Managing Small Projects

PM Commentary by Stacy Goff, ProjectExperts CEO.
Happy 09/09/09!
This blog posting was prompted by an article provided to IPMA-USA by Curt Finch, What Mismanaging Small Projects Will Cost You. My “to do” list has had this topic on it for quite some time, so I am glad Curt brought it up. Curt is CEO of Journyx, and his article is great; see it here.

What Is a Small Project?
I have asked this question for over 24 years in kicking off one of my workshops, Small Project Management (also named Managing Small Projects). 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”.

Clearly, different people have different perceptions about what constitutes a Small Project. I have always used total hours of Work Effort as the basis for project sizing, and have, over time, built a size-ranging approach that covers small, medium, large projects, and initiatives. I separately deal with programs and mega-programs.

One could use Cost as a sizing factor (many do), but in my experience, Cost is a function of two variables: Effort, and Efficiency of Delivery. I have seen the same Scope for similar projects cost as much as 10x as much between one that was well-managed and staffed, and one that was not (of course, Talent affects Effort as well, but our estimating methods easily neutralize that impact).

Every Small Project is bigger than you think; but that can happen to projects of all sizes. And, there are unique characteristics about Small Projects that cause them to grow faster and more than others. But we have not yet answered the question above.

Our initial sizing of Small Projects was based on reviews of Information Technology backlogs and portfolios in the early 1980s. We analyzed the total range of projects, their sizes, their relative efficiency, and their distinguishing characteristics. Our scatter-diagrams showed clear differentiation in what we chose to call Small Projects. We then did cross-comparison with non-IT projects. The charts and characteristics matched.

Small Project Size Ranges
Thus, in 1985 we defined a Small Project as ranging between 8 – 360 hours of Effort, and often completed within 3 months. These are soft boundaries; 7 hours of work could be a Small Project; so could 720. But that was not good enough. Based on our Fourple Factor guideline, that all methods fail to scale at +/-4x their target size, we needed more granularity.

Thus, we arrived at three ranges of Small Projects:

  • Just Do It Projects, requiring 8-24 hours of Effort
  • Very Small Projects, requiring 25-120 hours of Effort
  • Small Projects, requiring 121-360+ hours of Effort

Clearly, many others have their own sizing ranges; but these have stood the test of over 24 years use (so far). And most importantly, to the point of this posting, each project size range requires a somewhat different level of rigor, and documentation.

Why Do We Care About Small Projects?
We care about managing Small Projects for a number of reasons, that are evident to the experienced PM Practitioner or savvy Executive.

  1. Small Projects make up a sizable portion of your organization’s costs. We find that for most organizations, they can represent the majority of your costs.
  2. Small Projects are usually the least-well-managed of all your project efforts, often merely treated as “more work that must be done by the end of the week.”
  3. Small Projects tend to have more change than larger ones; and while they are often deadline-driven and urgent, they are too often “bumped” by higher priorities.
  4. Small Projects are usually your least-efficient way to deliver given scope. Up to half of your small projects could be combined, staged, and rolled into more-efficient Medium projects.
  5. Small Project Costs are seldom well-tracked; coupled with the above assertion that they are a significant part of your project and operations Portfolio, many organizations are flying blind.
  6. Small Projects offer, for most organizations, the smartest way to significantly improve PM Performance, for several reasons. For example, many larger projects, or their successful outcomes, depend on them.

Let’s carry Why We Care a step further. Small Projects are the primary training ground for all persons, from grade school to Executive, who must, at some point, learn how to leverage planning and teamwork to manage beneficial change. That means there are 4.4 Billion Small Project Managers in the World (based on 2/3 of World population). Now that is change we can believe in—when they all learn how to manage Small Projects effectively.

If your Small Projects are important enough to launch, it is important to manage them well. Competent and Performing Project Managers and their Executives do so, and can demonstrate it. For the rest of us, our next Small Project is a huge opportunity to begin improvement. So how do we manage Small Projects more intelligently, and improve our PM Achilles Heel? Stay tuned…