My son is studying for his master’s degree in Geographic Information Systems Mapping (think Google Maps and some of the layers of data in there) and he has to write a paper on how he would approach a project to assess and implement a new GIS system. Given what I do for a living he asked me for some advice (first time for everything!). I took him through some project basics, and we got on to the subject of size. “Dad”, he asked me “Does size matter?”.

“Where do I start?” I thought. Yes, yes it does – and it could be the size of the company, the project complexity, the budget, the project team, the project relative to the size of the company, or the company relative to the size of a supplier. Or all those things. With so many variables I tried to split it in to 2 parts: (a) the project concepts that should stay the same regardless of size; (b) how to tailor the project to fit in with the size, culture, governance, and project experience of the company (or companies) that the project is for.

We started with what should stay the same. I told him that the approach you take to a project and the methodology should not change, whether using Prince2, the APM framework, or Agile development. But that the understanding of that approach and the degree to which you use it can vary from business to business. You still need to go through all the various stages such as supplier selection, planning, running the project, development, testing and dress rehearsals, implementation, and post implementation activity. And you must consider all the stages, as you skip them at your peril, but some may be more light touch depending on the size factors. I furnished him with some of my project management notes to review in his own time (yes, I have a small library of notes as even after 20 years in project management I still need to reference the odd thing every now and then).

We then talked about how size should be considered. In my career I’ve delivered projects for large and small financial firms and the experience can be very different. For example, in one firm I worked for the idea that you could just pop in and cross-check something with the CEO was quite refreshing. But depending on the size of client, as a project manager it means you have to be flexible and have to focus on different things to make sure that the project stays on track and is going to be delivered successfully. I drew my son a very basic matrix to highlight some of my observations relative to company size and asked him to relate this to the company he had in mind for his GIS assignment:

Size of Company Advantages Potential challenges
Large
  • Change framework is established and embedded
  • Varied and in-depth project experience
  • Potentially bigger budgets

 

  • Red tape / level of governance
  • Complex hierarchy
  • Finding the right people / all stakeholders
  • The number of stakeholders
  • High volume of competing projects (projects may be stopped, merged, or pointed in a different direction)
  • Can be complex and / or bespoke processes and procedures, especially if multi-national
Small
  • Can get to speak to the top easily
  • Can get things done quicker
  • Staff/teams more familiar with each other
  • Smaller portfolio of projects at any one time
  • Not enough resources in the business to spread the SME workload
  • Sometimes no Change Framework exists
  • Potentially less project exposure and experience
  • Potentially smaller budgets
  • Processes & procedures not always documented

He then said ‘ok, but what does this really mean in relation to the project?’ I told him it means several things. For example:

Planning – you need to carefully consider the planning process. Understanding how easy it is to get the project fully established and how long it will take to get decisions from those with the authority needs to be accommodated in the plan. You should be clear on the levels of governance required and the volumes and frequency of meetings and reporting as this could add complexity and time into your plan. Consideration should also be given to the lead times for bringing on board any in-house experts, for example checking if subject matter experts are readily available, or are the Business Architects tied up on other projects for the next 3 months. And in larger companies, resources don’t always continue to be available should the project timelines need to be extended, as they are booked to move on to other projects.

Stakeholders – it highlights the importance of identifying and engaging with stakeholders. Large organisations have many varied businesses and departments that could by impacted by the project or could be required to support the project, and you need to find all of these to ensure there are no surprises further down the line. Obtaining stakeholder engagement and buy-in can be a lengthy process but is essential for successful delivery of the project.

Governance – it can determine the governance approach and can Impact on how the project is to be managed. You need to ensure all the appropriate controls are in place, and that you understand all of the project artifacts that need to be delivered. Get the governance structure that suits the needs of the company.

Project team – the size and complexity of the project correlates to the number of people required, the roles to be covered, and how the team is structured. It will also affect the time required to manage people and obtain progress updates. And considering the size of the company, how big is the pool of available resources and what breadth of experience do they have.

Budget – how far does the budget stretch in relation to the required resources, taking into consideration in-house or external needs. You also need to consider if there is any contingency to cover additional expense or extended time, any impact on the scope (e.g. you can’t have everything you want) or does it limit Change Requests and anything targeted for a phase 2.

Supplier – it can influence the company’s bargaining power and how this relates back into budget or scope. You also need to consider if the supplier is going to be able to cope with the scale and demands of a large company in relation to the project.

‘Plenty of food for thought’ he said as he disappeared to start his research.

I’m keen to see how our discussion plays back into his assignment on the conclusion that size does matter.

Like many people, the lockdowns have afforded me the opportunity to do a fair amount of DIY. Nothing major, but lots of little tasks that I’ve been meaning to get around to for ages. One of those was ordering and assembling a sideboard. I was talking to my wife about it when she pointed out that I was treating it like a project. She was right. And I approach almost everything as if it was a project (doesn’t everyone?). So, here I am writing about assembling furniture like a project manager.

Things were initiated with an idea. We had inherited some tea sets and ornaments last year and we had nowhere to put them. We didn’t want to keep them in boxes so we did a review of our current storage and discussed some options on how we could increase it. The obvious choice was another sideboard in the living room.

Then came the requirements. Easy bits first – dimensions and size constraints in the room and estimating the size of sideboard needed with a bit to spare (always have contingency!). Then the trickier bits like number of doors, drawers, and colour scheme, followed by ‘nice to have’ things like having legs tall enough that it was easy to hoover under.

A bit of stakeholder engagement on my part turned that ‘nice to have’ into a ‘must-have’ (even though I do all of the hoovering, just saying). It turned out that having tall legs was a constraint that made it quite tricky to meet the other requirements. After looking at literally thousands of options online over a period of weeks, we eventually found one that ticked all of the boxes (and we then double-checked our criteria just to make sure we hadn’t changed our minds on anything).

Then I read the reviews. “Good sideboard but almost impossible to assemble”; “Hired 2 different handymen and neither of them could do it”; “High quality but took days to put together”. Great.

We reconsidered our options. We had a plan B, but we actually really liked Plan A and we were quite invested in it now. With the optimism of the project manager, I was convinced I could do the assembly so we ordered it. After all, preparation is the key to success so hopefully two months of planning and researching would result in a 1-day project.

“Project Go-Live”

Screws

When the big day came, I was ready! I knew the risks and I had a plan. Any mistakes might mean I had to take it apart and start again, but I started on Saturday morning so that I could continue on Sunday if I needed too. I laid out every single piece (c300 + panel pins) and checked them against the instructions to make sure I had everything. Then I checked them again. I read through the instructions once (24 pages) and then I read them through again, while at the same time laying out all of the pieces on the floor in the order that I thought I would need to put them together.

As soon as I started I realised why the assembly was difficult; it was the dependencies. There were lots of near-identical pieces with very minor differences, e.g. a groove or a hole in a slightly different place, and the instructions weren’t always clear on which one to use. So I double-checked every instruction and I tried to visualise how the next pieces would fit together. I also tried very hard not to let my attention wander, although that was easier said than done. As most people who have been on a call with me know, I have two young, noisy, and energetic dogs who are always keen to help (in this instance by either barking at the partially assembled sideboard or chewing screwdrivers).

Six and a half hours later, via a couple of mistakes that I had to correct, I had a completed sideboard and a happy key stakeholder. One of the doors wasn’t hanging exactly right (I still need to fix that) but I was out of steam for the day. I tidied away all of my tools, put the packaging in the recycling, and sat down to relax.

If you’ve made it to the end of this article – and congratulations if you have – then you may be thinking that you spotted a lot of project management terms in there (initiation, planning, risks, dependencies, constraints, options, stakeholders, contingency) and you would be quite right. There are even a few allusions, some psychology, and a post go-live issue. And that is exactly how I thought about it and described it as I was doing it.

Because I assemble furniture like a project manager.