Some project managers still like to use the old “rule of thumb” that a project shouldn’t last more than 9 months. This is project management folklore. If a project is longer than 9 months, says the old folklore, then it is likely to fail. So best split it into pieces.

As with much folklore, this “rule of thumb” contains some wisdom, but it’s not rigorous and proven. Methods like Prince2 help to show that project length is only one factor likely to cause project failure. A 9 month project can fail for many, many reasons (as can a 3 or 6 month project);  whereas a  2 year project which is correctly managed can succeed (and many do)

More importantly, the old rule ignores the emergence over the last 20 years of programme management. Programmes are used for handing major initiatives and business changes, and typically take years rather than months.

Does the old rule of thumb maybe need to be rewritten? Should it say “if your project will take more than 9 months, then run it as a programme”?

Let’s consider some of the main differences between a project and a programme
    ❑    A project focuses on deliverables, and is generally shorter and more structured
    ⁃    When the deliverables are in place, the project is finished.

    ❑    A programme is a longer initiative, which often more flexible
    ⁃    delivers one or more strategic objectives
    ⁃    focusses on delivering change – when the benefits from the change are in place, the programme is finished

This tells us that the differences are not due to the length of the project or programme. More important is what it delivers: the vital difference between programmes and projects relate to the nature of the change, not to the duration of the change initiative

One simple way to understand whether to use project management or programme management is consider the nature of the change
    ❑    Project management is good if you are changing things (or making new things)
    ⁃    software and web sites
    ⁃    new or improved products
    ⁃    new IT infrastructure
    ⁃    buildings, roads

    ❑    Programme management is better if you are changing people (or their way of working)
    ⁃    restructuring, reorganisation
    ⁃    new processes
    ⁃    better ways of working
    ⁃    globalisation
    ⁃    expanding, downsizing, outsourcing, off-shoring

So that old “Rule of thumb” is a nice proverb. Like all proverbs, it seems right at times, but often it’s wrong and misleading. Better in today’s world to use another rule of thumb: “If your project will take more than 9 months, attend a course on programme management”.

Written by Jeff on August 13, 2012 in blog
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