Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 16, Issue 30;   July 27, 2016:

The Risks of Too Many Projects: II

by

Last updated: January 17, 2021

Although taking on too many projects risks defocusing the organization, the problems just begin there. Here are three more ways over-commitment causes organizations to waste resources or lose opportunities.
North Fork Fire in Yellowstone, 1988

Night view of North Fork fire, Yellowstone National Park, 1988. The North Fork Fire was the largest and most destructive of the Yellowstone fires of 1988. A total of almost 800,000 acres (over 3,200 square km), or 36% of the park, burned in that year. Until the late 1960s, the beneficial effects of fire were not understood. The fires of 1988 certainly demonstrated their value.

Organizational fire probably also does have some beneficial effects. But we can probably achieve those benefits with the analog of "controlled burns" — careful review of proposed projects.

Photo by Jeff Henry, September 1988, courtesy U.S. National Park Service.

When organizations commit themselves to too many projects simultaneously, they risk loss of strategic focus and encourage resource contention, as we saw last time. But those are just the most obvious problems. Here are three more.

Resource depletion
Some organizational resources must be available to all projects. Financial resources come to mind immediately. Projects need money, and the more projects we have, the more thinly we spread our financial resources. This applies not only to the financial resources needed for routine project execution, but also to reserves that must be available to cover adverse events.
Other resources have this same property. Consider just one example. To some degree, senior management must be aware of everything the organization does. If a project encounters trouble, senior management must be able to grasp the problem and respond to it effectively, even when multiple projects require their attention at once. The greater the number of projects underway, the more likely is the capacity of senior management to be saturated.
Many other classes of organizational resources have this property — they can be saturated unexpectedly when too many projects need them simultaneously.
Organizational "firestorm" frequency
When organizations run large numbers of projects simultaneously, some individuals serve more than one project. If one of the projects encounters difficulty, that project gets their attention, while the others go on hold.
We can grasp the dynamics of this configuration more easily using a "forest fire" metaphor. Think of a project portfolio as a forest, and project trouble as forest fire. When one part of the forest catches fire, the shared "resources" provide a means for that fire to spread. This happens because trouble in one project disrupts the carefully scheduled sharing of resources, propagating trouble to projects that share resources with the troubled project.
Reducing project numbers reduces resource sharing, which prevents trouble from propagating. If we can't reduce project numbers, we can at least try to isolate high-risk projects from others by dedicating resources to them.
Wheel re-invention
When many If we can't reduce project numbers,
we can at least try to isolate
high-risk projects from others
by dedicating resources to them
projects are active, similar or even identical problem solutions might be simultaneously underway. Indeed, it can be easier to solve a given problem than it would be to determine whether or not that problem is being solved elsewhere in the organization.
Duplicating productive effort is only one form of waste. Duplicating unproductive effort is another. When a team discovers that a particular approach is unworkable, announcing that it has just wasted significant resources is not necessarily in its interest, politically speaking. Uncovering this kind of information can be difficult in any case, but when many projects are active, duplication of wasted effort is both more likely to have occurred, and less likely to be exposed.

Running many projects simultaneously might seem sensible, but I hope I've raised some questions about its wisdom. If you aren't in a position to reduce the number of active projects in your organization, maybe you know someone who is. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: The Passion-Professionalism Paradox  Next Issue

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