Seeking project management inspiration from the Sydney Opera House
Let’s see what it can teach us about the Sydney Opera House's project management.


The Sydney Opera house is an iconic landmark in Australia! It is a performing arts center in Sydney, New South Wales. It consists of multiple performance venues which together host more than 1500 performances annually which are attended by more than 1.2 million people. Since 2007 it is a UNESCO world heritage site. Designed by the renowned Danish architect Jørn Utzon, its construction started in 1959 and it was formally inaugurated in 1973. He was later awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize, for designing this masterpiece. Today, it is one of the most famous and distinctive buildings of Australia.

An international design completion was launched by the New South Wales government in 1955. Around 233 entries were received from 32 different countries. The submission was supposed to adhere to well-defined criteria: it should consist of a large hall of 3,000 seats and a small hall for 1,200 people, each to be designed for different uses, including full-scale operas, orchestral and choral concerts, mass meetings, lectures, ballet performances and other presentations. In other words, the backers or sponsors, in this case the New South Wales government knew what it wanted. It is important that a project sponsor should know exactly what he wants in order to ensure proper delivery of the project. Jørn Utzon, a Danish architect was announced as the winner. Legend has it that his entry was not selected among the 30 finalists as it didn’t meet the criteria. However, due to his beautiful design his entry was finally chosen. It was the right choice in the end.

Apparently, there were a lot of delays and cost overruns. The original cost was to be 7 million dollars and its construction was supposed to be completed by 26 January 1963. But this was only on paper. The reality was quite different. The Sydney Opera House ended up costing 102 million dollars and was completed in 1973. Many experts in project management say its construction is an example of poor or bad project management. But should we always measure the success of a project by the triple constraints of cost, schedule and quality? Even though cost, schedule and quality are important aspects of project management we should evaluate the success or failure of a project according to the context, resources available and the people involved. Let’s examine some of the context and challenges below.

Sydney Opera House was, first and foremost, one of the first projects of its kind in scope, constraints, challenges and creativity. Since there wasn’t any previous reference to seek inspiration from and learn some lessons, it might have been difficult to get the figures right while defining the scope. Second, during the early stages of the construction there where some internal communication issues. There wasn’t any communication plan or policy. For example, Jørn Utzon was supposed to work closely with an engineering team during the planning phase but he kept to himself until he reached a possible solution to a problem. Thus, delaying the design and planning phase and causing frustrations among engineers. He even refused to install a telephone in his building. Hence all the communication was done by a courier. The engineers accused him for lack of cooperation leading to more frustration. This proves project management skills are not enough. Project leaders and team members need to have good communication skills to collaborate effectively.

Third, in 1965 after the elections in New South Wales, there was a change of government. The elected officials previously opposed this project. But they still reluctantly continued the project. On top of that they requested a lot of changes due to costs and structural constraints. But Jørn Utzon refused to accommodate all the changes. So, in 1966 Jørn Utzon resigned from the chief architect position and the work continued by local Australian architects. This proves just having technical or project management skills are not enough. A project manager needs to also learn how to manage and collaborate with project stakeholders.

Nevertheless, the Sydney Opera House is a significant project management achievement and it was inaugurated by Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Australia, with great pomp and show. Today it has become an important center of music, culture and architecture. Despite all the challenges, delays and cost overruns the Sydney Opera House has become a symbol of not only a city, but a whole country and continent.