Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 16, Issue 30;   July 27, 2016: The Risks of Too Many Projects: II

The Risks of Too Many Projects: II

by

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

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenQvbxfDOpHeykyPzTner@ChacpfWivNiKkleWHmBWoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

The giant sequoiaThe Good, the Bad, and the Complicated
In fiction and movies, the world is often simple. There's a protagonist, a goal, and a series of obstacles. The protagonists and goals are good, and the obstacles are bad. Real life is more complicated.
Vincent's Bedroom in Arles, by Vincent Van GoghVirtual Conflict
Conflict, both constructive and destructive, is part of teamwork. As virtual teams become more common, we're seeing more virtual conflict — conflict that crosses site boundaries. Dealing with destructive conflict is difficult enough face-to-face, but in virtual teams, it's especially tricky.
Historic handshake in Porvoo Finland in 2007The Ups and Downs of American Handshakes: II
Where the handshake is a customary business greeting, it's possible to offend accidentally. Here's Part II of a set of guidelines for handshakes in the USA.
A laptop with password stickiesWhy We Don't Care Anymore
As a consultant and coach I hear about what people hate about their jobs. Here's some of it. It might help you appreciate your job.
Terminal 3 of Beijing Capital International AirportRisk Creep: I
Risk creep is a term that describes the insidious and unrecognized increase in risk that occurs despite our every effort to mitigate risk or avoid it altogether. What are the dominant sources of risk creep?

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Project Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Frederick Douglass, ca. 1879, famed abolitionist and ex-slaveComing June 20: Managing Dissent Risk
In group decision making, dissent risk is the risk that dissents about important decisions will be rejected without due consideration. As a result, group decision quality can suffer, and some groups will actually eject dissenters. How can we manage dissent risk? Available here and by RSS on June 20.
Puppies waiting intently for a shot at the treatAnd on June 27: Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: I
In meetings we sometimes feel the need to interrupt others to offer a view or information, or to suggest adjusting the process. But such interruptions carry risk of offense. How can we interrupt others safely? Available here and by RSS on June 27.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenNMiijWkIhtGGaxqoner@ChacufCxuPDfqruQdJEVoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Race to the South Pole: The Power of Agile Development
On 14The Race to the Pole: An Application of Agile Development December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. Lessons abound. Among the more important lessons are those that demonstrate the power of the agile approach to project management and product development. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.