Book Review: Mega Project Management: Lessons on Risk and Project Management From the Big Dig

    By: Gerald Mulenburg on Aug 19, 2014

    By Virginia A. Greiman

    Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2013. 413 + xxvi pages. US $80.00

    Review by Gerald Mulenburg

    resized photo.jpgAlthough, as this book’s title indicates, author Virginia Greiman uses the Big Dig project in Boston as the basis for discussing mega project management, she does so from her vantage as an active participant in this project, first as the deputy counsel, and then as head of risk management.  Thus, the guiding basis for the book has many references to that project, but the lessons discussed are just as applicable to any mega project of great complexity and uncertainty, or across multiple mega projects.  A general definition of a mega project is a large-scale investment project of more than $1 billion, usually facing scrutiny due to its potential impact on a community funding and/or affected by it, and its possible environmental impacts.  Mega projects demand careful planning and management to overcome initial, often unrealistic optimism, and even sometimes misrepresentation aimed toward ensuring that the project will be approved.  Greiman acknowledges that her book is intended for teaching complex project management at the university level: “…this book is designed to be used primarily as a textbook…structured to provide pedagogical tools to enhance…learning” (p. xxi).  Her goal is to ensure understanding of the importance of aligning large projects to meet their business strategy.  Her cogent discussion about mega project management and leadership needs, and their applications, make the book well worth reading if you have interest in large, complex projects in any industry.  

    The difficulty encountered in these projects derives from two important causes stated in a Project Management Institute (PMI) report on managing complexity; “… two of the most defining characteristics of complexity in projects [are] multiple stakeholders and ambiguity” (1).  For these reasons, mega projects throughout the world each year consume tens of billions of dollars and are often notable by the poor prediction of cost and time required to complete them.  Because of the uncertainty in mega projects, major changes are likely to occur during their lifetime.  Using the Big Dig as one example of this, Greiman says it grew almost six times from its initial cost estimate ($2.5 to $14.8 billion), and completion took eight years longer than planned.  In contrast however, a study by University College London analyzed 30 global transportation infrastructure projects of over US $1 billion.  This report advises that, “Traditional criteria relating to cost overruns, completion dates … and rates of returns to investors are inadequate measures of success in the 21st century.  Decision-making [for megaprojects] should transparently include a much wider set of complex considerations” (1).  Some of the considerations cited include societal and economic benefits derived from these large projects.  Half of the projects studied were completed within ten percent of their budget, within a year of their schedule, and succeeded on social, political and environmental merits.  This, Greiman says, demands comprehensive knowledge and expertise in managing them.  

    Taking the approach that there is much to be learned from the success of mega projects, rather than a simple discussion of the difficulties encountered while managing them, she balances examples of successful accomplishments against errors and mistakes made.  She also provides assistance in recognizing how to achieve success by exploring commonalities among many mega projects.  Her goal is to “…stimulate new ideas about how to manage them” (p. xix).  To accomplish this, three key themes discussed include creating transparent frameworks, shared values, and collaborative partnerships.  Transparency in organization, governance, and financial structures is essential across the stakeholder base.  Shared values are “those principles or beliefs that the project participants agree are most important” (p. xx).  Collaboration is more than using communication tools, but ensures comprehensive representation and input among all stakeholders through the processes and procedures described.  

    The layout of the book covers each of the phases involved over the considerable lifespan of these types of projects.  The structure of each of the twelve chapters is similar in format and comprehensive in its approach, using the basic tenets identified in the PMI Body of Knowledge guide (2).  This provides the reader with individual chapters on scope, schedule, cost, risk, and quality, as well as chapters on stakeholders, governance, integration management, and the importance of maintaining sustainability for large, long-term projects.  Emphasis on two key general areas addressed throughout the book appear in the final two chapters, one on Building a Sustainable Project Through Integration and Change, and one on Leadership.  

    About integration Greiman says, “The importance of integrated processes, especially on long-term projects, has become a key requirement of all project management methodologies” (p. 349).  Due to the complex interdependencies among the various players, throughout its life span a mega project requires a high level of coordination and collaboration within, and among, the large number of separate sub-teams involved.  She says that in PMI’s in-depth report, Managing Complexity (3), change management is identified as the most important area for sustainability in mega projects due to the long time periods needed to complete them.  Also important are the change management needs of the people involved across the project’s key dimensions, the processes and procedures involved, and the knowledge required.  Leadership is a well-known component of project management but requires special attention in mega projects.  This final chapter of the book uses material from the earlier chapters, and from the leadership literature, to describe essential techniques for managing mega projects.  Greiman says that, “…leadership focuses on building a vision by inspiring a team of workers to take an idea and…build a better world” (p. 391).  She provides a concise table of leadership styles needed over the project’s life, with detailed descriptions of their application using ten important leadership lessons.  

    Although, as mentioned earlier, this book’s intent is for use with higher education student audiences, it is not difficult to conclude that anyone involved in planning and executing large and complex projects can gain significant insight from the guidance described in this book.

    Gerald Mulenburg

    National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Retired)


    1. PM Network (March 2014).  Decision Making for Mega Projects,

    2. Project Management Institute, (2013).  A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide-Fifth Edition).  Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

    3. Project Management Institute (2013).  PMI Pulse of the Profession: Navigating Complexity

    Released: August 19, 2014, 1:39 pm
    Keywords: PDMA Blog

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