Sydney Opera House, failure or success?

Every project is a story that links us together and connects us to our history.  A project is not a long straight canal, but a torrent of twists and turns.  When you look back over the story of a real (i.e. a complex) project, the story isn’t linear, but more like an epic, rich in character, plot, and incident.  With the story as a metaphor, it is even possible to build alternative images of the project based around the idea of character and plot, prophecy and fantasy, rhythm and pattern.

Sydney Opera House sketch Sydney Opera House sketch

Ask yourself the question?   “What do you see here?”   Or “Which project do you see here?”


Usually, when you show the one on the left to a group of people, someone will see it immediately.  They will say “Waves on a beach in Hawaii” or “Sharks off the coast of Natal”.  It tells you quite a lot about the dreams, the stories that are in people’s heads.

You may suggest that it’s iconic or that it’s a far-away building.  In any case, very quickly, someone will say “The Sydney Opera House”.   This is one of the most remarkable projects ever, designed in 1953 and completed in 1973.  And yet, did you know that the project was completed 10 years late?  And the project went 14 times over budget!  And the architect, Jørn Utzon, portrayed as an “impractical dreamer”, who had nevertheless won 38% of the designs he had ever submitted, but overwhelmed by controversy and changes to his design, resigned from the project and left Australia never to return.

So was the project a failure or was it a success? 

Doesn’t it show how important it is to agree upon the success criteria from the beginning of the project?   Was it a failure, due to falling outside the triple constraint of scope, time and cost?   Was it a success because it has become iconic?  The proof is that a group of people on the other side of the world 50 years later recognize what it is, immediately?

Doesn’t it show also that the ‘business’ success criteria may be more difficult to measure, and may be much more long-term, but are also more genuine and realistic than the ‘contractual’ criteria?  How can you measure and manage these long-term business success criteria?  Here are some suggestions?

Iconic-ness: show people the design and measure how many remember it or remark upon it a few weeks later.

Ability to support the tourist industry: measure how many tourist agencies will put it in their brochure, or how many brochures are chosen by tourists who come into a test tourist agency.

Ability to symbolize the city: actions of Sydney citizens in visiting the site, contributing to activities that showcase the site or develop the capabilities of the site.

Acoustic quality: expert evaluation by an acoustician of recognised parameters such as reverberation time and sound distribution. (In fact, its acoustics are amongst the worst of concert halls.)

Quality of experience: number of people that attend operas, willingness of great opera singers to perform at the site, television and recording revenues.  

Development process: pioneering use of computer-aided structural analysis and the value of the applications over the passage of time, quantity and value of problems resolved.

There are many other projects that people will recall, which are similar in the sense of being epic , controversial challenges, but ultimately successful stories.  The Eiffel Tower, but that’s another story...  The Hong and Shanghai Bank project is one that I know, but that’s another story... 

However, not all ‘iconic’ projects are successful, even when they meet scope, time and cost objectives.

Stories : Ian Stokes, Project Leader and Advisor

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