Why less is more with project management

Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez
Credit: Gabriel Saldana via Flickr

If you want to make sure something doesn't get done…. make it a project. This is a common statement often heard from senior executives, including CIOs. Companies often have too many projects going on at one time. This leads to a high rate of failure, here's a look at how to change that.

If you want to make sure that something is not done...make it a project,” I have had several senior executives, including CIOs, in different large corporations, tell me this when I start exploring why their companies have so many projects, and why they often fail in delivering them or achieve any tangible benefits.

In this blog I will share my experiences when dealing with the very complex, and often undervalued, world of “project management.” As a lead practitioner, as well as academic, I have the luxury to practice the theories in my day-to-day job as director head of a global corporate program management office. With this in mind, my goal is to share what really works in the field, which is often contradictory to what some of the experts preach as so-called best practices..

Over the years, I have found that the word project is a term that is extensively used yet largely misunderstood in today’s private and public sector. This phenomenon generates two issues, which have an impact on the success rate of project delivery:

1. Many activities, which traditionally had been performed through normal day-to-day time, are now labelled projects. This exponentially increases the number of projects and project managers in an organization. Not long ago, I did some work for a leading bio-tech company. They had 78 staff, 7 executives, yet, had a list of more than 200 projects, on top of their day-to-day activities. Just incredible. And this disease affects almost every organization today, which creates several collateral damages, one of them around prioritization, a topic I will address in a future post.

2. If you apply project management techniques to all of your projects, you will be increasing complexity, growing costs and creating extra governance committees to some undertakings that don’t need it. A key data point to remember is that “project management is not for free.” On average, you should add 5 percent to 10 percent extra cost to the activity for the dedicated management, the monitoring, the reporting and the extra governance.

Before tackling more complex issues, it is important that we all share the same understanding of what a project is and what it is not.

There are plenty of definitions out there, starting from PMI’s Project Management Body of Knowledge© : “A project is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result. A project is temporary in that it has a defined beginning and end in time, and therefore defined scope and resources.”

ISO 10006 states: “Unique process consisting of a set of co-ordinated and controlled activities with start and finish dates, undertaken to achieve an objective conforming to specific requirements, including constraints of time, cost and resources”. As you can see, both definitions are quite wordy and hard to grasp at first.

Here is one definition I have often used: “A project is a new undertaking with a specific goal, a limited budget, and a target end date often involving different units of the organization.” They key is not to get fixated on trying to find the perfect definition, I recommend developing your own project definition based on your current practices and one that resonates with your people.

The second part, which is even more important than the common definition, is to set some clear and objective criteria of what is a project (changing-the-business), and what should be considered as day-to-day activities (or what I call, running-the-business). Here as well there are different theories; yet, I tend to be very pragmatic as often there is no black or white answer in what we do. I recommend defining a set of criteria, such as:

  • Size of the project in terms of budget (e.g. above 500.000 USD)
  • Size in terms of duration (e.g. between 6 to 18 months)
  • More than 5 FTE
  • At least three units/departments impacted
  • Linked to a corporate or departmental strategic priority

Those projects that will comply with these criteria have to be managed by professional project managers, using the project management processes, tools and technics, including risk management. They will also require setting up the right governance structure and the monitoring mechanism to ensure the project is well executed.

Take Action:

1. Adopt one single definition of what a project is.

2. Agree on common criteria for defining what a project is and what it is not.

3. Apply the criteria to remove projects from your extensive list of projects.

4. Remember that applying project management adds extra costs, so apply it smartly to those projects that are relevant for your organization

Benefits:

1. Less ambiguity of what is a project.

2. Less total projects.

3. Real projects better planned, staffed and managed, increasing the chances of successful delivery.

The bio-tech company which I referred at the beginning of my post, implemented these actions and after a few months, they reduced the amount of projects from 200 to 30, which made a huge different for the implementation.

Keep well and keep focused.

Antonio

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