Theories of Big

How does one best deliver big, ambitious projects in business and government?

Bent Flyvbjerg

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Atif Ansar and Bent Flyvbjerg

The public sector, even in market economies such as the US or the UK, accounts for nearly half the share of national income (Offer, 2003).† Public spending has grown over the past half a century, and so have major public projects. Public spending on long-term commitment goods such as energy, transport infrastructure, healthcare, or defence, typically takes the form of major projects. With growing wealth has come growing demands for government to preserve and promote collective welfare and solve intractable new problems — poverty, crime, economic opportunity, public health, or climate change. A timeless question arises whether public policy responses to big societal problems should occur in big bold leaps or in small repeatable steps.

We will interchangeably use “bespoke,” “big one-off”, and “quantum leap” to describe strategy designed to achieve big goals in one bold step. As a point of departure, Miller and Friesen (1982) offer a useful review of what they call the “Quantum View.” “The quantum view advocates that changes in structure must be both concerted and dramatic” (p., 870). Miller and Friesen build the case for rapid and dramatic change by arguing that organizations or societies are greater than the sum of their parts — what they call “gestalts.” The presence of such gestalts in their view reduces the capacity to fine tune specific variables one at a time. Such costly piecemeal efforts are either going to lead to no marginal improvement in the system as a whole or become too disjointed and chaotic. Miller (1982) concludes that effective firms will tend to be in one of two states: a common state in which they are undergoing very little or no change or a rarer state in which they will be experiencing dramatic and rapid changes. The quantum view thus postulates that change should occur either in dramatic leaps or not at all. Such an approach will ensure that as little time as possible is spent making turbulent, unsettling, and costly transitions.

Albert O. Hirschman (1967 [2015, p. 1]) wrote long before Miller and Friesen, and he also proposed that societies ought to undertake quantum-leap projects. He called such big plans the “privileged particles of the…

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Bent Flyvbjerg

Professor at University of Oxford and IT University of Copenhagen. Writes about project management. https://www.linkedin.com/in/flyvbjerg/