As a CIO, I deliberately avoided multi-year projects. But when a mega-project was inevitable, I worked to make it painless.

I’m amazed at how often my peers boast about the “huge” projects they’re managing. After all, I’ve always done everything in my power to keep from taking on multi-year “death marches” that could stop things down to the point of putting the business at risk. Instead, I tried to practice fiscal fitness every day — rather than realize too late that it was time to do something about those nagging symptoms. Yet, despite the best strategy and planning, big projects are sometimes

A number of principles hold true for large, multi-year projects:

  • Big projects are riskier. According to The Standish Group’s 2013 “Chaos Manifest,” very few large projects perform well under the triple constraints of cost, time, and scope. While small projects are more than 70% likely to succeed, large projects have virtually no chance of coming in on time, on budget, or within scope. Plus, a large project is more than ten times as likely to fail outright — meaning it will be canceled or it will be obsolete before it launches.
    Bottom line: The bigger the project, the less likely it is to succeed.
  • More scope means less control. Consider the “Big Dig”: the relocation of 3.5 miles of interstate in downtown Boston, Massachusetts. The mega-project was supposed to last about seven years at a cost of $2.8 billion. Instead, it became the most expensive highway project in U.S. history — taking more than 15 years to complete, with a cost overrun of more than 190% (before adjusting for inflation). Some projections estimate that the project will ultimately cost $22 billion.
  • Who’s in charge? By the time a project delivers, it’s more than likely that its original advocates have moved on. In those cases, leadership often questions the need for the project in the first place — and then focuses on the features and functionality that “should have been included.” This sets up the organization for morale issues as a reluctant user base struggles to adopt the new system.
  • Change is hard. Fear of change often drives businesses to push back deadlines, add unnecessary functionality, or relax when they should be making their final push.

In spite of the risks, there are times when major, long-term projects are not only inevitable, but also practical. In my experience, there are things businesses can do to avoid pitfalls and increase their chances of success:

  • Stay agile. Many large projects can be broken up into smaller pieces that are easier to manage. Still, businesses sometimes fail to see the benefit of creating incremental landing points. Other times, organizations buy into the fallacy that they have to invest in an entire project all at once. Either way, these companies can fail to realize value throughout the project — and miss opportunities to adjust the long-term plan as the business climate changes.
  • Stay accountable. Project managers often fail to set real business goals for a project. And it’s even more rare for leadership to hold teams accountable. I was involved in a large project during which the COO met with IT and business area leaders to list the expected improvements, cost savings, and new capabilities. The team committed to hard goals: a 20% reduction here; a 15% reduction there; and 15 fewer days-to-market for new products. Once the program launched, we had 12 months to deliver. If we failed, we were expected to find the returns somewhere — even from bonuses.
  • Staff smarter. All too frequently, organizations staff projects with those who are available and not with the right talent for the job.
  • Observe the 80/20 rule. It is generally accepted that 80% of users use only 20% of an application’s features — and about 20% of its functionality produces 80% of the value. Assuming this is true, seek to deliver feature-rich functionality — but focus on added value over bells and whistles.
  • Double up. Appoint two leaders to each major project — one from the business side and one from IT — and give them equal authority and influence. The entire team must see the pair as true partners who must “sink or swim” to deliver a full-featured product on time and on budget.

The bigger the project, the harder teams have to work to manage it. So when an organization takes on a mega-project, leadership must set clear objectives — and stakeholders must deliver incremental value. That way, the business can avoid the risk of delivering a product that’s out of date before it goes live.

The most successful initiatives are those that effectively balance scope, budget, and timelines — all while advancing the business and adding measurable value. But the key to preventing system-wide mega-projects in the first place is maintaining stability in day-to-day operations. When leadership can focus on strategic objectives, and business units can work to move the organization forward in manageable increments, the business will see the progress it needs without having to blow things up and rebuild.