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Megaprojects and the PMO

I loved Michael Frahm’s simple explanation of what megaprojects are:

Big political things

Apart from that megaprojects tend to be over the £1 billion mark in terms of budget and are often under great scrutiny – not just because of the politics but because many of these projects are investment projects – for communities, cities or countries.
They also tend to take a long time to deliver, over years, decades and many organisations who run them – their project departments are huge in terms of the people working on them, and the third-parties and customers involved.
Needless to say, not many of us will have the opportunity to work on an airport terminal project, new museums or even new cities and towns as is the case in the Middle East for example.
This session was about having the opportunity to hear from someone who has worked on megaprojects for many years and Michael has also published a book on his experiences (it’s published in German at the moment, an English version is coming soon)
We start with the presentation and deck, then take a look at some of the highlights in relation to PMOs.

The Session


The Deck


Complexity a Key Characteristic

Megaprojects certainly come with much complexity and one framework that you might not be familiar with is Cynefin. It’s all about making sense of different situations and contexts where decisions need to be made. Complex situations are ‘unknown unknowns’ and compared to the other domains in the framework it’s often a case of you don’t even know what questions to ask, never mind understand what the project is likely to deliver and how.
It’s a useful framework for PMO practitioners to understand and we even use it in the PMO Competency Framework when understanding the competences required when you’re managing or directing a PMO. Which type of business or projects do you work in?
Megaprojects fit into the complex category and one of the things Michael mentioned was about ‘seeing patterns’ of successes and failures from megaprojects that inform learnings and future projects – learning how to move on from the unknown unknowns.
We had a previous session during the pandemic with our PMO WFH on supporting complex projects – which also mentions patterns but goes further with some different models for you to take a look at.

What Makes Megaprojects Successful?

There is much for the PMO to explore in these seven areas which contribute to megaproject success (access the deck above to be able to zoom in for the detail)

Points of Interest for the PMO Practitioner



Understanding the different cognitive bias – optimism bias was mentioned in this session – is an interesting area to explore and taps into the psychology of those making decisions on projects. There are a lot to discover, take a look at the infographic here.
Implementing benchmarking with comparison projects was highlighted as an area the PMO could play a very active role in – this taps into lessons learnt and knowledge management plus metrics and performance. A good place to start is the Infrastructure and Projects Authority.

Strategic Orientation

“Clearly commit to cooperation and collaboration” is certainly one area that the PMO can look to support – provide the environment, the tools etc.


We all know that key stakeholders need to be engaged – from an early stage and being regularly informed throughout. Megaprojects have the added challenge of keeping the public engaged and using press relations. We could certainly learn a lot from how these projects keep the public engaged and how they manage those communications – both delivering the good news and the bad.

Manage Organisation

Having experienced project personnel with clear rules – especially around tasks, responsibilities, processes, interfaces and reporting – a good reminder for the PMO to review what rules exist already – and what’s missing or needs updating.


Introducing freeze zones in the planning process – where plans are made, take some time to freeze that, get input and feedback, allow people to get involved, make suggestions and provide changes. Alternatively, the freeze zone is related to the point at which the plans are now fixed and no further changes can be made – commonly found right at the end of the project, just before go-live.

Risk and Uncertainty

Intensively consider costs, schedules, risks, interfaces and changes across all the project phases – the keyword here is how intensively do we do that now and how might we think about changing that intensity.


One of the key successes is all about having people working together on-site, at the same time – it’s clear that a construction site is the thing here but it’s an interesting insight following the months we’ve had during the pandemic where that wasn’t possible regardless of whether we work in an office or a building site.
The ability to bring together cross-functional teams – have fast decision-making – implement rapid and sufficient staffing – the creation of a “one team” mentality have all been tested and it will be interesting to see if project performance has been affected by this or not.

The Organisation

To give you an idea about the size of the delivery organisation, the image below (click to enlarge) shows the different parts, including third-parties, contractors, the public etc.
You can see the PMO, sitting there in the middle of the blue and green crosses. Each section and sub-section running different elements of the project – it’s about 600 people in total. Quite a job for the PMO to support all of those don’t you think?

In summary, to run megaprojects successfully an organisation has to have a high level of maturity and have the ability to face complexity, both inside and outside of the organisation and project. It has to have a certain type of culture – such as a transparent error culture and a culture of proactivity. It also needs to have the right resources – trained, competent to ensure a high level of performance.
Common pain points are the sheer level of resources needed on projects of this size and because of this, there are often too many departments needed to manage the operations – increasing the number of interfaces.
If you’re interested in hearing about an organisation that has reached the highest level of maturity in a P3M3 assessment and often manages megaprojects, take a look at the session from Network Rail.

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