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It’s too small to be a project ...

One of the ongoing frustrations for anyone running a project management team in a business is being asked to deliver activities which should not be considered as projects. This is particularly common when project managers or project management teams have a good reputation in a business. 

Whilst we all want a good reputation, with such a reputation comes the tendency for the business to dump all sorts of troubling bits of work our way. Anything which there is not an obvious home for can be dumped on the project managers. 

This is a tendency to be avoided!

The boundaries of project management

When is a task not a project?

There are many operational tasks which are obviously not projects. A classic example would be running a call centre or an HR function. As project managers we all know these are not projects, and we would never try to run them as projects.

But there are grey areas, relating to the scale of activities that are considered as projects.

At one extreme, some organisations consider very large, long term activities as projects or programmes. For example, in the oil industry the whole process from discovering an oil field through to exploiting it is considered as a programme. This programme may last 20 or 30 years. Similarly, in the defence industry the lifecycle of a product may be considered as a single programme that lasts decades. 

I don’t have a fundamental problem with this, but it stretches the traditional meaning of project management. In such cases the programmes have long operational phases lasting many years. 

At the other extreme, there are small activities which can be considered as projects. It is these I want to focus on, as they often cause ongoing irritation for project managers and project management teams. 

At one level, even very small tasks can be considered as projects. Let me take a ridiculous example to make the point. When I get up in the morning and make my breakfast I could manage it as a project. No one would really do this. But I regularly see lots of situations in which project managers are asked to sort out a wide range of small tasks at work. Classic examples are:

  • Resolving a customer complaint
  • Fulfilling a non-complex customer order
  • Small software upgrades and patching

Leave out the very small activities

One response to this is to think: “so what? Well ok, these might not be projects, but if a project manager can take ownership for them and get them done, why not treat them as projects?”

There are several reasons not to consider them as projects, including:

  • There is an overhead related to project management. On very small activities this overhead is disproportionate to the benefit it provides.
  • In most organisations there are a limited number of (good) project managers. They should be focussed on delivering the projects which add the most value to the organisation. 
  • Including large numbers of very small activities in your project portfolio makes the portfolio complex and the task of prioritisation overly onerous or even impossible.

In truth, size of activity is not the only factor to consider. Some small activities are very complex or have a high risk associated with them, and perhaps such activities should be considered as projects. But there are definitely a large number of small, low risk, non complex tasks which are not projects. 

What about things in the middle? An intermediate solution.

There are activities which are obviously of sufficient scale, risk and complexity to be projects. There are also activities which are definitely too small, low risk and complexity to be managed as projects. But what about the things in the middle?

The issue is normally with the middle sized pieces of work. There can be ongoing arguments between project managers and the business as to whether a task is or is not a project. 

Typically, this relates to pieces of work in which the overhead of a dedicated project manager can’t be justified. There is no point spending time going through all the normal project management stuff like scoping, planning, budgeting, setting up governance, risk management and so on. In this situation it’s not necessary and it does not add huge value. On the other hand, some smaller work can be complex - not as complex as a full project, but sufficiently complicated to require some level of focussed management.

One solution I have seen work successfully is to have an intermediate level of management, which is more co-ordination than project management. The work is done by co-ordinators who are responsible for many small tasks at once. They are not project managers, but they use some of the project manager’s toolkit. 

Whilst such co-ordinators may become project managers, they are not junior project managers, they do a different job. Although each job is less complex than a project, their job is complex, as they can be co-ordinating 20 or 30 pieces of work at once, whereas a project manager will be doing one or at most a few projects in parallel.

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