PMR Interview: Small Projects

PM ChangeAgent Commentary by Stacy Goff.

In July, Project Management Review (PMR, in China) published an interview with me, covering seven topics. The interview appeared in their online magazine, their paper magazine, and in PM World Journal. This interview topic is about Small Projects.

PMR: You’ve mentioned that the secret weapon of high-performing project teams is small projects. What is the logic behind this statement?

For many organizations, small projects are an invisible 20-35% of their entire annual expenses. Funding usually comes from an operations budget, and staffing is based not on prioritized portfolios, but instead, on ‘who isn’t doing anything important right now?’ Most organizations don’t even have a definition of what constitutes a small project, or apply a consistent approach for identifying, prioritizing, delivering, and evaluating their success.

I noted this in the early 1980s, as I was coaching my clients to develop portfolios of their projects. I saw, in the most-advanced organizations, including global businesses and government agencies at national and local levels, an understanding that small projects needed different treatment than larger ones. For example, they often solved symptoms, rather than spending the time to understand underlying causes. Many times, the same symptoms occurred dozens of times before finally, someone would realize it was far too expensive to continue doing repetitive ‘quick fixes.’ Then, they would finally understand the root cause, and permanently cure the problem.

I defined a taxonomy of project sizes, and surveyed my clients for the relative delivery efficiency of project results across those sizes. The analysis for each project size was very interesting:

  • Small projects were the least efficient and least effective way to deliver project results.
  • Very large projects, with multiple years of duration and more than 24 people on multiple project teams, were next-least efficient way to deliver results. (We did not have programs in our survey.)
  • Large projects, six months to a year in duration, and one to three teams, were significantly more efficient that were very large projects, and faced lower risk.
  • Medium projects, three to six months in duration, and having three to seven half-time team members, were the most efficient way to deliver project results.

You can access this taxonomy, and additional ways to assure success, including the ideal duration for any project’s size, and the proper role of the project manager for each project size, in our whitepaper, The Successful Project Profile.

Executives asked: Why is the inefficiency so high for the larger-project size ranges? Several reasons: First, the larger a project team, the more communication is required. And after you have more than one team in a project, the communication complexity expands significantly. Second, for core team members, many organizations apply part-time assignment across multiple projects. Above the medium project size, team members must be full-time assigned, at least during the period when their expertise is most-needed. Failure to follow this guideline results in excessive task-switching, and the resulting increased defects.

Then what factors make small projects the greatest opportunity for improvement?

  • Insufficient problem or opportunity definition;
  • A sense of urgency often limits time for planning;
  • Changing priorities, as each new urgent emergency emerges;
  • Difficulty in assigning the top talent to projects perceived as less-important;
  • A wide range of skills are needed, but the small project team may have only one-to-three team members—who must fill all skill roles;
  • The ‘project manager’ is most-often also the primary worker on the team, resulting in conflicting responsibilities;
  • Each team member has many other responsibilities, including ‘their real job;’

Co-pilot: Small Project GuideSeeing an opportunity, we developed a methodology for managing small projects. It includes project planning and execution guidance, key roles and responsibilities, templates for capturing and conveying information, and essential actions for success. In the first offerings of the two-day training for the Small Project Guide, we were surprised to see that half the class were Aerospace and Defense Engineers of very large programs.

When I asked why they were participating in a Small Project Management class, the reply was always something like this: “I have great control of my program. It is the multiple small projects, over which I have no control, and that I totally rely upon, that are always the failure points for me.” They figured that the class would help them establish that control. And it usually did.

Over the many people who have taken that course, managers of very large programs continue to be a significant audience. Aerospace corporations have licensed it for their internal class facilitators to teach. And, they have moved small projects from being their greatest inefficiency to a strategic and competitive bidding advantage. Are small projects strategic? Yes, for some!

More About the Secret Weapons

Indeed, small projects can become more efficient for those who manage them effectively. This insight about small projects, together with our Successful Project Profile whitepaper, mentioned above, has helped companies to win more bids, and make more profits on bids won. And, they hope their competitors don’t discover their secret weapons. Here are some of our learnings from this experience:

  1. Most project managers and team members gain their first project experiences working on small projects. Thus, small projects can be the foundation for project talent in most organizations. Proper learning and practice are the keys to success in a career of project work. Inept early practices lead to consistent failure, or sub-optimization of learning.
  2. Lessons learned properly in small projects can scale gradually to medium, then to much larger, more complex projects and programs. As your enterprise project talent increases, their value-add becomes exponentially more powerful in supporting your strategy implementation.
  3. Project Oriented Enterprises quickly see the benefits of improving the way their teams manage small projects. Organizations that perform internal projects, rather than for profit, can quickly learn how to manage their small projects more effectively. This not only saves them the formerly wasted funds of small projects, it also reduces the risks for the large projects that depend on them.
  4. With this experience, this success also causes them to learn new ways to manage their portfolio of larger projects more intelligently, prioritizing and staffing them more appropriately.

So now, the secret is out. Let’s see who will act on it!

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