As subscribers to this newsletter, you are the board of Gardner Industries. With today’s post, I’d like to update you on the work of the chief executive — that’s me — and let you know how the company’s money is being spent.
The core business of Gardner Industries is non-fiction books. The process of writing and publishing a non-fiction book is a bit unusual, so before I explain my current work, I need to lay out that process.
An author first needs an idea for a book. You read. And research. And ruminate. It can take months or years to come up with something good. (Or at least that’s how long it takes me. Maybe I’m slow, in either sense.)
Once you have a promising idea, it can take months or years more to do the deeper research that allows you to write a detailed proposal that lays out what the book will be and who will want to buy and read it. This proposal is sent to publishers. If your idea is solid, and you’ve done a good job developing it, and you’re lucky, a publisher offers you a deal. Now you can get to work.
This is why I say writing a book is like climbing Mount Everest — after you walk the three hundred kilometres from Kathmandu to the base camp.
But it’s all worth it.
As no less an authority than Winston Churchill famously observed, “writing a book is an adventure.”
Adventures are fun! Let’s hear more about this adventure from Mr. Churchill.
“To begin with it is a toy and amusement.”
“Then it becomes a mistress…”
“…then it becomes a master…”
I guess a little S&M is okay…?
“…then it becomes a tyrant.”
That doesn’t sound fun! I want to stop now. What do you mean I’m in too deep? I have to finish the book or go broke and my wife will leave me and I’ll lose my mind and spend the rest of my days shivering under a bridge? I’m scared! Won’t this ever end? God help me! When will it end, Mr. Churchill!?!
“The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public.”
I’ve written four books and I assure you, Churchill nailed it.
To revise my own analogy, writing a non-fiction book is like walking from Kathmandu to the base camp, then climbing Mount Everest. Without oxygen.
Now that you understand how books are written and published, I can update you on the current work of Gardner Industries:
The big news is that along with my co-author, Professor Bent Flyvbjerg of Oxford University, I have completed a new book that our publisher will soon fling to the public.
The flinging shall commence February 7, 2023.
The full, glorious title of the book is … deep breath … How Big Things Get Done: The Surprising Factors That Determine The Fate Of Every Project, From Home Renovations To Space Exploration And Everything In Between.
A sampling of the advance praise the book has garnered:
“A wise, vivid, and unforgettable combination of inspiring storytelling with decades of practical research and experience . . . Everyone who deals with large projects is already desperate to read this book. The rest of us will take great pleasure in learning from it anyway.”
—Tim Harford, author of The Data Detective
“Over-budget and over-schedule is an inevitability. Incompetence and grift is outrageous. Bent Flyvbjerg, with this terrific data-driven book, has shown that there is another way.”
—Frank Gehry, architect
“If we’re to make it through these next few decades, we’re going to have to build a lot of stuff—and we’re going to have to do it cheaply and fast. Here’s a very useful handbook!”
—Bill McKibben, author of The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon
“Flyvbjerg’s study of big construction projects worldwide has led him to formulate the iron law of megaprojects: over budget, over time, under benefits, over and over again. His deep understanding of why big projects fail—and occasionally succeed—makes this book a truly fascinating read. There’s a practical payoff, too: a toolbox with eleven smart heuristics for better project leadership that every planner who wants to succeed should know.”
—Gerd Gigerenzer, psychologist and author of Gut Feelings
And finally, the pièce de résistance:
“Important, timely, instructive, and entertaining.”
—Daniel Kahneman, Nobel laureate and author of Thinking, Fast And Slow
Clearly, it is an objective fact that the book is wonderful. But what’s it about?
Bent is the world’s leading expert on megaprojects — billion-dollar-plus behemoths — but from the outset we wanted the book to be relevant to complex, ambitious, risky projects at any scale. If your project is “big” to you, the book is about your project.
The first step to improving the track record of big projects is to know what that track record is. People have lots of opinions about that, but those opinions are usually shaped only by personal or professional experience, or standout stories in the news. As the old joke goes, the plural of “anecdote” is not “data.” To really know how good the track record of big projects is, we need to collect an abundance of top-quality data. Decades ago, Bent was shocked to discover there were no such collections. So he started to make his own database. Today, it has grown to Brobdingnagian proportions — that’s “big” with more syllables — and what it reveals is as clear as it depressing.
The record of big projects is bad. Very bad. Fantastically bad. No matter how bad you think it is, I promise you it’s worse.
After breaking down the numbers, the book shows why big projects so routinely turn into slow, bloated, lumbering heaps of misery. Then it explains how we can do better.
If you have a big project in mind, at home or at work, the relevance of this book for you is obvious. But what if you don’t? With some basic math, we show how even modest improvements in the delivery of big projects, applied widely, could save trillions of dollars. The potential gains for companies and countries are spectacular, which is important to anyone employed by a company or resident in a country. And see that blurb from the climate activist Bill McKibben? This stuff is also essential in the fight against climate change, which requires us to build faster and bigger than ever in human history. So if you aren’t planning a big project, but you do live on Earth, you should read this book.
Now, it’s obvious why Bent wrote a book about big projects. He’s an infrastructure guy. Me, I’m not entirely sure how to hold a hammer. So why did I co-write this with Bent?
Bent got in touch with me after reading my books on risk, forecasting, and psychology. Big projects fail mostly because they are badly planned, and they are badly planned for a combination of political and psychological reasons. Only when we understand and correct those sources of failure can we hope to do better.
Bent has a sharp aphorism: Your biggest risk is you. No matter how big a big project is — no matter much money, manpower, technology, and computer-driven analysis are involved in the planning and delivery — the biggest determinant of the project’s fate are the judgements made by the 1,300 grams of wrinkly, grey stuff inside the human cranium.
That’s why your biggest risk is you. And why this is ultimately a book about judgment. And why I co-wrote it. (Plus I live on Earth, a planet I’m rather fond of.)
Interested? Here is how to pre-order:
Worldwide: Penguin Random House
United States: Amazon, Barnes and Noble
United Kingdom: Amazon, Waterstones
To date, foreign-language rights have been sold in Japan, Korea, China, Vietnam and Thailand. More to come.
Now, as you may have gathered, the writing of How Big Things Get Done finished some time ago, and the book won’t be published until February, so I have time on my hands.
I’m spending it by walking from Kathmandu to the base camp — which is to say I’m doing research that I hope will lead, sooner or later, to a proposal and a future book.
It’s about the history of technologies that are commonplace now, even mundane, but were sensational when they were new. I’m particularly focused on the social side of the history. How did people feel about the new technology? What did they think it would become? How did they respond? That sort of thing.
I’ve gotten especially deep into the history of radio. It truly is — I swear I’m not trying to sell you another book — fascinating. I thought I already knew the broad outlines of the history. I did not. It has consistently surprised me. And it is provocative, to say the least, to study what people hoped this wonderful new means of communication would do for them and society, and feared it was doing to them and society, at a time when people everywhere are looking at their phones and social media apps and wondering what this wonderful new means of communication is doing for and to us. There are no pat lessons, of course. But there are recurring themes. And warnings. It is fascinating history in itself, but it is also relevant history.
This will be a good book some day.
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Final point: I promised you, the board, an update on how I am spending the veritable torrent of money pouring into Gardner Industries thanks to those of you who have a paid subscription to this newsletter.
The answer is simple: I am spending it on the archival materials and old books I need to write my history of technology. That’s it. Nothing else.
That means every paid subscription not only supports the on-going work of Gardner Industries and the eventual publication of a fascinating social history of technology you will very much want to buy and read. It supports used book stores and the people who work in them. And archives and archivists.
Archives and archivists deserve more love. No archives and archivists, no history.
So if you upgrade your subscription to paid, you support not only my research and writing, but also used bookstores, archives and archivists, and history itself.
Which is to say, if you don’t upgrade to a paid subscription, you will contribute to the bankruptcy of used bookstores, the closure of archives, the unemployment of archivists, and the end of history.
Or as National Lampoon famously put it in 1973:
This concludes my presentation. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen of the board.
As always, I’m happy to take your questions and comments.
PastPresentFuture is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber. But mostly paid. Think about it. Seriously.
As someone who has worked on a number of large ($1 billion) projects, I am very much looking forward to your next book and have pre-ordered it. The only conclusion I have come to is that all large projects are ultimately political, and that failure to understand and manage the politics results in failure.
Great news, and I look forward to this new book joining your previous ones on my bookshelf. Well, and reading it too.
I know preorders help authors but I'm trying to support local independent bookstores too, so I'll see if I can do it through one of them.