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Rebuilding Ukraine: Assess the opportunity!

The only way out of the uncertainty trap is through learning. Big projects can lead to big failures. Detailed plans and big commitments may be based on wrong assumptions

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Although India abstained for the sixth time from the UNSC voting on sanctions against Russia (because of its deep friendship), there is an opportunity for India to make up for it: Rebuilding the war-torn Ukraine.

However, most forecasts are almost always wrong, particularly for major, expensive projects.  The bullet train in Western India. The Iridium project. The pandemic recovery. Human beings are truly terrible at dealing with uncertainty. Quite often overly optimistic and more often politically motivated to push misinformation and disinformation. And sometimes we just take action because we feel rushed and want to “do something.” 

While this matters a lot under normal circumstances, it has huge implications for a project as potentially massive as rebuilding Ukraine in a post-war world.  By some accounts, it could be the biggest common project since the Marshall Plan after World War II.  It could be a trillion dollar opportunity for those brave enough to take the risks. So how to approach it? Recognize that under uncertain conditions, you have both no basis for making accurate projections and every kind of human cognitive bias that can cloud your judgment. 

Rita MacGrathThe only way out of the uncertainty trap is through learning. Big projects can lead to big failures. Detailed plans and big commitments may be based on wrong assumptions. There is no stage-gate process to back out from ambitious commitments. 

A discovery-driven plan connects the current and future path a project is on in a very disciplined way. It also pushes you to demonstrate how you are converting raw assumptions into knowledge as you go.  

The steps are pretty simple. 

  1. Define what a good outcome would look like, and what success will look like. For a massive program like rebuilding Ukraine, it would have to be one fairly big overall goal (something like ‘prepare the country for legitimate membership in the European Union’) but each project would probably have sub-goals. A goal around education might be how many students are moving along a curriculum for skill-building. A goal around energy might be how sustainable and independent Ukraine can become.  The point is to start with the end in sight.
  2. Work backwards to find what the logical implications are of how many units of impact you will have to create to have the overall plan succeed.
  3.  Then consider the operational requirements of delivering that many units of impact. Document them so that everyone on the team understands what has to be accomplished.
  4. As this progresses, many, many assumptions will be made. Make sure to document these.  By explicitly calling them as assumptions, the teams are empowered to ask the “why” questions.  Can we find evidence that would offer support for our assumptions? Even better, can we run an experiment to find out which assumptions are more correct than others?
  5. Finally, plan through a series of key checkpoints. A checkpoint is simply a moment of time in which you are going to learn something useful to validate assumptions. 

Dr M MuneerTo execute well calls for breaking big, customized, monolithic projects down into modular pieces to facilitate learning as it progresses. Also, one can deliver smaller parts faster than imagined and will motivate for more. The example of the Madrid Metro will illustrate these points. The systems’ planners used three rules to guide their decision-making. 

The first rule was “no monuments.”  In many public investments, customized and grand features differentiate one part of a system from another. The problem? Firstly, maximizing uncertainty and secondly, no way of later parts of the project benefitting from what was learned in earlier parts. Use standardized plans and everything one learns from a part of the system benefits the rest of it, creating the possibility for learning loops and the efficiency that comes from replication.  So in the Madrid line, every station was built according to a common standard plan.

Rule #2 was “No new technology.”  People tend to use the latest, state of the art tech. The trouble is that new things are unpredictable and can fail in unpredictable ways. They are vulnerable to the unripe ecosystem problem. Instead, identify technologies that are tried-and-true and innovate in how to combine them. 

Rule #3 was “speed.”  Entrepreneurs are used to moving fast because every days’ delay is a risk of losing money and of competition imitating what they are doing.  In the Madrid case, they realized that the rate-limiting step for making progress was how many boring machines could be deployed at one time. Instead of using one or two machines, as was prevailing practice, they deployed as many as six machines operating in parallel.  The crews learnt from each other, and saw substantial progress toward the goal. More importantly, they shortened the total time – a huge achievement.

What does all this mean for Ukraine? As author Bent Flyvjberg points out, spending a lot of upfront time thinking, before taking action.  As he argues in his forthcoming book How Big Things Get Done, “Think Slow, Act Fast” should be the mantra.  That means spending the “slow” thinking time to really understand the systems being created and how they interconnect. Better to spend the time on that than rush into infrastructure rebuilding only to discover problems later on.  It’s cheap to fix problems on the drawing board.  It’s expensive to fix them in real life. 

Specifically, Bent offers a set of heuristics, or rules of thumb, that can be helpful for those contemplating huge projects such as rebuilding Ukraine: 

  • Work backwards. Start with your goal, then identify the steps to get there.
  • Understand your odds. Most big ambitious projects fail – make the effort to beat the odds.
  • Plan slow, act fast. Getting to the action quickly feels right. But it's wrong. 
  • Find your Lego blocks. Big is best built from small.
  • Align your team. You won’t succeed without an “us”
  • Master the unknown unknowns. Use reference point forecasting to dispel the myth that your projects are unique.
  • Know that your biggest risk is you.

Rita McGrath is professor at Columbia Business School and founder of Valize, and M Muneer is the Co-Founder of the non-profit Medici Institute and startup advisor globally. Twitter @MuneerMuh

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Rita McGrath and Dr M Muneer

Rita McGrath is professor at Columbia Business School and founder of Valize

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