11 heuristics for better project leadership

At the end of How Big Things Get Done, the authors set out a bunch of heuristics to improve the chances of your project’s success. (A “heuristic” is just a fancy term for a “rule of thumb”—a mental shortcut you might follow to make better decisions.)

The 11 heuristics are:

  1. Hire a masterbuilder. Don’t underestimate the importance of experience—you want someone with a proven track record.
  2. Get your team right. Your masterbuilder should ideally pick the team, too.
  3. Ask “why?”. Make sure you understand your end goal. Is your project the best way to get there?
  4. Build with Lego. The best way to build big things is to start with small, modular units.
  5. Think slow, act fast. Planning is much cheaper than delivery. Good planning should flush out your risks before the serious money is committed.
  6. Watch your downside. Look for ways to mitigate the risks you’ve identified in your planning, such as by shortening your project’s duration.
  7. Take the outside view. Gather data on similar projects and learn from the real-world experience of those who have gone before.
  8. Say no and walk way. Stay focused on your project and say no to distractions.
  9. Make friends and keep them friendly. Ensure you have the support of key stakeholders who can significantly influence your project.
  10. Build climate mitigation into your project. [This doesn’t really feel like a heuristic, but whatever.]
  11. Know that your biggest risk is you. We all have biases such as thinking our own project is unique. But this will stop us from learning from others’ experience.

I’d definitely recommend you read the whole book (or at the very least my summary of it) before trying to apply these. But the above list can be handy if you need a refresher when you’re about to start a big project.

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