now this is a short post, so I won’t detail strategies for project success, but it does seem that a sure fire way to fail is to have vague, changing or conflicting requirements. Interestingly, bad estimates don’t lead to massive delays, vague requirements do. Equally, poor budgeting may not cause massive cost overruns, vague requirements do.

Of course, to run a successful project you need to succeed in a host of areas. It’s not just about the triple constraint of cost, schedules and resources. You need to get the people and communications aspects right too, but to fail you only need to keep the requirements vague.

The Sydney Opera House and Project Management

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.
Sydney Opera House

Sydney Opera House