How do you make your projects more successful?

The Condor Cluster (2010)

It may seem counterintuitive but, to increase your project team’s chances of creating something of value may require reducing budgets, team size and deadline. Because those projects with big budgets, big teams and deliverables in the far distant future are more likely to ask for extensions on all three rather than meet the project’s original objectives.

This was one of the insights of Lt.Col Dan Ward on researching the history of military procurement (not, at first, a riveting sounding topic but when you consider the size and sophistication of US defence budgets you can imagine the scale of the task and positioning on the outer edges of the technology curve). Waste — in terms of overruns, under-delivery and out-right failure — was huge.

Yet Ward also discovered something: a ‘simpler-is-better’ approach that works more often than throwing lots of money, manpower and time at a thing. He wrote about his findings in a fascinating book (‘F.I.R.E — How Fast, Inexpensive, Restrained and Elegant methods ignite innovation) from which my favourite example is the “Condor Cluster”. At the time this was the fastest supercomputer the US Dept of Defence had. But it was 90% cheaper to build than comparable supercomputers and needed 90% less electricity to run it. That’s because it was built out of 1,760 Sony PlayStations.

So, if you want your projects to deliver more value you need to set less complicated goals, throw less money at them, and have fewer people working on them. But crucially you need to shorten time frames as well, so mission creep isn’t allowed to set in (Ward argues for seeing a ‘golden rule’ that any project that exceeds its budget in time or money by 15% should immediately be stopped — this tends to concentrate minds).

What this creates is a focus on getting projects out the door and meeting the original mission which, if it was the right mission, creates value. The ability of your project team(s) to get deliverables out quickly, effectively and on budget becomes your competitive differentiation as you now get feedback from users which you can act on for the next iteration.

So, if you’re looking to improve the success rate of your projects remember the FIRE acronym:

FAST — The shorter the time-frame the better the outcome (NB:- short is a relative term)

INEXPENSIVE — Small budgets are better than large (it’s intellectual capital that matters)

RESTRAINED — Limit the amount of documentation, meetings, and teams needed

ELEGANT — Prioritise the ‘pleasingly ingenious and simple.’

‘Think FIRE’ is one of 40 principles in the Wardley Mapping method that we at PowerMaps use to enable organisations to become fast-moving: having the awareness to spot opportunities and the ability to adapt and respond effortlessly. Get in touch if you’d like to learn more or visit powermaps.net for an extensive collections of videos on this and much more.

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Govern the state by being straight-forward; wage war by being crafty. — Laozi

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Govern the state by being straight-forward; wage war by being crafty. — Laozi

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