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October 28, 2017

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Too Many Projects = Chaos

Steven A. Stanton is the author of SMART WORK: Why Organizations Full of Intelligent People Do So Many Dumb Things and What You Can Do About It. His book (get it on Amazon.com) reveals how organizations achieve quantum increases in productivity and avoid doing dumb things.

Michael Neece is the co-founder of Jenyta; a “work management” software firm helping organizations achieve exponential increases in productivity. Photo Credit: Ludovic des Cognets

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A DYSFUNCTION CALLED “PROJECT-ITIS”

There’s a strange new malady afflicting most organizations.  It’s called Project-itis.  This dysfunction is characterized by the invisible existence of hundreds (and in many cases thousands) of disconnected process improvement projects.

 

Does this sound familiar?  Do you have any of the following symptoms?

  • Difficulty staffing projects because everyone is already staffed on too many projects

  • Inability to coordinate project tasks and synchronize documents, because no one knows what’s going on outside their immediate sphere of influence

  • Spreadsheets, status tracking apps, instant messaging, and shared folders are everywhere and disconnected. Project managers spend most of their time updating spreadsheets, tracking status via e-mail and reporting on past activities

  • Redundant or conflicting projects are pervasive due to lack of oversight or visibility

  • By the time stakeholders learn that their project is in trouble (cost, quality, time, compliance) it’s too late to correct the causes

  • Continuous launching of even more new projects because there are no “rules” or policies for project initiation

  • Project success rate or ROI is unknown and rarely measured.

 

UNDERLYING CAUSATION

Project-itis exists because there’s generally no ownership or visibility across the project portfolio. It’s exasperated when there are no rules for launching a project.  When project-itis rules the world, the only possible outcome is chaos.  When no one is measuring the aggregate process investment the return can’t be calculated. 

 

Project-itis results when organizations act as if change is free and their absorption capability is infinite.  Of course, neither is true.  Just because the change portfolio isn’t measured does not mean it’s without significant cost.

 

Project-itis happens when change is an orphan, unowned and un–measured, when there are no guiding or supporting processes and no accountability for the aggregate results.

 

Project-itis infected organizations are like orchestras filled with musicians reading different sheet music (documents), while performing their instrument (tasks) in isolation from other team members. And there’s no conductor (or way) to lead, coordinate and synchronize everyone and everything. The result is a lot of noise and poor performance.

 

CURING PROJECT-ITIS

The following case is an excerpt from Steve Stanton’s  book “Smart Work: Why Organizations Full of Intelligent People Do So Many Dumb Things and What You Can Do About It”.  In it, he asserts that only a smart governing process can cure Project-itis. Here’s how one company did it.

 

A Fortune 100 company began experiencing trouble staffing major improvement projects. Sponsors across the organization were having increased difficulty finding available employees to join their teams. The executive committee was mystified by this pervasive problem.

 

The CEO took this issue on himself. After a few weeks of investigation, he discovered that nobody knew how many projects were active across the company. Managers knew about their individual projects, of course, but no one could tell him the organizational total. Even worse, no one had any idea what their project success rate was.

 

So the CEO asked one of his senior managers, Ken, to investigate. Ken’s first move was to conduct a thorough inventory of all the projects underway in the company.

 

It took one month of detective work, but Ken came back with an astounding number. There were more than 1,400 active projects in the portfolio. There were big ones, small ones, red ones, secret ones, where the initiator didn’t want his project to be seen, as well as redundant and conflicting projects.

 

Immediate action was needed. Leadership convened a task force, led again by Ken (yet another project, as they ironically noted) to gather information on the benefits, costs, time frames, membership, and status of every project, none of which was easily available or accessible. The team estimated that in the past 3 years, the company’s success rate had been around 10 percent.

 

Once Ken shared the inventory of all projects they could find, leadership began a rigorous prioritization process. Their initial goal was to slash the project portfolio in half. Although each project had been launched with positive intent, the total number of efforts was unsustainable.  As George Bernard Shaw once noted, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” So 700 projects were terminated and their teams disbanded.

 

With fewer projects to review, the portfolio was reprioritized and cut in half again.  Both times the criteria were based on ROI and implementation difficulty. After the second round, roughly 300 projects remained.

 

The impact of this triage was immediate and valuable, with surviving projects upgrading membership quality and quantity and better project managers aligning with more strategic projects.

 

“The quantity of projects reduced from 1,400 to 300. Project success rates increased from 10% to 75%. ROI doubled. Quality and compliance improved dramatically. Risks were better controlled and mitigated. And employee stress was reduced."

 

Most important, the 300 remaining projects represented a portfolio balanced by beneficiary—customer, shareholder, employee, short- and long-term timeframes, level of risk, and area of the business. The company could only create this optimized portfolio by having visibility and control over all projects.

 

The company developed a project process, several Strategic Principles, and a Project Management Office (PMO). One of the principles stated that no one could unilaterally launch a project. All proposed projects needed PMO approval before staffing and launch. In addition, the PMO was charged with:

  • Centralized and automated tracking of all projects

  • Implementing methods to alert participants and escalate issues so in-fight projects stay on-track

  • Facilitating post-project reviews, calculating ROI and distributing the lessons learned

  • Assist in aligning project managers and resources to projects

 

The company now follows the dictum, “Fight fewer battles (projects) but win more of them.” Its success rate is now 75 percent and the ROI from improvement has doubled.

 

 

 

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