Author Ed Merrow, founder and president of Independent Project Analysis Inc., which studies complex megaproject performance, offered cautionary advice to constructors to test project fundamentals before committing to a project, as failures often are preordained by flaws in "the sequencing of information early on."

"Failure almost never starts in the field," Merrow said, in a keynote presentation at a Bentley users conference in London in early November. Errors and omissions in the planning process will generate surprises in construction and lead to project-management challenges. But those problems are only compounded by earlier planning failures. "Project management is the science of planning combined with the art of reacting to surprise," he said.

Merrow defined the phases of projects and emphasized where fatal flaws often lurk, such as poor project data "shaping." In other words, bad execution stems from bad planning. He says shortchanging a project's scoping, purpose and policy development that underpin design decisions often doom projects before work begins. Parties should achieve definition and clarification of business objectives, he said.

"'Shaping' is the responsibility of owners or politicians, and deficiencies and oversights in the shaping information development process often go undetected until too late to correct," Merrow said.

"Building is only the last third of the project cycle. Most of the time of a project is spent doing nothing physical," he said.

Merrow said planners often cite a lack of time or the high cost of front-end planning as a cause of their planning failures. "If you can't afford to develop the basic data, you can't afford the project," he said.