Most businesses have multiple good projects in the works, all of which could potentially generate great value. It can be tempting to follow through with all of them at the same time, because then the gains and value realization are greatest. Or are they?
If that’s the way you think, you may fall into a trap known by project managers as long and thin. It is used to describe situations in which an organization’s resources are spread across so many parallel projects that it is difficult for some projects to reach targets. With inadequate resources devoted to each project’s completion, the timeframe is prolonged, and this means that value realization has to wait too. Another problem with many parallel projects is that many shifts in context make the work inefficient for the individual and, by extension, to the organization.
If you want to create greater value with the same resources, it is smarter to work with focused execution and think short and fat. This means prioritizing and executing one, or a few, projects at a time, so that each project has sufficient resources allocated and the focused attention necessary for it to successfully reach the target. This means faster and greater value realization with a lot less overhead and wasted time.
Short and fat – the way to increased value with compounded interest
Here is an example of why thinking short and fat is advantageous. This applies to projects, tasks, portfolio management and the implementation of strategies.
Depicted above are two identical projects that are executed in different ways.
The red project represents the short and fat approach and is preferred for a number of reasons. One of the main ones is that the value comes back with compound interest. When the blue (long and thin) project is completed, the red project has already produced a return on investment. After a year, there is a greater chance that the red project would have an additional initial advantage as compared to the blue project.
If you would like to learn more about the short and fat concept and delve into the hard facts and key figures that back it up, Niels Teilberg Søndergaard from Implement Consulting has written an excellent article on the subject: “Short and fat projects will save your bottom line”.
“If you want to create greater value with the same resources, it is smarter to work with focused execution and think short and fat
Our guide to applying “short and fat” in real life
It may be easy to understand the concept as described, but actually putting it into practice is not as easy. If you are trying to generate the greatest value from IT projects and throughput in the IT department, you need to know what to do specifically and especially what to pay attention to.
Below we share the focus points we use at IT ADVISORY, when we help our clients execute strategies and projects efficiently and effectively with the short and fat practice.
1. Remember portfolio management at lower levels too
Many big organizations perform portfolio management at top level only. Senior management know the budgets, are familiar with current projects and usually have a good overview of the options available. But portfolio management at lower levels within the organization is important too. It enables middle and lower level management to help determine and prioritize what would be most advantageous to execute first and what could wait. Senior management may decide that 10 projects should be carried out this year, but that does not mean that they should all be executed simultaneously.
2. Be aware of capacity management
All change processes require sufficient resources. If an organization or skilled employees are fully occupied with other matters, it is not possible to meet desired project targets. Consider whether other activities can be paused or scaled down, or whether it is possible to increase the capacity. Never start a change project if there is not sufficient capacity to carry it out. It will turn out to be long and thin, with overhead, frustrations and a delay in value creation to follow.
3. Remove impediments
From the Scrum framework we have learned to have ongoing focus on impediments rather than risks. Impediments come in many forms: a scope that is too large, too many activities in progress, micromanagement, invisible interruptions in the daily work, or long decision-making processes. The good thing about impediments is that they are action-oriented. Doing away with obstacles in projects is often smarter and easier than adding more resources.
If you succeed at clearing the path, projects can be completed faster and this makes them less expensive.
4. Make a decision plan up front
Management decisions must be made in all projects. Waiting for board meetings, uncertainty regarding governance, and changing circumstances cause delays, which means that decisions about projects are delayed, and this makes them turn out long and thin. A simple way to prevent this is to make a decision plan for all projects up front. This plan spells out specifically which key decisions need to be made for the duration of the project, who should make them, when and on what basis. This is simple and extremely effective.
“You have to consider short and fat as the mindset to have and a standard best practice. There should be a collaborative effort throughout the organization to hold each other to this practice
5. Small changes produce big changes
Big changes made over a short period of time are often unsuccessful and/or are not long-lasting. People are better at handling small, manageable changes. Consider whether the project or task in question can be carried out in a series of smaller steps. This way benefits are gained on an ongoing basis and the projects are short and fat rather than long and thin.
6. Brooks’ law: “Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.”
When a project is delayed and starts to take on a long and thin shape, adding more resources is not necessarily the best solution. When new actors or resources enter the picture, they bring with them more opinions, more meetings, more coordination and a greater need for written proceedings. Consider whether it might be better to divide a project into smaller projects, not just as a list or graph in a PowerPoint presentation, but in real life.
7. Eliminate bottlenecks
All organizations have bottlenecks because not everyone can or should know everything. A lot can be done to prevent bottlenecks and to keep them from producing long and thin projects. When skilled employees are constantly working overtime, have overfilled inboxes and are assigned to multiple parallel projects, these are warning signs that require special attention, both out of consideration for the health of the employees and for the profitability of the projects in progress.
8. Plan holistically and execute with focused attention
Making a realistic plan for a short and fat project always means taking on a holistic approach. It is necessary to take into consideration other projects, the current circumstances, strategies, resource situation and external conditions. As a manager and project manager, you have to capitalize on this mindset and have the courage to communicate to the organization that it would be better to execute a project at a later date, even if the budget might extend over a calendar year, or if there are other conditions that could be seen as political obstacles. Be ready to tell it like it is.
A mindset that requires sustained attention
Even the best managers, project managers and employees, sometimes accept projects, tasks and processes that begin to take on a long and thin shape. It often happens gradually and without our awareness. This makes it important to consider short and fat as the mindset to have and a standard best practice. There should be a collaborative effort throughout the organization to hold each other to this practice. If you succeed at this, you are clearing the path for a professional culture that people are motivated to be a part of, a culture with clear priorities and instructions with a direct path from implementation to value
About the authors
Kristian Sørensen is CEO & Sr. Principal at IT ADVISORY. As a trusted management advisor and IT strategy expert, Kristian helps organizations set structure and direction for strategic initiatives and projects. Reach out to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brian Karstensen is Ass. Partner at IT ADVISORY. He advises management on IT strategies and project development. Brian’s areas of expertise include IT project management, communications, learning and digitalization. Reach out to him at email@example.com.