How Failed Leaders Can Look Like Doers

Congratulations – you’ve finally finished a major project. The project was not done well – it cost too much and took too long. But somehow, the people responsible for the mess get to claim credit for success and are treated as great leaders who took tough decisions. Why?

The issue here is that poorly-executed projects look like great challenges. Maybe it’s a very short subway line that somehow cost like a multi-line megaproject. Maybe it’s a replacement-level city airport that took three times as long to build as anticipated. Maybe it’s a tank that’s only been used in parades even as the military is fighting a land war where it would be useful if it worked – a land war that is itself a major project even when the target is a poor country less than one third the population of yours. Maybe it’s a corporate IT project that’s dragged for so long that the software is almost out of support; this is far from a purely public-sector problem – every corporate manager and every person who’s worked for a corporate manager knows many such examples.

These are not, objectively speaking, huge challenges. Objectively speaking, Second Avenue Subway was 2.7 km of tunnel and three stations in a dense but not historic urban environment, under a straight avenue much wider than the width of a two-track tunnel with station platform, with no undercrossings of older subway tunnels, in conventional hard rock geology. A medium-cost city like Paris or Berlin would build this and a few other similar lines at once (to be fair, Berlin would probably be building other lines and not Second Avenue Subway, judging by its project prioritization). But New York can’t build, and therefore this 2.7 km tunnel is in today’s money a $6 billion project.

Once the project has been so mismanaged, it looks like something much bigger than it really is. It took many years and had a lot of administrative headaches (which were mostly self-inflicted). Its budget was so large that it was overseen at the highest levels of the government or corporation that built it, by heavyweight leaders who everyone in the organization has learned to lower their head around and who therefore don’t face serious criticism for their own poor decisionmaking. Those heavyweight leaders, insulated from what people really think of their competence level, then go ahead and portray themselves as doers, who managed to get such a difficult project done – when the only reason it was difficult is that they existed.

Good projects don’t have any of this. They look easy. They also tend to be small by local standards, because organizations expand to their limits, and so if you’re Paris and 200 km of Grand Paris Express are just beyond your managerial limit, you will still do that, and then those short Métro extensions of a few stations at a time look trivial and are beneath the notice of the political heavyweights who it’s impolite to speak in the company of.

Good project are also run by professionals who face regular, uncontrolled criticism, and not by heavyweights who surround themselves with lackeys and yes-men. So on top of looking easy, they also tend not to be run by the sort of toxic personality who having sabotaged the organization’s capacity then turn around and claim credit for the completion of the project. Manuel Melis Maynar knows exactly what his value is, but he’s an engineering professor rather than a marketing blowhard.

A better attitude than “at least they got [difficult-looking project] done” is then to look at the project’s true challenge – in the case of a subway it’s its length with some controls for undercrossings, network complexity, and the historic and geological sensitivity of the site. If the project was unduly expensive or lengthy for the challenge, those who claim credit for it are ideally to be treated as lepers rather than heroes, and should be replaced by people who were responsible for less telegenic but better-run comparanda. As always, it’s better to imitate success than to imitate failure.


  1. Kevin Egan

    “In order for the state to be well-governed, it is only necessary to do one thing: we must call everything by its correct name.“ Confucius.

    Thank you, Alon, for telling it like it is.

  2. Drew

    This reminds me of the B&P tunnel fiasco. A couple of weeks ago President Biden was in Baltimore glad handing with local politicians and officials for the media. The general tenor of the coverage was positive and celebratory. This is a project that was initially supposed to be $4 billion for four tubes capable of accommodating double-stack freight, and which is now supposed to cost $6 billion for two smaller tubes only 1.4 miles in length, and is supposed to take ten years to complete. Heads should have rolled. Local news coverage touted this figure like we’re supposed to be impressed at how much money they can set on fire. This is why I have zero faith that things will get better with respect to costs.

      • Drew

        Yeah, even the initial $4 bil cost for this iteration of the tunnel was egregious. Building four double-stack-capable freight tubes in that corridor was a remarkably stupid idea. They should have proposed two freight tunnels connecting west Baltimore to the CSX belt line, and two passenger tubes between Penn and West Baltimore as was the FRA’s suggestion in the aftermath of the Howard Street tunnel fire in the mid-2000’s. Then we could have gotten the Howard Street tunnel to use for light rail.

    • adirondacker12800

      Does that include the billion dollar airport terminal on the back side of the station?

      • Drew

        So far as I can tell, as far as stations go only the West Baltimore MARC station is included in the project. Although the $6 billion figure has been cited in the media but I don’t see it in any of the project’s documentation (it’s $4.5 billion in the record of decision), so that $6 billion may include additional things.

      • Drew

        Okay, after digging a little bit, the discrepancy between the cost as stated in the RoD and that reported in the media is because the $6 billion includes refurbishment of the existing tunnel while the RoD does not.

    • Matthew Hutton

      The politicians look a lot better for producing a nationwide high speed rail plan, or even a high speed rail plan like the ones Alon has suggested before than they do for taking 5 minutes off journey times by upgrading a tunnel.

      And in the UK (and I’m sure the US) there is pressure to “level up” disadvantaged regions. And even if you don’t need a positive cost benefit ratio you do need to get close. And those projects are far more likely to happen if you can get the costs down.

      A 10km rail extension with 500k rides a year probably makes sense if you can build it for €10m/route km, not if it is €50m/route km.

      And even if the project is worth doing anyway if you can do it for 1/5th of the costs you can do 5x more stuff for the same money.

  3. Astro

    As we watch projects across the world go from one failure to the next, the hardest part to face is the simple, addressable failures made so consistently. So much of this blog is dedicated to cataloging in great detail the failures of cost controls, schedule controls, and scope creep. Alon has done a great job of putting those responsible on blast with great detail.

    Which begs the question: Where is the self-criticism? Or the external criticism? What prevents the criticism from finding an audience?

    What is so unique about public infrastructure and transit that this is the most common blind spot (that may be a misnomer) for societies to miss the forest (delivering value) for the trees (endless infighting and scope escalation). Are there no adults in the room? What is so impossibly difficult about this field that there is so little examples of people stepping back, looking at the big picture, and getting out of their own way?

    • Tiercelet

      I understand these questions are largely rhetorical, but at least in the American context it’s down to a few connected factors.

      First, the public is insufficiently numerate and, even if they had the skills, has too little time to do effective oversight of the elected officials and the civil service they appoint. Apart from activists who care about the specific issue, most people have no idea.

      Second, even for the activists, there’s a lot of intentional obscurantism–facilitated and encouraged by private contractors, sure, who want to treat everything as a “trade secret,” but even agencies themselves are extremely cagey about releasing information in a way that the public can understand. And there is very little accessible journalism that will engage in adversarial criticism of particular programs.

      Third, we don’t vote on infrastructure projects separate from everything else: we vote on a (very limited) set of candidates and have to evaluate the gestalt of their positions, often in a context where strategic voting matters–and there is immense pressure from the dominant two parties to ensure that no alternatives can come about, and to create a mindset that voting for someone other than who the party supports–even in a primary election–is seen as a major betrayal that will cause untold disaster. (And, to be fair, often does.)

      And finally, even all that aside, the system has been structured to create absurd districts that heavily favor incumbents. Only a small fraction of seats in any election are truly competitive.

      Put all of that together, and the public has essentially no lever for effective oversight over the elected (let alone the appointed/civil service) officials who oversee our lived environment. Instead the government, secure in its power, can devote its resources to representing major donors, with occasional sops to whatever local notables (landowners all) whine the loudest.

      • Lee Ratner

        Culture war issues also dominate politics in the Untied States. Nearly the entire American Right is pre-occupied with culture war issues and doesn’t care about anything else. Plus many of them interpret transportation as a freedom cars vs. socialist transit culture war issues. The non-Rightists do care about bread and butter stuff but transit costs is really low on the list of issues they care about it and usually is in the more of wouldn’t it be nice if we had good transit. I seriously doubt that many of the people posting pro-transit memes would ride it if we had it.

      • Astro

        Thanks for the response, and I agree with most of your points.

        I do find the first one a bit difficult to accept. Is the US truly that much less numerate than other nations? In low-cost cultures such as Spain, Italy, or Turkey, is the general public truly looking at the cost of services with a critical eye?

        I find myself assuming that the answer is no, and that the pressure to find cost performance is borne more from necessity than public scrutiny of specific cost numbers. Somewhere like Istanbul, which must deliver transit at volume to accomodate an exploding population amidst a currency crisis, has no choice but to pull out every trick in the book (at least when viewed from the outside) to deliver more infrastructure for less.

        In a nation like the US where car culture is relatively affordable (although I desperately want us to shift away from it for all the usual climate, convenience, and cost reasons), good transit infrastructure is confined to limited enclaves, and on-time on-cost delivery is not necessarily do-or-die in the same way as nations where a huge split of the national populations requires effective project delivery just to make the budget pencil in an urban metro.

        On the point of oversight, I do find myself wishing for binding referendums at times. The Sepulveda Pass project would be so much simpler if we could just put the route alternatives and funding to a binding vote, and get on with delivering service ASAP.

        • Eric2

          But Bangladesh needs transit at volume even more than Turkey, yet has extremely dysfunctional transit construction. (And they share at least one notable cultural aspect – religion – for what that’s worth)

        • Alon Levy

          The US and UK plausibly have the lowest engineering prestige of any developed country. They both have business culture in which the engineer works for the Ivy or Oxbridge humanities or social sciences graduate who hates math, and must explain to this math-hating graduate technical concepts in a situation in which if the manager does not understand (e.g. out of intellectual laziness), the engineer will be blamed.

          • Astro

            Is there a good way to evaluate that outside of anecdotes? For certain firms and organizations, you’re dead-on about the culture of management vs. the tech staff.

            But, I have seen/worked with/etc. numerous converse anecdotes, where the whole stack at the company is at least technical adjacent.

            What is it about US business culture that promotes more of the first culture, and less of the second? Is that truly not applicable to the same positions and organizations in other developed regions?

          • Alon Levy

            It truly isn’t; US/UK academic hierarchy is pretty unusual in that where you went to uni matters more than what you studied and how well you did. The American tech industry is pretty exceptional in how it culturally expects everyone to know how to code – thus, Mark Zuckerberg became a billionaire and Eduardo Saverin and the Winklevoss twins grift for millions – but more traditional industries don’t work this way and neither does the public sector. The overclass in American public transit is not technical or technically curious.

        • Matthew Hutton

          As per America was 1/3 richer than most Europeans in 2010, and its economy has grown more since.

          That said America doesn’t really feel substantially richer than Europe.

          I get the feeling America is quite used to not spending its money well. I saw something on Twitter about someone boasting that their state high school had *two* Olympic sized pools.

          While having a single 10m by 20m indoor pool would be better than my school and probably broadly worthwhile. However having an Olympic pool sounds a bit excessive and pointless. Same as the American schools with full on stadiums, I mean what’s the point?

          • wiesmann

            I’m from Switzerland, one of the few European countries that is – on a GDP/capita basis – a bit richer than the US. My first visit to Silicon Valley was quite a shock…

          • Astro

            Spending on schools in almost any form is better than some of the oft-cited problems we have. At least with school stadiums and pools, the places that tend to build big tend to use big. In Texas, there are networks of 6-10 schools that share one big stadium, and will pack it 3-4 times per weekend. Compared to tripling the cost of a one-lane highway expansion over useless infighting, I’ll take the option that at least gives people something fun to do in the evening.

            Now if only there was an equal impetus to increase teacher salaries across the board…

    • Basil Marte

      What is so impossibly difficult about this field that there is so little examples of people stepping back, looking at the big picture, and getting out of their own way?

      I would rephrase Alon’s thesis as saying that these projects are too big, or rather, too rare to fail. Whatever decisionmakers are in charge get only a single shot at leading a project of this size, and success vs. failure can make or break their careers/reputations/”legacies”. They are committed from day 1. Thus any issue posing a risk of outright project failure/cancellation gets prioritized over any issue that doesn’t carry a Big Red Button. If scope, budget, and service usefulness are in the latter category, they will be programmatically sacrificed in the service of other goals.

      A particularly interesting case is that of timeline slip, since it can move from one category to the other within the course of a single project. If the project (despite its large size) lives off limited and uncertain political capital, there is no time to fiddle with NIMBYs in court. Quick, trade off something unimportant — say, throw betterments at them. However, once it becomes implausible that the project would be cancelled for lateness (or at all, e.g. once ground is broken on an arbitrary part), this concern disappears, and timely completion turns into a designated bag-holder. Yes, we can wait for the utilities representatives. The intricate thing is that it is largely foreseeable whether this shift will take place, allowing strategic behavior around it, e.g. in the early haste promising to use time-wasting processes later — and of course the pinnacle move is to move “public commitment” up the timeline.

      There is a separate issue where if a project becomes …politicized(?), it becomes somewhat irrelevant whether people are able to evaluate its costs, because it becomes impossible to suggest cost control and especially scope cutting. The Capitol, the state parliament, City Hall — they are office buildings, they belong in a suburban office park in “metal shed” buildings. The cathedral would be cheaper without gargoyles and stained glass. Even on the personally evaluable level: the Christmas present already had adequate packaging on the store shelf, there is no need for wrapping paper. Then they said, come, let us build ourselves a [megaproject], so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.

  4. R. W. Rynerson

    When we were holding public meetings for the bus and trolley coach network changes accompanying Edmonton’s first LRT line, it was predictable that someone would ask why we were taking up their time now, when “everyone knows” that a project like ours would never open on time and would get tangled in cost overruns. How could city bureaucrats and local contractors do something that big firms were struggling to finish? Our contemporaries BART and WMATA would be mentioned in authoritative tones. I’ve concluded that one reason people get away with delays and overruns is because expectations are so low.

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