our project problem, post 3: smaller wins

Our approach to designing and starting projects is flawed in a couple of important ways that make completing them as we intend really difficult. We create projects that are too big, too long, and without consistent leadership support—or hang by a thread as a “must do” from a senior official in a position with high-turnover. When projects come crashing down, we blame ourselves, our leadership, our contractors—luckily, there is no shortage of people to point at.

Let’s focus on the problem of project size because it’s so common, at the root of most project failures, and is so easily fixed. Smaller projects win. And when I say smaller, I mean really small.  Work that can be done in about two weeks is ideal.

But, of course, small projects have to fit into a larger, intense and vibrant vision for the future. Too often, we have a sketchy, faded sense of where we’re going and a completely useless set of mission and vision statements. Instead, you need a vision that is clear, imaginable, and well-understood by all stakeholders (to be PMP-y about it.)

Why smaller projects work is that each is created within this glorious vision. How they support it and take the organization one step closer is obvious to all. The resources are allocated incrementally. The team can focus—coming together for the specific purpose and dispersing when it’s done—a short time later.

All of the documentation and artifacts pushed through the PMP should, in fact, be part of the organization’s standard operating procedures and not recreated at the project level time and again. Communications plans, risk management plans, resource management plans and on and on are a waste. In the smaller project model, we don’t bother to create these for each project. We commit instead to adhering to the broader organizational expectations for planning and reporting—actually, we don’t even have to make any formal commitment. It’s just how we work.

I want to write something about construction projects because I think they’re different and possibly the opposite—more “go big or go home.” One of my favorite clients has undertaken the massive transformation of a cherished cultural site. There are about one million moving pieces that make her project incredibly complex but it is working. I think the difference with construction projects is that there are literally years spent planning and designing the end result. Each step along this process includes hundreds of check points when other people get together and weigh in. Problems are identified then painstakingly addressed. The plans are refined then everyone moves on together.

It seems like a difficult job from the outside. Progress can feel slow but she sticks with it.  She has to listen to and find the middle ground among people with clear biases but she sticks with it. The actual funding needed to bring the project to reality is uncertain but she sticks with it. It’s pretty remarkable, actually and I’m thankful she’s so dedicated.

But most of us don’t work in construction or even on big, lumpy system implementations. Instead, we spend oodles of time on project work and many days, we’re not sure if we’re making any progress at all.  It’s frustrating.  To regain that sense of accomplishment—and not even the sense of it—to regain actual accomplishments, we have to make the project smaller.