The Long Tail of Project Management

Chris Anderson builds an interesting case around the concept of the long tail of retail (The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More). I will save you the joy of reading it, and I won’t recount his whole work here. I still wanted to share an interesting story about collective intelligence from his book. Anderson writes that, today, NASA often calls on amateurs to watch for specific asteroids that might be headed for Earth. It all started when amateur astronomers helped to make observations of Supernova 1987 that led to the confirmation of a key theory explaining how the universe works. Demos, a British think tank, described this in a 2004 report as a key moment in the arrival of a "Pro-Am" era, a time when professionals and amateurs work side by side: "Astronomy used to be done in 'big science' research institutes. Now it is also done in Pro-Am collaboratives.” Today, amateurs and professionals are working together successfully, thanks to the enabling technologies of this “Pro-Am movement,” and perhaps the most important of them is the arrival of the Internet as a mechanism for sharing information. This example from contemporary astrophysics shows that classic disciplines can be democratized, i.e. brought into a broader context. Chris points to the astronomy example, while I, in this blog, try to prove that it is also true for project management. Now let’s get back to the subject of this post and take a look at the “long tail” concept applied to project management. Construction and industrial projects are the backbone of traditional project management as we know it. Numerous great projects were built, thanks to the project management methodologies and techniques that today have become classics of the discipline. Project Apollo, the England-France Channel, the recent CERN project that generates so much buzz nowadays — all these projects represent the tremendous achievements of traditional project management science. These projects involved sky-high budgets, gigantic teams, multiple vendors, long lifecycles and other attributes of a so-called megaproject. These projects and thousands of other megaprojects rolled out today also imply astronomic risks and therefore require the use of a complex project management methodology with the right processes in place and management by experienced, certified PMPs. But what are the chances that you’ll get to manage a giant project like that? Recent statistics prove that your chances are not that big.  In my previous post, I already referred to the fact that, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration, over 50% of U.S. workers are employed by SMBs, which do not have colossal budgets, but still need to run dozens of projects. These projects are smaller in size, budget, the number of people involved andthe lifecycle duration. I mean projects like creating aWeb site, arranging a successful office relocation or developing a local coffee shop marketing campaign. These projects do not involve million-dollar risks, but these are projects, nevertheless, as they are unique and have a goal that should be achieved within budget, according to specification and by a certain time. These projects are normally managed by people who have never heard of PMI, PMBOK, waterfall or agile, but even so, these projects represent the absolute majority of all the projects undertaken these days. When people ask me about the primary area of Project Management 2.0 application, I say that it is in the projects that drop into this second category. It does not mean, however, that Project Management 2.0 is limited to SMBs. Nowadays, there’s a tendency to break large projects into smaller ones to ensure the large project’s success. Statistics prove that large projects are inherently risky and more likely to fail than smaller projects. From a study of over 23,000 projects performed recently, Standish Group found that the success rate dropped as the project duration increased. I recommend you have a look at this article by Mike Griffiths to get more details on this survey. Mike is one of the proponents of scaling large projects into smaller ones, an approach that is frequently used these days to reduce project risks (see this example from IBM’s Rational Software Process Business Unit). It is in these smaller parts of a larger project where Project Management 2.0 can also be very successfully applied. Let me illustrate the areas of Project Management 2.0 application with a graph that reflects a concept borrowed from retail – the long tail. The vertical axis represents the size of the projects, and the horizontal axis stands for the project quantity. In this particular chart, I’ve decided not to choose a single differentiator for  project size (i.e. people, budget, resources, calendar time, efforts, etc.). The picture is illustrating the general concept, so it will apply to many of these scales to some extent. By the smallest projects, I mean personal assignments that are often managed ad hoc or with the  help of personal productivity methodologies like “Getting Things Done.” The opposite extreme represents megaprojects, like building a new city hospital or constructing a bridge that will unite two islands. These projects usually involve traditional project management techniques or even more complex program management and project portfolio management methods. Now, when we slice this chart, we see the gradation of applications of project management approaches. Slice 1 is long because there are numerous personal projects. It’s mostly blue because it’s the area where personal productivity methodologies are usually applied. Slice 2 is higher on the vertical axis and represents the team space. Here, personal productivity is still very important, but team collaboration and project leadership are imperative and begin to play a more significant role. Therefore, this area is major in terms of Project Management 2.0 application. When we move higher along the vertical axis, the size of projects, delivery risks and budgets, the number of people involved, and other factors grow. Slice 3 is rather short because there are not many megaprojects executed in comparison with small projects, as the SMB stats that I mentioned above show. Here’s where traditional project management comes into play. When the complexity of projects rises, more sophisticated methods, like program management and portfolio management, are needed. Still, when the project complexity grows from personal to small projects and then from small to large industrial projects, the methods that were used for a simple project also will be used in the background. That is, on the industrial project level, there is a need for extensive coordination and governance, scheduling and resource allocation, etc. However, elements of a large project also will include Project Management 2.0 with its focus on productivity, collective intelligence and leadership. At the same time, in the Project Management 2.0 world, on the lower level, there are personal tasks of individual team members to which personal productivity will be applied. So, to summarize, I don’t see it as black and white, i.e. that certain methods must be applied to certain projects.  Rather, I see it as a gradient. The more complexity a project involves, the more risks are connected with it and the more formal the processes and methods undertaken for its completion will be. The less complex the project is, the more informal the processes and methodologies applied to the project will be. This is just a concept, of course, and it does not claim to be exhaustive. I’d like to know what you think about it. Please let me know in the comments. In conclusion, I’d like to note that Chris Anderson also says that, of course, democratization of astronomy has its limits. Pro-Ams are largely collecting data, not creating new theories of astrophysics. Nevertheless, their place in the field seems assured. The same can be said about the project management field: Project Management 2.0 will not replace traditional project management methods (as they still will be needed on the industrial project level), but it can be the most productive way to manage day-to-day projects for many of us. Update: It turned out that the concept of the long tail was used once already to describe the difference between “simple” and “complex” projects by my fellow-blogger, Bas de Baar. Each of us utilized the model in his own way, though.

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