Identifying and taming “800-pound gorilla” projects

Most organizations regardless of their size or project management maturity will initiate a proverbial “800-pound gorilla” project at least once.  Mega-projects can torpedo a company, but they are often critical to their long term sustainability or strategy.  For the “lucky” program or project manager that is asked to manage one of these, it can either be a career-limiting death spiral or a priceless differentiator for their portfolios.

Failing to plan is planning to fail – this is the mantra of mega-projects.  Organizations that were historically able to successfully complete small to mid-sized projects in spite of themselves will discover that heroics that worked in the past will not work on a mega-project.

To plagiarize Jeff Foxworthy, here are some ways of identifying mega-projects:

  • If the project schedule is longer than 100 tasks at outline level 2, it may be a mega-project.
  • If the project budget exceeds the GDP of most small nations, it may be a mega-project.
  • If you are thinking of submitting your project profile to the committee that administers the Seven Wonders of the Modern World list, it may be a mega-project.
  • If your project is mentioned in the annual reports or quarterly results calls of your primary vendors, it may be a mega-project.
  • If your will lists your project control book as the main part of your estate, it may be a mega-project.

What are a few ways of coping once you’ve identified the fact that you are the proud owner of an 800-pound gorilla?

  1. Tackle it one piece at a time – a phased or iterative approach to mega-projects is one way to avoid “big bang” change nightmares.
  2. Address big risks early – a disciplined, consistent approach to risk management is crucial, and once key risks have been identified try to address them as early as possible to help increase the predictability of future deliverables.  Use a pilot or prototyping approach to validate approaches – fail small but fail fast.
  3. Use (multiple) independent estimates – it’s doubtful that anyone on the project team will be able to provide accurate estimates for the full scope of work.  There are simply too many variables to deal with, so you’ll probably have better odds of winning a lottery than of coming up with a good estimate.  Given this, derive  independent estimates – commercial estimation tools might be an option.
  4. The journey is the reward – slogging through a mega-project with no end in sight, and few wins along the journey impacts team morale and productivity as well as  increasing the likelihood of failure.  Use agile techniques to structure the project to deliver “wins” throughout the lifecycle, and celebrate these wins as they occur.
  5. Find mentors – Whether it is helping you assess options for a decision or validating your perception of a situation, a mentor can help you or other key project participants avoid tunnel vision.

Tackling a mega-project can sometimes feel overwhelming, but remember that even King Kong was laid low by a combination of fighter planes and gravity!


Categories: Agile, Project Portfolio Management | Tags: , | Leave a comment

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