The Project Notebook

Smaller is Better and More Effective

By: Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP
Copyright 2012, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved
No part of this article may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission.

It seems as if everything comes in larger and larger sizes — including projects. While a giant pizza or a super-sized drink may be refreshing, a large and complex project often seems overwhelming to all participants as well as to the project manager. This article focuses on “small” approaches to major projects.

The presence of many unknowns is one of the most challenging aspects of projects. Regardless of the sources of the unknowns — technical specifications, scientific barriers, market demand, etc. — the project manager is the one who must provide the direction and the methods to convert unknowns into knowns. This responsibility does not mean that the project manager must be the one who conducts the research necessary to solve the mysteries. Rather, the project manager must assess the strengths of the team not only in terms of specific expertise but also in terms of problem identification and solution skills. All the knowledge in the world is useless if it is applied to a symptom instead of a problem. Determining when “enough” information has been assembled is also a critical assessment. Therefore, using a few people who can identify relevant problems and quickly resolve them is more effective than having an entire team running in multiple, counterproductive directions.

Another challenge occurs when a lengthy timeframe is estimated for project completion. Virtually every project of this nature needs to use a phased approach rather than attempting to schedule all of the activities at the beginning of the project. For example, a project to develop a new drug may span many years before the drug is finally brought to market. While a project manager may be tempted to fully populate a Gantt chart with thousands of activities that culminate in product release, a more effective approach is to “plan only what you know”. This technique means that accurate time estimates can be made only for the initial phase of research. The high-level project plan should definitely have milestones and deliverables defined for the full length of the project. However, there is no point in detailed planning beyond the first phase until there are indications of success. Even then, the detailed planning should only extend to the next phase. This practice forces an organization to identify upfront the criteria for success for each phase as well as to require that projects continue to “prove themselves”.

Most large projects require large project teams. In these situations individual participants may feel that their contributions are not necessary or valued. Large project teams provide lots of opportunities for people to “hide” or even “disappear”. Meanwhile, the project manager gets hounded as to why there is not a high volume of work forthcoming from such a large number of team members. Running “lean and mean” (using a small project team) is one method to ensure that each team member has high visibility and accountability. This method is not always practical given the amount of work that may be required to complete a project. In those cases that mandate a large number of participants, a more appropriate technique is to organize the total large project team into smaller teams within the project. Each team has a leader who can be chosen by the project manager or by the team. This method may require a different approach to project planning through specifying more tangible deliverables. However, it also keeps individuals focused on near-term accomplishments with defined responsibilities. Those who choose to “hide” or to attempt to “disappear” are quickly identified before their lack of participation negatively impacts project outcomes. At that point project management mentoring, coaching, and/or disciplining can be initiated in a timely manner.

The main emphasis behind all of the techniques and practices that have been described in this article is that even “super-sized” projects need not be overwhelming for project managers. Whether it’s building an aircraft carrier, chairing a fundraiser, or cleaning the garage, “smaller is better and more effective” when it comes to project management.

Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP, is a consultant who manages diverse programs and projects in both the private and public sectors for individual organizations and consortia. She also conducts enterprise assessments of project portfolio management practices. Prior to establishing her consulting practice Susan led major efforts for Fortune 100 organizations throughout the United States. She teaches the Project Management Simulation capstone course in the University of California, San Diego, Project Management certificate program and is a member of the curriculum committee. She can be contacted at

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