Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 16, Issue 29;   July 20, 2016: The Risks of Too Many Projects: I

The Risks of Too Many Projects: I

by

Last updated: January 19, 2019

Some organizations try to run too many development projects at once. Whether developing new offerings, or working to improve the organization itself, taking on too many projects can defocus the organization and depress performance.
Rapids in a northern stream

Rapids in a northern stream. Rapids occur because the stream flow is too great for the geometry and slope of the channel. In such conditions, the flow can actually alter the channel itself. At lower volumes, the stream would flow more "gently" with less turbulence. Something analogous happens in organizations that try to push too much "production" through their systems. Turbulence breaks out, in the form of unpredictable and unanticipated events, which makes managing the organization more difficult, and which can also damage the organization itself. By reducing production goals, the organization becomes more manageable, requiring less effort from management per unit of production.

Many organizations are under pressure to increase revenue, to achieve or maintain market leadership, or to reach any of dozens of organizational goals. To respond, some launch initiatives they feel will meet the challenges they face. Often, they take on too much. Let's explore the consequences of so doing.

Strategic blur
If an organization is running only one project, strategic focus is assured. With each additional active project, the risk of loss of focus increases. The best-run organizations manage this risk by reviewing each new project for consistency with current strategy. Although waivers are granted now and then, they do maintain strategic focus — at first.
Inevitably, some projects stumble. They take longer than planned. In some cases, after the organization adopts a new high-level strategy, or amends the current strategy, some projects that were formerly consistent with organizational strategy no longer are, because the strategy on which they rested has migrated out from under them. Yet, we don't cancel these holdover projects, for various reasons: the sunk cost effect, Hofstadter's Law [Hofstadter 1989], or power politics, to name a few common mechanisms.
Executing the newly adopted or newly amended strategy usually requires chartering new projects. When holdover projects are already in place, portfolio bloat can develop, along with strategic blur, the opposite of strategic focus. Strategic blur also afflicts the organization's customers, who, upon examining the projected stream of offerings, might have even more difficulty discerning the organization's strategy than the company's leaders have expressing it.
Resource contention
Development projects require human, financial, and infrastructural resources. As active projects increase in number, their needs can sometimes collide, because resources might not be available on demand. For example, if we decide to hire all the people we need, bottlenecks might develop in the hiring and onboarding apparatus.
Resource sharing When organizations try to push
too much "production" through
their systems, turbulence breaks
out in the form of unpredictable
and unanticipated events
usually resolves resource contention, but it can create problems of its own. For example, to share human resources (people), we assign them to multiple projects — two, three, five — I've known people who were managing more than 20 active projects. Daily life for people serving multiple projects can be a staccato stream of interruptions, messages sent and received through various media, and endless meetings.
In "Recovering Time: I," Point Lookout for February 23, 2005, I explored these conditions and their attendant high costs. Individual performance and output quality can suffer. Managing this risk with quiet hours and other techniques usually yields positive though disappointing results, because such strategies address the symptoms of the problem, rather than its cause. The primary cause: too many projects.

Rules of thumb regarding numbers of projects per capita are legion, and of limited value, because project work is too varied for such simplistic dogma. Determine a number of projects that works well enough for your organization, and strive to reduce it.

We'll continue next time, examining some less commonly considered risks of running too many projects.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: The Risks of Too Many Projects: II  Next Issue

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Footnotes

[Hofstadter 1989]
Hofstadter's Law: "It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law." See Douglas Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. Order from Amazon.com. Back

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