Frank Gehry: the trick to always finish on time and under budget

How do you revive an old industrial area? By building something audacious of course. The town of Bilbao in Spain wanted to build a monument that would catapult them in the limelight- much like the Sydney Opera House had done for Sydney. The goal was to attract tourists, and boost the economy.

Bilbao allocated $100 million towards the project. And got the Guggenheim Foundation to commit that if they fund the construction of a new museum, the foundation would run it.

Thankfully for them, they hired Frank Gehry to build the truly amazing Guggenheim Museum of Bilbao. Because Gehry delivered to them what is known as the “greatest building of our time.” 

Bilbao had expected the new museum to draw in 500,000 people a year. Instead, it attracted over 4 million people a year! The museum architecture put the city on the map and many people added Bilbao to their Spain travel itineraries!

Construction that wows

That’s not the wow part however. The wow part is that Gehry delivered the project on time. And more importantly, under budget – at just $97 million for a 32,500 square metre place.

Contrast this with Bilbao’s inspiration: the Sydney Opera House which was super late. Its construction finished in 14 years instead of the anticipated 5. And its budget overruns are legendary – the final bill ballooned 15 times more than what was estimated!

Sadly, this isn’t uncommon. Bent Flyvbjerg from Oxford analyzed 16,000 major construction projects worldwide and found a measly 8.5% were completed on time and within budget, most of which didn’t require the innovative R&D that Gehry’s projects do.

So, What’s Gehry’s Secret?

It’s all about cutting-edge planning software, meticulous cost estimation before breaking ground, and collaborating with experts to keep the reins tight on costs and construction. But Gehry’s secret sauce? Understanding where plans typically go awry, a lesson he learnt through bitter experience.

The time when Gehry went over budget

Gehry was awarded the Walt Disney Concert Hall project in Los Angeles. It was his first project in the big leagues. $50 million was donated by Walt Disney’s widow to build a performance venue as a gift to the people of LA. 

However, the city hall had reservations about Gehry – a relatively unknown architect at the time. They got him to design, then brought in an executive architect for construction.

That’s where the project derailed. Shared control meant shared blame. The constructors pointed fingers at Gehry’s designs, and Gehry blamed the constructors. The result? The budget bloated to $274 million and an 11-year timeline!

Gehry realized at that point that the old mediaeval builders were right. You need a master builder. One person with singular responsibility and ownership. He vowed never again to divide ownership of a project.

Do teams always need leaders?

Gehry shows us the importance of a single decisive leader. But it begs the question: are leaders even required at all?

Florian Englmaier and her colleagues from the University of Munich conducted an experiment in a unique setting: Escape Rooms. Half the groups participating in the escape room were asked to select a leader before they entered the room. The other half were not. 

63% of the groups that had a leader completed the escape room challenge. Compared to only 44% in groups without leaders.

Even a poor leader works in getting good work out of a team. Teams need leaders. But having no leader is better than having two leaders.

Because when we have more than one person as a decision maker, we end up with a camel instead of a horse. We end up with cost overruns. And projects that never meet their deadlines.

“A camel is a horse designed by a committee.” – Sir Alec Issigonis 

Action Summary:

  • When you have two decision makers for one thing, there is no clarity. This lack of clarity causes budget overruns and missed deadlines.
  • Concentrate responsibility. One job, one captain. This approach keeps things on track, minimizes politics, and blame shifting.