How to Determine the Number of Projects to Deliver in a Given Year

Project Portfolio Management | By Abid Mustafa | Read time minutes

Business colleagues holding question mark signs in front of their faces

Every year there is a mad scramble by most companies to secure budgets internally for projects they intend to do for the following financial year. Typically, companies are flooded with requests from various departments to deliver capabilities and benefits through a variety of projects and programmes. However, companies are acutely aware that there has to be a balance between the long wish list of things to do, and the organisation's actual ability to deliver them. Usually this leads to a onerous quest to estimate the number of projects and programmes that can be delivered in a single year. In the absence of a workable corporate planning process (one that provides a prioritisation framework to validate whether the right projects should be done or not) this becomes a daunting exercise for executives and their senior management teams. The purpose of this article is outline a number of techniques which on their own or collectively can assist companies to overcome this dilemma.

Establish a Project Filtration Standard

Given the chance, business units will add anything to the company's list of things to do. Items that would never qualify as project work are often added. Once all the business units have finished contributing, the wish list is usually very long and lacks detail. Trawling through such a list and deciphering every item is a tedious exercise. Furthermore, to discover that a significant proportion of items do not constitute project work is extremely painful, and quite frankly a waste of the company's time! To minimise the inclusion of non-project items and to encourage sufficient detail to reduce protracted dialogues with the business units demands a project filtration standard to be established and communicated to the relevant parties. At its simplest level, this could entail distinguishing between development work and operational work. In practice however, a more versatile standard is required to perform the filtration. This should consist of: a business case for the intended project work, its alignment with the corporate's strategic objectives, project size (small, medium, and large) and high-level project information (sponsorship, scope, objectives, timelines etc.). If the filtration standard is implemented correctly, it should preclude items like "photocopier installation, exchange server memory upgrade, 10 employee desks" from appearing on the list. Additionally, short sentences to describe project work such as "ERP system is required because everyone else has one, and it will take 6 months to implement" will be actively discouraged and excluded from the list, unless sufficient detail is provided.

How Much Money is Available to Spend on Projects

Another technique that can be employed to restrain the company's wish list is to impose an overall project budget for the company. The total budget can be divided into specific budgetary envelopes which the business units use to calculate project submissions. However, the value of the total project work submitted must not exceed the overall project budget, but individual envelopes can be exceeded. In practice, this requires strict rules to regulate negotiations between the various business units; otherwise there is a danger that whole exercise can become protracted. A variation to this approach is to set a specific monetary threshold to admit project work into the company's to do list. Therefore, if an item meets the threshold value, it is included on the list. Nonetheless, an overall cap on project spending is imposed to inhibit too many items from entering the list. Whilst both approaches are quick and dirty, they lack the intelligence to ascertain what really constitutes project work.

Use Historical Data to Determine Organisation's Capability to Deliver

The two techniques described so far, are good at restricting the company's wish list, but are quite poor at providing an indication as to how many projects the company can actually deliver. One technique that can help in this respect is to use historical project data to determine the organisation's current ability to deliver number of projects. The accuracy of this method is greatly dependent upon the quality of the project data: if the project data is incomplete, inconsistent, or contradictory, then it may be prudent to use procurement data to calculate just how many projects started, or stopped, in a given a year. However, even this may not be enough to provide an answer with certainty. If the quality of project data is too poor to provide a reliable figure, then benchmarking could be used to determine company's delivery capability. However, benchmarking provides the industry figure as to what a similar size organisation in a specific business area should be delivering. It is not a measure of how many projects the organisation in question can deliver presently. In any case, both historical data and benchmarking can assist organisations to aim for the optimum number of projects they should deliver in a given year.

Use Critical Resource Head Count to Estimate the Number of Projects

An expedient method for fixing the number of projects is to base it on the number of critical resources used by the company to deliver project work. The critical resources can be project managers, analysts, architects, designers, testers, trainers etc. All organisations have a finite number of resources and in the current economic climate; the tendency is to do more with less. Hence, resource sharing is imperative to deliver projects. So it should be quite straightforward to come up with a reasonable figure, which all parties can concur with. For instance, if there are fifteen project managers then it is reasonable to assume that they would not be able to deliver more than twenty medium size projects.

Intelligent Planning

One of the ways to do more with less is to group projects into programmes and then manage the delivery to produce the requisite capabilities and benefits. The advantage of this approach is that the organisation as a whole can focus on a small number of programmes in a given year. However, the greatest challenge facing such an approach is the organisation's maturity to plan and effectively collaborate. Provisions are also made for unplanned projects, or programmes, which can arise due to market conditions and regulatory edicts.

Executive Threshold to Sponsor Projects and Programmes

Lastly, one of the biggest constraining factors is how much time executives can devote to project sponsorship. Typically, executives have their schedules full with strategic, operational, management, financial and commercial responsibilities. Finding time to sponsor projects in addition to these responsibilities is a struggle for the best of executives. Most likely, executives will not be able to commit beyond one or two major projects and programmes. Therefore, using executive attention to measure the organisation's ability to deliver is an extremely useful technique.

In conclusion, a selection of any techniques listed above can be employed to calculate the organisation's ability to deliver within a defined budget. However, this is merely a temporary solution. A more permanent solution necessitates such techniques to be integrated into the company's corporate planning process. Only then, will the company be able to accurately determine its capability to deliver a specific number of projects and programmes each year.

Abid Mustafa is a seasoned professional with 18 years' experience in the IT and Telecommunications industry, specialising in enhancing corporate performance through the establishment and operation of executive PMOs and delivering tangible benefits through the management of complex transformation programmes and projects. Currently, he is working as a director of corporate programmes for a leading telecoms operator in the MENA region.


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