Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner‘s book, How Big Things Get Done, is, according to the cover, all about project management – what makes projects take too long, cost too much and deliver too little.
Inside, the examples are drawn very heavily from big construction projects, and the occasional small construction project, including a cursed kitchen renovation. The grim list of typical cost overruns in Appendix A is all nearly about construction, for example. Which leaves hanging how applicable the book’s advice is to other sorts of projects, particularly the well-argued case made that ‘bespoke’ or ‘innovative’ should be words of fear not words of excitement when talking about projects.
But for those interested in political campaigning, much of the advice is remarkably applicable to running a target seat campaign. Those words of warning to avoid bespoke and copy tried and trusted construction blueprints translated neatly to the benefits of using standard leaflet templates rather than reinventing designs yourselves. (Especially when the templates come from people who have won a target seat before and the reinventions would be done by people who never have but who do succumb to the Ikea effect.)
Likewise the importance of personal relationships. For the book’s subjects, this is about cultivating warm relations with those who can significantly influence the success of a project – such as those suppliers you suddenly need help from when timetables start going wrong. For campaigns, it’s about people too. Indeed, I’ve often joked that the best election predictions should come from walking up to teams from different seats at party conference and seeing how they greet you. Do you get a warm smile and a friendly question? Or do you immediately get a list of complaints about how other people have got things wrong? It’s striking how much better the former almost always do than the latter come polling day.
Or as the book concludes:
The greatest threat [someone running a project] faced wasn’t out in the world; it was in his own head, in his behavioural biases. This is true for every one of us and every project, Which is why your biggest risk is you.
Or, as I’ve sometimes put it in campaign training: putting together a successful campaign to win a Parliamentary target may well be the hardest challenge in your life. In the year running up to your polling day you’ll need to have a six figure financial turnover and many hundreds of people helping in different ways. It’s like creating a business.
You don’t have to be a superhero to do it, but you do have start with the humbleness to know how much you’ll need to learn along the way.
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