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Projects / Meetings

Managing Large-Scale Projects

March 14, 2014 by Dr. Jon Warner in Projects / Meetings

Managing Large-Scale Projects

A project is a fixed-time group activity designed to produce a unique product, service or result. Fixed-time means that a project always has a specific beginning and end in time, and therefore defined scope and resources within these two points. In addition, a project is a unique set of tasks (and not ongoing or routine operational ones) performed by a diverse group of people who are usually working together for the first time to accomplish a particular goal. This is typically to complete the project on time and on budget. 

According to the above definition, many activities can be seen to be projects in the workplace including:

  • Launching a new product or service
  • Designing and rolling out a new policy or approach for the whole organization
  • Redesigning or making changes to a complex organizational process
  • Introducing and training people in the use of some new software

And many others like this. 

Projects like these may be performed by relatively small teams of five, ten or even up to twenty people or so, and it may be that the project is run with little actual project management formality or even professional knowledge. In other words, an individual may be appointed to the project leader role on the basis of prior seniority and both he or she and the team may have few project management skills or tools at their disposal. Such teams simply work as collaboratively as they can in the time and budget available to get the job done, and then return to their past operational roles. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this approach and it will often work well for many small and short-term or straight-forward projects. However, this is rarely the case when a project grows in scale, duration and complexity and in this article we will look briefly at what changes and why, when this is the case. 

What are the characteristics of large-scale projects?

Although this may vary from one organization to another, large workplace projects typically have the following characteristics. They have:

  • Longer durations (often running for at least 6 months but perhaps more likely a year or more).
  • Larger teams of people (perhaps 25-30 at the smaller end but maybe as many as 50, 100 or even more at the larger end of the scale. Such projects may even have dedicated support staff.
  • Greater budget and resource allocation (which may even include special space to work within, a special capital budget to buy dedicated tools and equipment etc.
  • Much more task complexity, including many tasks having to be done concurrently.

The obvious example of a large project to most people is when major infrastructure projects are undertaken such as roads, bridges and large-buildings are constructed. But in the workplace, examples might be things like:

  • Introducing an entirely new accounting system
  • A complete office relocation (especially when it is to a new city or State)
  • Setting up a new business in another location (especially when this is in another country)
  • Establishing a completely new team for a new product or service brand

In these circumstances a different attitude needs to be taken to project management. This is mainly because the whole decision-making process is often far less clear with multiple possible paths being available to the project manager and the team.

What skills are needed to manage larger-scale projects?

Larger projects are different to small ones first and foremost because decision-making cannot be carried out so quickly and so easily and need coordination. This means that decisions need to be much more carefully made, communicated and executed and in a very joined-up way (as so many overlapping tasks are likely to be going on at the same time). In these circumstances, the project manager’s role and responsibility should be to identify the right people to make each major decision (when it is not the project manager him or herself), insist that the goals used for making the decision be defined and documented, and make sure that the criteria for the decision is properly established. While there are usually far too many decisions in large-scale projects for management to require that they all be made in this way, there will also be several key decisions which should be escalated to ensure that full coordination can take place.

Beyond changes to the way decisions are made, large projects need more team meetings. While even small projects may have overall team meetings to coordinate progress once a week, in a larger project, such meetings may need to take place every day. In addition, sub-team meetings may need to occur frequently to coordinate activities on one part of a large project and then report any implications and knock-on effects to the overall project as a result to the overall manager.

Finally, large projects require more professional project management tools and approaches. There are many software-based project management systems now available, including software which helps with overall planning and scheduling (e.g. PERTT system, task and resource allocation (e.g. GANTT charts), risk assessment and mitigation (e.g. RISK TABLES) project analysis (e.g. PARETO graphs) etc. All these tools call for much deeper project knowledge and a team skilled in project management as an activity. A wise organization therefore looks for experience in not only the project manager but in several other key positions in the team.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at OptimalJon@gmail.com

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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