On The Sum Effects of Multiple Projects
By John Bolden
At any moment in time, every organization will be in the throes of change to a greater or lesser degree. Projects; tens, hundreds perhaps more vie for resources, time and attention; concurrently striving to address defensive, offensive, expansion, growth, contraction and improvement pressures - internally generated or externally forced.
The mechanics of projects (how to get to the new state, when, with what resources and with what results) are neither foreign nor impossible but the sum effects of multiple projects are disruptive of each and every project and the organization itself. Within this environment can be found the real reasons why so many efforts to improve the business fail to meet expectations…!
Understanding the potential for problems when multiple projects are underway across your organization starts with gaining an appreciation of what is now, what was then, what will be and what is happening in between!
On a blank sheet of paper, draw a line down the centre of the page, this represents the ‘what is now’ state of your organization at this moment in time. It is the entire organization at this moment in time – it is the sum of processes, people, policies and paraphernalia that equates to everything the organization does in its day-to-day operation. In a separate thought leadership paper, Mapping the Business Landscape, I explore the fact that most organizations do not possess current, concise and readily available enterprise wide views of what comprises the What Is Now state, something else to consider. For the purposes of this exercise, a line will suffice!
Now think about all of the projects or initiatives of any type that are underway at this moment, in any part of your organization. I realize you may not know about each and every project across your organization (which raises questions about who does but that is another matter) so simply capture as many or as few projects as you are aware of and hazard guesses where your knowledge of project duration specifics are skimpy – this exercise is focused on the issues that arise from multiple projects rather then the exact number of projects…
On your sheet of paper, set up a relative scale that accommodates both the duration and start/end dates of your projects – the scale might be months, quarters or years. Draw a horizontal line for each project; position the left end of the line at the approximate point where the project first saw the light of day and the right end of the line at the point when the outcomes of the project are expected to be fully integrated into the organization. If you know of future projects where the probable start date is to the right of the ‘what is’ line (now) scribe them also, if the width of paper allows.
Below is an example using just seven projects that are shown as horizontal lines of varying length, each bisecting the ‘what is now’ line. Vertical lines denote the start point (green = what was then) and end point (red = what will be) of each project. Notice the vertical lines are of different length and vary in thickness.
These variations indicate the span of need across the organization; a global ERP system = a long green vertical line; a concentrated or specific need in one area or part of the organization, like customer service outsourcing = a short green vertical line. If the need extends deep into any organizational elements or is extremely complex; like Sarbanes-Oxley = a thick green line. If the need is simple or generalized like rebranding product scripting = a thin green line. The same logical representation appears for the red lines (what will be) which represent outcomes of projects. Notice that the original width/depth of perceived need (green line) may bear no relation to the actual extent of change (red line) necessary to fix the issue or exploit the opportunity. This causes a significant number of projects to miss expectations – how and why vision and reality diverge so often is outside the scope of today’s subject; after the session, follow up with me about how you can deal with this serious deficiency in how projects are envisioned, planned and executed.
Naturally, real projects would be much more complex to view with co-terminus, co-dependent, intertwined and staged projects all over the paper – yet this view of just seven projects allows us to probe common ‘multi project’ problems…
Baseline Disconnects; Incorrect Assumptions; Too Much Change; Reuse Anathema…
Look at the fifth project from the top of the diagram. Five projects started before this project and all of them appear to span common elements of the organization (green line = vision/need or issue) as our fifth project…
- Is the fifth project replicating or duplicating part or all of any of the other five projects?
- Can the fifth project use assets, collateral or knowledge from the projects already started?
- Could parts of the fifth project or parts of these other projects already underway be cancelled, combined, consolidated?
Three projects will complete before the fifth project completes. What might this mean…?
- Will delivery of any or all these projects affect the operating fabric of the organization so that the fifth project’s deliverables will not fit or cannot be integrated easily?
- Will delivery of our fifth project render obsolete, unworkable or untenable the deliverables of any of the other projects that finished before our fifth project?
Notice that the second project from the top which started before our fifth project will change the organization in some way just after our fifth project has changed the organization for its own reasons…
- Will what the second project delivers make what we have just done unworkable or otherwise useless?
- Given how close the second and fifth project’s are in terms of when they change the business – can the organization absorb so much change?
- Would the people in the organization be too exhausted to really take advantage of the benefits from each of the projects?
A scenario: We have an urgent business problem right now and we plan to launch a project to fix it today. We’ll make the duration of this project such that it goes past four red lines on the diagram. We would scribe a green line on the diagram at the what is now (today) point and extend a horizontal project arrow out to the right past four red lines.
What are the implications? Four projects will have made changes to the business by the time our urgent project is ready to fix the issue or exploit the opportunity; whether these changes made by these four projects will change the part(s) of the business we were supposed to improve before we get there is the question! The business may be very different, may not even be there or may no longer need what we were to do…
No matter what the business looks like today and what caused us to launch the urgent project today, the fourth red line is the organization as it will be when our urgent project completes. This is the organization that our urgent project must plan for! Planning to fix a problem in the future using today’s organization as the baseline is fraught with peril.
As you will no doubt appreciate, our example is extremely small by way of number of projects and the potential overlaps therein. In most organizations; the number of projects would be very significant as would the number of potential problems. Whatever the actual number in your case, this is the Sum of Change in your organization…
“While the Sum of Change is a minefield of issues and problems for management; it is also a source of very significant opportunities to cut costs, save time, improve quality, reduce organization vs. project conflict and enhance reputations…!”
No matter what your organization or the volume and variety of change demands made upon it; knowing who is doing what, where, why, when, at what cost, at what risk and with what expected result across the enterprise is the key that unlocks Enterprise Wide Clarity and Cohesion.
An enterprise wide project baseline gives business leaders a critically important management tool; now the business can see, understand and manage both the potential negative impacts and possible opportunities inherent in each and every new effort to improve the business. Without it, one simply cannot manage change effectively.
In general terms, this article touched upon four ‘multi project problem’ themes:
- Projects that use the incorrect baseline for planning purposes are doomed to fail before the project even commences.
- Projects that remain fixated on assumptions made at project start up fail. This speaks to a linear, insular, singular mentality; an innate inability to adjust the assumption set and change course as time passes, events unfold and other projects enter the fray.
- Receptivity and saturation issues cause projects to fail; overlooking the ability of the organization to accept, embrace and utilize change to advantage does a disservice to the organization and its people.
- Reusability is a curious anathema. Actual reuse across our research base of 7,000+ projects was abysmally low whereas reusability potential was ‘high’ which means that opportunities to save time and money and improve quality and satisfaction were ignored.
In conclusion: If organization leadership insisted that every project be interlocked and interrelated with all other projects across the enterprise – past, present and future - the scale, scope and variety of opportunities to cut costs, avoid delays, improve quality and boost ROI would be like a pent up river unleashed down a thousand fathom gorge†, sweeping aside conventional thinking and legacy induced obstructionism.
- Organizations that dynamically understand the state and context of all past, all present and all future projects minimize waste, duplication and organization vs. project conflict.
- Organizations that rigorously insist on full and complete cohesion of all projects constrain and even eliminate unworthy, unneeded and/or unsanctioned projects.
- Organizations that assess project performance and outcomes know what worked, what failed, what can be reused, what should be stopped and what should be rethought; thereby improving the performance of all projects while minimizing risk to the organization.
- Organizations that nimbly balance multiple project pressures and priorities avoid the all too common issues of negative receptivity for change or change saturation.
The good news… Establishing the means to assess and resolve potential multiple project contention, to identify and use reusability to advantage and to balance the need for speed with the need for certainty is neither overly expensive nor time consuming!
†I frequently use/abuse Sun Tzu’s tenets to reinforce key points. Sun’s pent up river is a powerful metaphor for how change should happen, time after time after time. See my web site for a visual image – ancient artwork of river gorge.
If you are wondering how and why processes and information repositories would be created without making sure they fit together neatly and seamlessly - ask for a copy of my thought leadership text: ‘Information/Process Silos – The Bane of the Enterprise’
If you would like to learn more about the seminar themes I speak to, types of consulting engagements and research that underpins my thinking, feel free to browse my web presence at http://www.TLIRGroup.com
RMA, Mil C, C/MBB-ISSSP. F-IICM, F-IPMS
Transformation Leadership, Innovation & Research
John Bolden is renowned for value laden advice that stakeholders depend on when assessing the wisdom of investing billions. John’s views and observations enable corporate leaders to ask the right questions, probe problematic answers and avoid surprises.
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