PMR Interview: Small Projects

PM ChangeAgent Commentary by Stacy Goff.

In July 2018, Project Management Review (PMR, in China) published an interview with me. The interview appeared in their online magazine, their paper magazine, and in PM World Journal. This PMR interview is about Small Projects.

An Interview

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 not based on prioritized portfolios. Instead, it is based on ‘who isn’t doing anything important right now?’ Most organizations don’t even have a definition of what constitutes a small project! And, they fail to 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, 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. Eventually, 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.

A Solution

I defined a taxonomy of project sizes, and surveyed my clients for the relative delivery efficiency of project results across those sizes. The efficiency 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 than the 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.

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Is Project Management Strategic?

PM Commentary by Stacy Goff.
On the surface, this is one of those questions with an obvious answer: Of Course It Is! However, the question goes much deeper than that, and deserves more exploration. The topic came up in a discussion with a friend and associate, Alex Jalalian (hailing from Iran and Canada) at last Fall’s IPMA Council of Delegates meeting. Alex is studying for a Doctorate in Strategic Project Management. While I encouraged him in his pursuit, the question came up: What books, research, and indeed, published practices support such a discipline?

One source that came to mind was the Cleland/Ireland book, Project Management, Strategic Design and Implementation (Fifth Edition). We like this book because its topic spans from high-level strategic positioning to detailed steps and relationships in successful projects. But perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Are Project Managers Strategic?

That is a different question than the one above. Strategic vision and thinking must occur in the project environment for project performance to be maximized. But that thinking may not necessarily come from the Project Manager (PM). Sometimes it is best if it does not. Such as in cases of massive organizational transformation. In that case, a Sponsoring group should manage the Strategic Vision, and drive for change. They should reinforce the vision and sustain the change, once the PM goes off to another series of projects.

Some Project Managers are strategic, and some are not. This depends on their preferred style, the size of their projects, and the nature of the projects. It is also affected when others in the organization also participate in their role. It is affected by the training they receive, and the rewards given for applying needed traits. An essential factor: whether the PM is even capable of doing so. We believe the answer to this question is that some are, some are not. Perhaps a more important question is, can your Project Manager be strategic, when needed?

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Managing Small Projects

PM Commentary by Stacy Goff.
Curt Finch recently shared an article, What Mismanaging Small Projects Will Cost You. This topic is on my “to do” list, so I’m glad Curt brought it up. Curt is CEO of Journyx, and his article is great; see it here.

What Is a Small Project?

I ask this question every time I kick off one of my workshops, Small Project Management. The first time I asked the question in a class was at an Aerospace/Defense company, and a grizzled old Engineer said, Sonny, a Small Project is anything less than a Billion Dollars”.

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