Why are large projects different?

Arun Nithyanandam –

Many people wonder why large projects are so different from smaller projects. In fact, we’ve heard people say, “okay, so the budgets for large projects are bigger, but wouldn’t you handle them the same way. Isn’t project management the same regardless of scope?” The relationship between a project’s size and its complexity isn’t a linear relationship. Bigger projects aren’t just bigger; they have more variables that can impact the project.

Let’s say that you have ten small projects which together equal the size and scope of one large project—both in the number of people involved and total budget. The large project will inherently be more complex because it involves a larger network of people, ideas, and resources. It’s fundamentally a network issue.

Small projects focus on issues that can be handled by a limited team of internal and external resources. It’s often very easy to define the projects’ starting and ending points. When it’s time for a meeting, it’s relatively easy to bring everyone together and focus them on the same vision.

Large projects become more complex because there are more people, more issues, and more resources that interact together—and each becomes a project node. The more nodes, The more effort it takes to manage the project to a successful delivery.

Let’s look at some of the major characteristics within large projects and why they needed to be handled differently. We can organize this list into three categories: ideas, people, and things.


1. Functional gaps and unknowns
Large projects often begin with a vague idea and achieve critical mass within the organization.
Maybe an executive said, “wouldn’t it be great if . . .” or the community has expressed frustration that “there has to be a better way.” In many cases, a large project begins as a foray into the unknown—both in terms of existing legacy solutions and what the future should look like.

2. Challenges with change in scope
The project starts with a vague idea that starts organizational change and sometimes upheaval. It’s rare for the initial idea to become the delivered solution. As the idea grows into a project, new people will come aboard, new risks will be identified, and new functionality needed. During the planning phase, the project will resemble a fluid river rather than a marble monument. You’ll often hear “that was what we thought yesterday.”

3. Scope creep
Once an idea acquires enough critical mass to become a formal project, it’ll attract other ideas like a lint brush. It’ll be impossible to have a planning meeting without someone suggesting an incremental improvement. Additionally, when the project has located a source of funding, people may attempt to attach their non-related pet-project ideas to the large project.

4. Conflicting needs
Even when everyone is working on the same project, they may not be working towards the same ends. The people who represent end-users will have different concerns than the folks from finance, while someone from the IT team calculates the server loads. Generally, there’s no one group that’s “right” while everyone else is wrong. Often, the role of the project manager is to advise project champions on how to balance differing needs.


5. Organizational Dynamics
Large projects are prestigious. Many people will be attracted because involvement will enhance their career. Similarly, large projects also command a substantial part of the organization’s resources—time, money, and people. Everyone wants a piece of the pie.

6. People change during the implementation of the project.
Some people may leave the company; others get promoted into new roles; and even more transfer into different departments/projects. Each replacement means that someone new needs to be brought up to speed on the project goals, efforts-to-date, and current issues. The more people you have in a project, the more frequent someone goes on vacation, gets sick, or takes a leave of absence.

7. The Human Element
No matter what date you choose for a meeting, it’s rare to bring absolutely every key person and stakeholder into a meeting. People get called into unscheduled meetings by their boss. They also go on vacation, get sick, and take leaves of absence. When these unpredicted absences occur, it can have a cascading impact on decisions, actions, and timelines.


8. Project may have multiple participating vendors
In addition to multiple groups within the company, large projects often require the support of multiple vendors. These vendors each provide key elements to the project, but their efforts must be coordinated together into an integrated whole—even when they aren’t used to working together as a team.

Next week on these pages: Sell Business to Business Users

About the Author

arun_nith_blog.jpgArun Nithyanandam is a Strategy and Management Consultant based in Silicon Valley. Arun has managed multiple multi-million dollar IT projects in US and Europe across verticals. His current focus areas are Enterprise Contract Management Systems (deploying Nextance proposal-to-revenue and source-to-savings solutions to help companies improve financial performance and lower risk) and Enterprise Content Management Systems. Arun works with CIGNEX Technologies, a provider of Open Source based enterprise content management solutions.

During his spare time (if any) Arun enjoys hiking and reading.

Arun is currently working on a book (co-authored with Bill Sherman) code named “Managing Multi-million dollar projects” to be published in 2008.

For the collection of all Arun’s articles, please visit Squidoo Lens Arun Says

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