Improving Infrastructure Project Success



By Bob Prieto

Jupiter, Florida, USA

A growing world requires improved and expanded infrastructure. Juxtapose that with the need for massive public investment driven by pandemic created economic weakness and the prospects for significant investment in infrastructure is improved, but as history has taught us not necessarily assured.

We have been through other infrastructure stimulus programs focused on so-called shovel ready projects and have been disappointed. But whether we define them as “shovel ready” or otherwise we need infrastructure projects, especially the largest of them, to be successful.

In this paper we will look at common reasons large scale infrastructure projects fail and importantly suggest some strategies and tactics to improve their success rate. The observations are based on the author’s experience in reviewing, troubleshooting and overseeing over one hundred billion dollars plus projects. The extensive end notes are intended to give the reader the opportunity to explore specific items more fully.

Framework for considering large scale infrastructure projects

Over the course of the author’s work, he has drawn certain views as to how we should think about and consider projects such as the large-scale infrastructure projects which are the subject of this paper. Much has been written by others on why large infrastructure projects fail ranging from optimism bias to strategic deception and that is not reviewed here.

The author’s framework is founded on the following core observations:

  • Project management theory (classical PM theory) as promulgated by Gantt and Fayol fails at scale and complexity. These are the very characteristics of large complex infrastructure projects.
  • A neo-classical PM theory is required that addresses the challenges of scale and complexity such as that exhibited by large complex infrastructure projects. This new theory of project management must:
    • Recognize the open systems nature of these projects and draw on insights from general systems theory
    • Recognize the recurring discrete weaknesses in the very foundations of these projects, and address and mitigate these weaknesses
    • Address the dynamic flows which are characteristics of large complex infrastructure projects and open systems in general
    • Recognize the dominant role of stakeholders and shift from management to engagement
  • Metrics both to ensure success as well as to measure what success is are often lacking, not cascaded down through the project and fail to recognize the emergent behaviors related to large infrastructure projects such as migrating strategic objectives and perceptions of benefits realized. These later points arise from the extended time frames often associated with such projects.

Common reasons why large-scale infrastructure projects fail 

Large scale infrastructure projects fail for three broad sets of reasons:

  • Project foundations[i] are weak
  • There is an over focus on tasks while flows are largely ignored
  • Stakeholder engagement falls short and the extent of their influence on ultimate project success is underestimated

Key aspects of the weak foundations alluded to above include:

    • Weaknesses in strategic business objectives (SBOs)[iii] and associated key performance indicators (KPIs)
    • Inadequate prioritization[iv] – Prioritizing infrastructure investments is critical in a financially constrained environment. We must maximize capital efficiency by ensuring that we are doing the right things; doing enough of the right things; doing right things right.
  • Owner readiness[v]
    • Inadequate owner readiness and processes
    • Inadequate decision frameworks
    • Inadequate valuation of time


To read entire paper, click here

How to cite this paper: Prieto, R. (2021). Improving Infrastructure Project Success, PM World Journal, Vol. X, Issue II, February. Available online at https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/pmwj102-Feb2021-Prieto-Improving-Infrastructure-Project-Success.pdf

About the Author

Bob Prieto

Chairman & CEO
Strategic Program Management LLC
Jupiter, Florida, USA


 Bob Prieto is a senior executive effective in shaping and executing business strategy and a recognized leader within the infrastructure, engineering and construction industries. Currently Bob heads his own management consulting practice, Strategic Program Management LLC. He previously served as a senior vice president of Fluor, one of the largest engineering and construction companies in the world. He focuses on the development and delivery of large, complex projects worldwide and consults with owners across all market sectors in the development of programmatic delivery strategies. He is author of nine books including “Strategic Program Management”, “The Giga Factor: Program Management in the Engineering and Construction Industry”, “Application of Life Cycle Analysis in the Capital Assets Industry”, “Capital Efficiency: Pull All the Levers” and, most recently, “Theory of Management of Large Complex Projects” published by the Construction Management Association of America (CMAA) as well as over 750 other papers and presentations.

Bob is an Independent Member of the Shareholder Committee of Mott MacDonald. He is a member of the ASCE Industry Leaders Council, National Academy of Construction, a Fellow of the Construction Management Association of America, Millennium Challenge Corporation Advisory Board and member of several university departmental and campus advisory boards. Bob served until 2006 as a U.S. presidential appointee to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Business Advisory Council (ABAC), working with U.S. and Asia-Pacific business leaders to shape the framework for trade and economic growth. He had previously served as both as Chairman of the Engineering and Construction Governors of the World Economic Forum and co-chair of the infrastructure task force formed after September 11th by the New York City Chamber of Commerce. Previously, he served as Chairman at Parsons Brinckerhoff (PB) and a non-executive director of Cardno (ASX)

Bob serves as an honorary global advisor for the PM World Journal and Library and can be contacted at rpstrategic@comcast.net.

To view other works by Bob Prieto, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at https://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/bob-prieto/

[i] https://www.naocon.org/wp-content/uploads/Foundations-for-Success.pdf
[ii] https://www.naocon.org/wp-content/uploads/Governance-Under-Program-Management.pdf
[iii] https://www.naocon.org/wp-content/uploads/The-Importance-of-Strategic-Business-Objectives.pdf
[iv] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/270283422_Classes_of_Factors_to_be_Considered_in_Infrastructure_Investment_Prioritization
[v] https://www.naocon.org/wp-content/uploads/Owner-Readiness.pdf