USDOT Unveils Project Delivery Center of Excellence

The U.S. Department of Transportation launched a new center called Project Delivery Center of Excellence, which focuses on “advancing on time, on task, and on budget transportation infrastructure project delivery”. With the historic passing of the $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, proper delivery and management of the bill is crucial. The Project Delivery Center of Excellence will be housed in USDOT’s Volpe Center, with a ribbon cutting ceremony for the new physical home of the Volpe Center taking place in September 2023. In addition, to the launch of the Center, from June to November 2023, the Volpe Center is hosting a Thought Leadership Series where experts discuss best practices of project delivery and lessons learned from successful projects. The virtual series is open to the public and can be accessed on the Volpe Center website.

This past Wednesday, the Volpe Center hosted a virtual kickoff event to commemorate the launch of the new center, and the Thought Leadership Series. The kickoff event included keynote remarks from the Volpe Center Director Anne D. Aylward, and USDOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg; and an informative conversation on the importance of project delivery between Buttigieg and Bent Flyvbjerg, a professor at the University of Oxford Professor and the author of “How Big Things Get Done” and “Megaprojects and Risk.” Flyvbjerg provided several key nuggets on how to effectively deliver megaprojects in light of the need for effective project delivery for projects under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).

If you want to go fast, you must start off slow.

Buttigieg and Flyvbjerg discussed what needs to happen first when starting off a project. As stated by Flyvbjerg, it is a natural human tendency to desire to quickly get ahead with projects due to cognitive bias and run with the first idea due to availability bias. In order to prevent these biases, finding the “why” of the project should be your primary step. A substantial amount of time should be invested into identifying the “why” of your project. In regard to IIJA, Flyvbjerg stated, “when investing $1.2 trillion, you want to put some thinking into that, including each project that goes into spending that money”.

A “well thought out and well programmed” project will help you move fast. 

Once you have solid answers from the quest of finding your “why”, Flyvbjerg recommended  “think[ing] from right to left” or in other words, “mov[ing] backwards”. Moving backwards, which entails looking at your project diagram from right to left, will help you know if you are on the right path. Being on the right path will help you move fast within your project because it is “well thought out and well programmed”. Furthermore, Flyvbjerg recommended to keep your eyes on the project outcome at all times within all stages of the delivery process to ensure that you are on the right path.

Successful projects share commonalities.

Buttigieg asked Flyvbjerg to share examples of megaprojects that were successful despite facing complexities. With data on more than 16,000 projects, Flyvbjerg had several insights to share. Flyvbjerg shared how successful projects have commonalities such as an extended slow thinking process, experimentation and stimulation of the project within the brainstorming stage, and getting feedback from other experienced leaders. In addition, Flyvbjerg discussed how studying commonalities within other projects can be beneficial for your project. Furthermore, Flyvbjerg pointed to elements that can be used for comparison and knowledge building such as using statistics from other projects to estimate risks for your project or using available techniques and methodologies for design and construction.

“You’re unique like everybody else”.

The United States is known for large infrastructure projects, which are often perceived as unique, such as the Gateway Project (new Hudson River tunnel) and California High Speed Rail. Buttigieg questioned how to move away from thinking of projects as one-of-a-kind and how to find peer projects to compare them to. Flyvbjerg mentioned a quote from the famous American anthropologist, Margaret Mead that should be incorporated in the thinking process of projects: “you’re unique like everybody else.” Flyvbjerg states that though there may be a first of its kind project in the United States, there are still global project examples and experiences that we can learn from. Flyvbjerg emphasized the need to learn from other projects: “your project will fail enormously if you do not learn from other projects out there.”

In addition to experimentation, you need experience.

 Flyvbjerg discussed the need for leaders who are “master builders”. A master builder is an experienced leader with a proven track record on successful project delivery. In addition, a great leader always emphasizes their team. Furthermore, Flyvbjerg provided examples of great leaders who delivered successful projects, and a common attribute was that these leaders requested a team of key people to work with them on every project; as a result, they worked with the same partners over time.

Address risk early.

Infrastructure projects come with extreme risks; therefore, Flyvbjerg provided recommendations to manage risk such as examining the entire probability distribution of risk and not settling with just the averages because they are not reliable. In addition, Flyvbjerg discussed the concept of “black swans” and the need to eliminate them; his books provide examples of how this is done with transportation projects such as high-speed rail.

Successful projects take stakeholder engagement as serious as the design of their projects.

Flyvbjerg emphasized the importance of stakeholder engagement when delivering a project. Flyvbjerg talked about how successful leaders and projects pay close attention to those who will be affected by the project. When delivering a megaproject such as those funded by IIJA, communities will be impacted; therefore, Flyvbjerg recommended to hire people to take care of the needs of those that will be impacted and to treat them with respect.

Make every project about the climate.

Flyvbjerg discussed ways that climate-consciousness benefits modular thinking by using the wind and solar industries as examples. According to Flyvbjerg, these industries are successful because of modularity within their design such as the building blocks of solar panels, and how their parts are “standardized and can be delivered effectively.” Flyvbjerg suggested that the transportation sector think more like the energy sector when it comes to innovation. Furthermore, Flyvbjerg mentioned how the modularized industries such as wind and solar have fewer environmental impacts; therefore, adopting their approach can help the transportation industry have fewer environmental impacts when implementing transportation infrastructure projects.

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