Breaking Projects Into Smaller Pieces

Breaking Projects Into Smaller Pieces

As quality assurance specialists, we’ve seen our fair share of massive projects. When delivered properly, these larger business initiatives can have a huge impact. But when budget, time and people are required at a grand scale, the risks and challenges can grow – both in likelihood and scale. This is why independent quality assurance is a valuable component of any important project.

But does a project or programme have to always be large and complicated? The answer is ‘absolutely not’, and we want to suggest that more Kiwi organisations start to consider projects in much smaller ‘chunks’ rather than biting off more than their business can chew. Here’s why:

The problem with large projects

We’re not saying large projects are always bad. Or even that they’re not sometimes required. But you should be aware of the challenges faced by a larger project ahead of time.

Large projects demand large budgets

When we’re talking about a large project – say more than 18 months long, the associated cost of delivering the work is almost always significant. Think about the number of people required from project managers to BAs, leads to scrum masters – delivering a project demands a number of roles. Now simply extrapolate the cost of each of those roles out to just 12 months. Now 24 months…see what we mean?

Beyond the people, a project depending on its application could also require investment in platforms, tools, and equipment to enable a roll out. For a large-scale transformation initiative, costs can easily get into the tens of millions of dollars.

Too much time between milestones can lose buy in

Despite all the personnel working hard to deliver your large project, the milestones of a major piece of work are often farther apart than a smaller project. With less frequent moments where project successes are celebrated or shared across the business, there’s more opportunity for teams or stakeholders to lose sight of the project’s value.

It’s in these stretches where projects can suffer from staff leaving or becoming less engaged. Project managers and leads will often need to find smaller milestones and successes at a team and individual level to maintain a sense of purpose with a large project. While all involved in a project should feel ‘connected’ to the project’s success, only a handful of stakeholders will carry direct accountability for a positive outcome.

Scoping challenges of major projects

When the finish line is so far into the distance, it can be really hard to know what’s needed to run the race properly. Scoping – one of the most important and fraught concepts in project-based operations – will demand serious time and thought with a large scale initiative to get right.

As a project’s objectives broaden and become more ambitious, the scope runs a greater risk of becoming unclear or expanding beyond what is needed. Discussions about what’s in or out of scope are virtually guaranteed with all projects, but at this size, rehashing the scope can end up being more frequent than discussions about the work itself!

If you are launching a large scale project, make sure to engage quality assurance expertise to support the team through the initial planning stage. Missing important detail that results in under-scoping can spell trouble later.

Breaking projects in smaller pieces

Impact and risks of project failure

The greater the risk, the greater the reward is a perfectly valid saying, but should project teams really be feeling the need to hold their breath through a big, risky project in the hope that it’s successful eventually? We don’t think so. While you can work to reduce or mitigate risks through diligent governance and independent quality assurance, projects are inherently risky to some degree.

For a high-stakes, enormous project in size and cost, the impact of a project failure can be catastrophic for a business. Some organisations may survive a large project failure, but at best this will limit stakeholder buy-in or confidence in future programmes of work that are required.

An organisation that puts all its chips in for a big play risks losing more than just the project’s budget – people’s jobs, entire teams and potential revenue are just three big hits the business can take from failure.

Big projects can be really successful – if businesses approach it right

We’ve outlined some risks associated with big projects, but let us be clear; large-scale projects can have incredibly positive outcomes. The issue lies in the fact that many projects simply don’t have the rigour around them to control and deliver what’s promised. Part of what our team of QA experts do is to guide organisations through these large, thorny programmes of work in a way that gives them the most chance of success possible.

The advantage of smaller projects

There’s an alternative to going big – and that’s converting a large project into a series of smaller ones. Where possible, delivering value in shorter, isolated chunks can address a lot of the problems we’ve covered so far. ‘Smaller’ or ‘shorter’ projects are relative to what’s considered large in your organisation or industry. But for the purposes of this article, let’s assume smaller to mean around 3-6 months in duration.

Chunking down a project speeds up each stage

Many of the ‘big’ projects we encounter are perfect candidates for splitting up into smaller chunks with their own scope, budget and objectives. Very few large projects rely upon the entire lifespan before value is delivered. In other words, business change can be achieved in positive baby steps vs. one ‘giant leap’.

By having smaller projects in place, the pace at which things are delivered is increased. This is due to much better clarity in scope, resource requirements and results. As the first ‘project’ is completed, learnings around people and platforms can be applied to drive efficiency for the next project. This concept might sound very familiar to anyone who’s worked in an agile methodology before – smaller projects are almost like ‘sprints’ that helps to ensure outcomes are delivered properly and on time.

A smaller project approach will require some thinking around establishing credible goals for each stage that make sense in both isolation and together. Steering committees and leadership teams will need to believe in the business value at each stage, given the success of one project will enable the sign off of the next.

Celebrating successes more frequently

Having a shorter project (e.g. 3 months), will still have its milestones along the way. This means that potentially every week there could be an important project milestone. This gives the team working on the project more connection with the purpose of their work and provides regular, tangible outcomes to report back to stakeholders with.

Celebrating success of a project’s milestones is also important internal PR for a project team. In a large organisation where multiple projects may be active at any one time, comms as to the success of a project can help build internal support (and interest) in your wider portfolio of business initiatives. Your entire culture can be empowered through a clear ability to deliver on projects and promises. Conversely, multiple project failures or lack of communication as to the status of projects can hamper the enthusiasm your people have for future changes.

Signing off scope and budget

The process in scoping out a smaller project is far simpler – from the outcomes it needs to deliver to the personnel required. This can make the scoping stage relatively quick, meaning the actual delivery can get underway faster. A small project still needs some careful planning on scope, but the risk profile for scope creep is much smaller. This helps to not just do the scoping but to get sign off of it through the governance mechanism of the business.

And if easier scoping wasn’t enough of a reason to explore a smaller project, then size of budget almost certainly will be. Senior leadership teams, who are ultimately accountable for the success of the organisation and its various programmes, have to go through a very detailed process in order to sign off large multi-year projects. If a steering committee can put forth a modest budget with clear outcomes in the not-too-distant future, the sign off process is suddenly much simpler by comparison.

A project that comes after a series of other smaller (and successful) projects, is likely to have its budget signed off even quicker. Once again, chunking up a project into mini-projects builds trust in the business’ ability to deliver. This way, projects are kicked off based on a past track record vs. just a compelling business case.

Teams become more focused on fewer outcomes

One of the biggest challenges we encounter when working with project teams, is a lack of clarity as to the objectives. Large projects will often have a plethora of objectives, and in some cases the most important priority will vary depending on which team you ask.

Instead, a smaller project with a focused set of objectives can keep everyone involved dialed in to what’s important. This helps each team member focus and concentrate their efforts on only a few things. From our experience, this garners much better results than operating in a highly ambiguous environment where goals become so varied that they no longer hold any weight or meaning.

Project failure is easier to mitigate or recover from

Compared to the more complicated large-scale project, smaller projects present risks that are easier to mitigate. This doesn’t mean small projects don’t encounter serious risks – it’s just that project leadership have less to think about and can therefore apply their attention to identifying and managing risks before they arise.

We have seen our fair share of small projects that are not what we would consider ‘healthy’ before our team gets involved. But we can confidently say that these projects are both easier and quicker to get back on track than their larger counterparts.

A project failing is always a risk. And with any failure, there are lessons to learn. With a smaller project, this reflection can be done efficiently, and learnings applied quickly to the next one. A business can dust itself off much more easily from something that doesn’t drastically affect its financial position. Another good reason to think about splitting up a large transformational project into smaller chunks.

Small projects have their downsides

This article has been highlighting some of the benefits of approaching a project as a series of smaller projects. However, it’s important that organisations understand that ‘small’ doesn’t translate to ‘not important’. A risk of running a series of smaller projects can be that are not prioritised given the budget and requirements. This is particularly common in an organisation running a variety of projects and programmes.

Thus, a small ‘project’ business case should speak to its own benefits in isolation, as well as how these outcomes will contribute towards a larger, more impactful long term objective. Organisations will also need to have a clear set of measures and governance to manage their portfolio of activities. If you are involved with managing a portfolio of programmes and projects, find out more about how IQANZ’s Portfolio Assurance can assist.

Keen to understand how to break a large project down?

Get in touch with our highly experienced QA team who can walk you through the process and help your project succeed.