The Art of Project Management: Scale

Slalom Consultant Carl Manello

Carl Manello

The control of a large force is the same principle as the control of a few men: it is merely a question of dividing up their numbers.Sun Tzu, military strategist

Creating principles

The basic principles of project management are fully extensible from the smallest initiative to the largest program. The key is that the project management practices should be understood as principles: accepted or professed rules of action or conduct. It is based on this belief that I encourage my clients to establish project manager guiding principles and to construct project management frameworks (not detailed, step-by-step methodologies). By maintaining the governance rules at the highest level (at first definition), the organization maintains the flexibility to scale the implementation of principles based on specific needs.

For example, one of the PM guiding principles could be:

The project manager is responsible for creating and delivering a written update of accomplishments, challenges, issues, and plans at the appropriate level of detail. This update is to be sent to the appropriate stakeholders on an agreed-upon regular cadence (e.g., weekly).

While this principle does not define the format, or the appropriate level of detail, it clearly establishes that for every delivery initiative with an assigned PM (regardless of project size), there will be a status report. Therefore, whether a small initiative, a sizeable project, or a large-scale program, each PM will generate some form of status report. Scale does not impact the principle.

Establishing focus

Scale is also important with respect to the level of focus. The importance of status reporting at the project level (on a project that is part of a work stream that is part of a program) will be much more laser-focused than status reporting at the program level. The project, work stream, and program will all have unique status updates to contribute, each with varying levels of emphasis. Again, the principle stands and the flexibility is implementing based on scale.

As Sun Tzu reinforces, “Fighting with a large army under your command is nowise different from fighting with a small one: it is merely a question of instituting signs and signals.” To paraphrase, once the principles are established, the implementation can be adjusted to the need. An overall program plan for a global program will certainly be at a higher level of detail than the specific detailed project plan for implementing a single project within the initiative. This adjustment to scale is critical. If a program does not adjust its implementation approach, one can expect to see a plan at the program level that is tens of thousands of lines long. The program plan loses its value as a conglomeration of project details with little to no meaningful summary, added visibility, or executive information. Without changing the “signs and signals” and differentiating between the focus needed to implement versus the focus needed to govern, governing bodies may make missteps when putting practices in place.

Standardization and value

Standardization and rigor are key to successful project execution, and varying levels of implementation rigor do not dilute this point. The ability to flexibly apply standards (based on scale) is crucial to successful implementations. While the reported project statistics are not overwhelming, seventy percent of projects executed by organizations with standardized practices are successful, according to the recent PMI 2013 Pulse of the Profession study. One of the reasons that the success numbers are so low—and decreasing over the past four years according to the study—is that 46 percent of respondents said their organizations don’t fully understand the value of project management.

Unfortunately, I’ve worked in organizations where the value is not understood. In one company, there was a recognized need for structure in delivery. The “PMO” was assigned to implement. Standard templates and control processes were defined and an authoritarian rule was cast over projects. However, since the organization had not clearly established the value proposition of the “PMO,” nor its new rigor, nor articulated the principles for success and the appropriate scalability for implementing standards across the organization, the “PMO” was seen as the red tape that hindered delivery instead of the grease that enabled success.

Creating standards is important. Scaling the implementation is key. Articulating the value is imperative. All of these are important if we want to improve our capabilities to deliver. To borrow from French writer and military veteran Francois de la Rochefoucauld, “The height of ability consists in a thorough knowledge of the real value of things….”

Therefore, as we look to improve the capabilities of our delivery teams, let us focus on the principles we establish, clearly articulating the value they deliver; then we can get to implementing based on the scale of the situation.

For more on The Art of Project Management, be sure to see the previous posts in this series on Sun Tzu’s Rules, Governance, and Success.

About Carl M. Manello
I am Slalom Consulting's Practice Lead for Delivery Effectiveness. I work to support organizations' capability and delivery maturity -- not just IT organizations -- so that their initiatives run more predictably, efficiently and provide the best results.

2 Responses to The Art of Project Management: Scale

  1. Ron Fovargue says:

    Carl, nicely presented and well done. I am impressed with your perspective. Ron Fovargue

  2. Greg Harris says:

    Well put Carl. I fell victim to just what you described recently when assigned a program that was disguised as a project. Initial attempts to build out a massive schedule and multi-tiered status reports became cumbersome and confusing. By dividing and conquering, we were able to successfully complete our project on time, under budget and with full scope.

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