How “Large” Is This Project?
When organizations want to step up their project management game and implement more rigorous project management practices, there is always fear that the administrative overhead will exceed the value gained. Practices need to be tuned to the context of the project, but how do we determine the appropriate level of thoroughness? One of the first criteria organizations propose in my experience is project “size”, but often this proves overly simplistic.
“Does my project really need this level of formality?” is a fair question. It comes up frequently when my clients try to implement a higher degree of consistency in their project management practices. No one wants to implement process for process’s sake, and few project managers have lots of spare time for what might seem like needless busy work.
The folks in a Project Management Office (PMO) often try to anticipate this by defining two or three categories of projects and establishing guidelines for the practices appropriate for each. This is a good idea, but care must be taken in how the categories are defined to be effective. Seeking simple guidelines, one of the first ideas usually embraced is project “size”—determined from the project schedule or budget (e.g., Small/Medium/Large)—but this can be a dangerous oversimplification. Better metrics might be project complexity and risk, but these are often seen as more subjective and difficult to quantify.
A useful practice is to develop a project scorecard to capture factors that suggest the level of risk involved and categorizing projects by risk (e.g., Low/Moderate/High Risk). The advantage of using a scorecard is that working with the project manager to categorize the project against defined metrics helps the project manager understand why their project was assigned to a specific category.
What factors should be part of the scorecard? While your mileage may vary, I’ve found the following considerations to be helpful:
- What is the business/organizational impact of the project failing to deliver? If a project is mission critical then formal processes for definition, planning, tracking, monitoring, and change management are probably indicated.
- How many different stakeholders and sponsors does the project have? Multiple stakeholders suggest a need for more thoughtful communication and change management practices.
- How visible is the project? If the organization performing the project will receive significant reputational damage from cost, quality, or schedule issues then more careful monitoring is appropriate.
- How many organizations are contributing to project success? Cross functional projects can easily go off the rails when the effort is prioritized differently by each participant. Clarification of roles and responsibilities and careful management of the schedule can be essential for success when there are multiple organizations participating.
- Does the project use new/unfamiliar technologies? Estimates for unfamiliar work are guesses at best. When an organization has limited experience with the technologies and tools needed to implement a project, careful monitoring to identify issues early is essential to keeping a project on track.
- How much organizational change will the project require? A mediocre system implemented with solid organizational change management practices can be a success, but a great system implemented with poor organizational change often leads to disaster. Detailed planning can be essential to effectively rolling out a system that will disrupt users’ status quo.
- How many systems will be affected by the implementation? The number of systems that a project must interface or interact with can be a surrogate for complexity and risk, and indicate a greater need for effective planning and management.
These are some of the measures of complexity that an organization might consider beyond just the “size” of the project. Walking through these questions with the prospective project manager can help clarify the need for the prescribed level of rigor and minimize push back.
One bonus thought is this: once the risk level of a project has been determined, compare that with the experience of the project manager. Assigning a green project manager to a high risk project is setting that person up to fail.
If you have suggestions for other metrics that might be considered, please indicate them in the comments below.