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Quarterly Research Forum: Benchmark Findings for Analyzing Uncertainties in Megaprojects

Read about the March 2024 Quarterly Research Forum, which presented an Uncertainty Framework to organize and analyze uncertainties with megaprojects as well as Visualization Frameworks that…

Quarterly Research Forum: Benchmark Findings for Analyzing Uncertainties in Megaprojects

Read about the March 2024 Quarterly Research Forum, which presented an Uncertainty Framework to organize and analyze uncertainties with megaprojects as well as Visualization Frameworks that illustrate the project’s use of artificial intelligence and machine learning to mitigate them. 

The Acquisition Innovation Research Center (AIRC) and DAU presented benchmark findings from, “The Future of Managing Megaprojects.” This is the second Fiscal Year 2024 Quarterly Research Forum (QRF). AIRC defines megaprojects as “large-scale, complex ventures that typically cost $1 billion or more, take many years to develop and build, involve multiple public and private stakeholders, are transformational and impact millions of people.” This QRF explored how data visualization, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning combine with leadership practices to mitigate the uncertainties in large-scale megaprojects.

Dr. David Gallop, Director, DAU Acquisition Workforce Education Partnerships, said, “Ultimately what we want is to get practices from this research that we can apply to all projects using AI and machine learning.”

Dr. Tom McDermott, Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of the Systems Engineering Research Center (SERC) at Stevens Institute of Technology, presented the Uncertainty Framework, which organizes and analyzes uncertainties within megaprojects. “In the next QRF, we’re going to show you the analytical basis for the Uncertainty Framework,” McDermott said.

The Uncertainties of Managing Megaprojects and the Uncertainty Framework

Megaprojects and systems fall under equifinality, or complexity theory, which posits there are multiple pathways to specific outcomes and predicting areas of uncertainty is critical to planning. “Literature in commercial megaprojects says, ‘Think slow, execute fast,’” said McDermott. “When they move through planning to execution, then you need to execute as fast as possible because it’s those external events that end up changing things and killing projects.”

The Uncertainty Framework is a decision-making aid that characterizes uncertainties and identifies strategies to mitigate them. The framework comprises four dimensions of uncertainty: 

  • Strategic context: This dimension represents misalignment of internal and external views of strategy. There is more complexity and volatility from external and internal environments needing a shift in management approaches to emphasize change management, flexibility and resilience.   
  • System context: This dimension centers on how megaprojects are more transformative within the system, the operational mission and developing the system. There can’t be a transformative system without a transformative process. Regular management processes don’t work for mega systems.   
  • Implementation context: This dimension focuses on the risk that comes with assessing whether the implementation is concrete, emphasizing the need for effective knowledge transfer and knowledge generation.   
  • Stakeholder context: This dimension refers to the potential lack of alignment of stakeholders and the need for strong stakeholder collaboration. 

Case Study: T5 Heathrow

The T5 Heathrow project was completed on time and within budget in March 2008, costing £4.2 billion. The T5 project was the largest new aircraft terminal project. The British Airports Authority’s success is due to project management strategies, including a new management approach based on successful practices, technologies and ideas from a variety of sectors, including aerospace and defense. 

McDermott said, “They developed a whole new management approach to deliver the T5 project and the focus on change or uncertainties was in the management approach … They had studied all the previous unsuccessful airport terminals and tried to design a new approach to deal with the uncertainties of this project. So, it’s a really good example of how to deal with uncertainties.” 

Case Study: U.S. Army Future Combat Systems (FCS)

FCS aimed to assemble a brigade comprising manned and unmanned vehicles, sensors and weapons systems to make the Army “light enough to deploy, lethal enough to fit and win, survivable enough to return home and able to sustain themselves whatever the mission.”

The planning phase began in January 2000 with collaboration from Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command and four industry teams. The FCS project “had indicators of needed change but didn’t act toward addressing uncertainties. Instead, they reinforced what they thought were certainties.”

According to Gordon Krantz, Research Fellow Systems Engineering, Stevens Institute of Technology, “They defined a concept that expected a lot of capabilities that didn’t exist.” Krantz went on to further explain that that Army’s use of wargames and simulations were done to “affirm their assumptions as opposed to question them.”  

Visualization Frameworks

The Megaproject Decision Tool converts the Uncertainty Framework into an interactive visualization using AI to synthesize large amounts of data to gather insights and track the project’s progress. Generative AI can be used “as a transformative force, offering assistance, automation as well as augmentation, and we used a combination of those three for our project,” Dr. Annie Yu, Teaching Associate Professor and Software Engineering Program Director at the School of Systems and Enterprises, Stevens Institute of Technology, said, “Previously, [generative AI] was more content driven. … we should have a holistic approach to managing the megaprojects, integrating the computer and human perspective into the model.”

Dr. Dennis Folds, Chief Scientist, Georgia Tech Research Institute, explained challenges and milestones. He said, “[take] something that’s very complex and largely abstract and translate it into something that’s more common in everyday experience,” Folds said. “It is not an attempt to represent the thing being designed but rather the processes…of syncing up, planning, executing and evaluating the megaproject.”  

Leadership Framework 

The AIRC team developed a Leadership Framework to complement the Uncertainty Framework that aligns leadership characteristics with the domains of uncertainty.  Dr. Nicole Hutchison, Senior Research Scientist, Stevens Institute of Technology, said, “the way people are generally selected for leadership positions is based on more traditional project management performance, which is not the strongest indicator of what makes people successful megaproject managers.”

Hutchinson listed the main attributes that contribute to successful megaproject leadership, including having “depth in the domain” of the project while having broad experience. Leaders should also be open to new experiences, self-disciplined and test high in emotional intelligence among other traits.

Learn more about megaprojects and how DoD can apply project management best practices, data visualization, machine learning and AI to support megaprojects.

DAU AIRC Maria Briggs