In praise of smallish projects

Posted on 16th May, by JimYoung in Blog. Comments Off on In praise of smallish projects

In addition to the significant investment at stake, PMs most certainly put their reputations on the line when they take on a large project. Mismanaged large projects routinely cost the jobs of many PMs, and have even sunk whole organisations. Large projects are generally risky.  The most recent Standish Group  (an independent international research organisation) report indicates that smaller projects have a very much higher success rate (76%) than larger projects (10%):


The Standish Group describe “successful” projects as those delivered on time, on budget, and with required features and functionality, whereas “failed” projects are those cancelled prior to completion or their products were never used, and “challenged” means late, over spent and/or with less than the required features and functions. The Standish Group tell us that smallish projects are much more successful due to a combination of these factors:

Less risk. Today’s business environment is constantly changing. It is unpredictable, volatile and becoming more complex every day and is fraught with risk. Risk is something that may happen unexpectedly. Among other things, risk is a function of a project’s duration and complexity. Smaller projects are usually of shorter duration that therefore have greater predictability and certainty, and are usually less complex than are larger projects. Generally, project plans are rarely accurate more than some six months into the future, largely due to uncontrollable external factors – political, economic, social, technological, legislative, environmental and competitive forces, none of which are kind enough to stand still for the duration of our projects. When a project’s duration is more than a year, there will usually be many environmental changes. Also, there is less risk of an organisational disaster should a smaller project fail and such failures will attract little if any public attention.


Better communication. Smallish project teams have fewer communication channels than do larger project teams and we PMs are embedded in our small teams. With larger projects interactions don’t just grow linearly; they explode exponentially to the squareof the number of people. Anyone who has worked on a large project team knows too well how frustrating the communication and coordination process can be, particularly so with cross-functional teams that are characteristic of larger projects.  Also, it is easier to establish a quality user relationship with a small project team with mutually agreeable ground rules for effective teamwork. Furthermore, larger projects are likely to have more stakeholders with different interests in the project. Due to better communication smaller teams make quicker decisions that are also implemented more quickly. We aren’t usually challenged with collaborating across cultures, organisation boundaries, and even time zones.

Better cooperation. Coupled with better communications, smallish projects teams are more likely to develop strong and trusting cohesive bonds that enable team members to work cooperatively, and are less ilkely to suffer from social loafing (free-riding on others’ efforts), loss of individuality, polarisation and groupthink, which is the tendency for individual members to suppress dissent in the interest of group harmony. Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon famously coined the Two Pizza Rule: “If a team can’t be fed with two pizzas, the team is too big.” He maintained that people in smaller teams were far more personally and collectively productive. Larger teams are often inefficient, uncoordinated and unsupportive.

Easier to stop. With a large death-march project, no one, including the sponsor, may have the courage to stop it when it becomes evident that costs will exceed benefits. With small projects it is usually much easier to recognise and admit that it’s time to stop, and because they are small the impact of stopping them and the sunk costs are much less. A sunk cost is a cost that has already been incurred and thus cannot be recovered.

Speedy ROI breeds success. Small projects can make a big impact because they produce a speedy return on investment (ROI). Smaller projects create an environment of success that breeds more successes and promotes the continuous delivery of functionality in small doses such that the users do not need to learn a lot of new features at any one time. It’s true that the return will usually be less than what a larger project provides, but it’s return coming in now rather than much later and, regardless of how we’re measuring that return, it’s always good to have some early value coming back into the organisation. Thus, a smaller project makes for faster successes. And shorter, faster successes breed their own energy. The longer and more complex a project is, the more likely it is to suck the energy right out of a team.

Single goal focus. Small projects let us focus on a goal and not multiple goals that often trouble large projects. Larger projects often do not have a single common goal to unite effort. In fact, some of the time they have conflicting goals that can cause the project to overrun its budget and schedule, or even prevent its successful completion. Also, the closer the goal, the easier it is to reach. In rugby union the try lines and goalposts are 100 metres apart. All the players and spectators can see the entire field and readily assess progress. Small projects have similar attributes. When a goal is reached it is a good time to praise accomplishments. Also, the small projects give us all more opportunities to celebrate. The smaller the project, the smaller the plan and the easier it is for the sponsor and other stakeholders to absorb.

Status more transparent. Fraudulence should never be tolerated. In small projects it is harder to hide from the real facts. Also, it is easier to keep our promises with small projects. Keeping our promises shows respect for our stakeholders’ opinions. Keeping promises establishes our integrity and trust. If our stakeholders trust us to do what we say we will do, then they are more likely to follow our advice and lend us support.

Less team turnover. Turnover can wreak havoc with a project. Loss of critical talent can delay a project for weeks or even months. However, with small projects it is easier to keep our team intact because of the short duration. The faster the project is undertaken, the less likely the team will turn over. Time is the enemy of all projects, and speed is our defence. A smaller project is easier to schedule resources for.

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