The Benefits of Recognizing Projects as Investments: “And yet, it moves!”

One of the great afflictions of mankind throughout history has been the stubborn refusal of certain figures who see themselves as ”authorities” to alter their views in light of new ideas and evidence.

In the 17th and18th centuries, combustion was explained as the escape of a substance called phlogiston from a material. This theory was staunchly defended even after it was shown that magnesium gained mass when it burned. Finally, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier proved conclusively that combustion was the combining of a material with oxygen. This new explanation led to giant steps forward in both physics and chemistry.

Galileo

Some of the most stubborn ideas are those that come with the imprimatur of sacred scripture. Thus the heliocentrism ideas of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo were banned by the Vatican as conflicting with the Bible and the teachings of the Council of Trent. Galileo was threatened with burning as a heretic, placed under house arrest, and left only able to mutter about our planet: “Eppur si muove.”

Yesterday I had a discussion on a LinkedIn group in which I tried to explain that, in fact, all projects are investments and that recognizing them as such could have great benefit both for the development of better management techniques and metrics and for the greater esteem for our discipline. Alas, I ran into an individual who refused to accept any definitions or techniques beyond the pages of the Fifth Edition of the PMBOK® Guide.

Make no mistake – I regard the Guide as a very valuable book. But both I and PMI also regard it as a guide, and not as the entire body of knowledge of project management! It is also an evolving document, or there would be no need for new editions.

There are techniques and tools and metrics and, yes, definitions that are being used within our discipline that have not yet made it into the PMBOK® Guide. Undoubtedly many will some year. Critical path drag is an example – every project, however scheduled, has a longest path of activities and other delaying factors, and the amount that each item on that path delays completion is its drag. And drag is always there, and has been since the pharaohs’ projects, whether we and our software compute it or not! And this metric is enormously helpful whenever we are seeking places to compress our schedule! (Many clients have employed me over the years to use this technique to recover schedule.)

So what about the definition of a project that I use in my books?

“A project is an investment in work to create a product, service or result.”

First, is there anyone (apart from the gentleman from the LinkedIn group) who would argue that projects are not investments?

  • Investment: “1 The action or process of investing money for profit or material result;.. 1.2 An act of devoting time, effort, or energy to a particular undertaking with the expectation of a worthwhile result.”

http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/investment

I believe we would all agree that every project is undertaken only if its probability-weighted value is expected to be greater than the cost (i.e., the invested amount). If we need a definition for value, the very first definition from the same source seems applicable:

Value: “1 The regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something”

http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/value

A project’s value may be:

  • Revenues from a new product or service;
  • Future cost savings;
  • The opportunity to keep a plant open instead of being forced by the government to close it;
  • Avoiding fines;
  • Garnering votes;
  • Prosecuting criminals;
  • Saving lives; or
  • Any other of dozens of efforts intended to create a valuable result.

So every project is definitely an investment. But what might be the benefits of staring to recognize them as such?

  1. Project management would start to focus on the quantified aspects of those things that impact the value of the investment: the Golden Triangle of the integrated value/cost of scope, time and resource usage.
  2. Project managers would work harder to align the scope of the project with the benefits wanted by the sponsor/customer through the collaborative development and implementation of a value breakdown structure (VBS) and other techniques. (The failure to actually deliver the benefits for which a project is undertaken is a big issue in many circles, and this would help to solve the problem.)
  3. The value/cost of time on a project, which is currently almost always left as an unquantified externality and therefore rarely managed in terms of its actual impact on the investment, would suddenly be recognized for its importance. Many scheduling techniques that experienced PMs have mastered, like critical path analysis and resource leveling, would therefore suddenly be fully appreciated.
  4. Both drag cost and the true cost of work could be easily computed, meaning that activities on the critical path would be evaluated not only on the basis of their resource costs, but also their drag costs in terms of how much their drags are reducing the value of the investment. (True cost = resource costs plus drag cost.)
  5. Decisions across the Golden Triangle would be quantified in terms of investment value. Should we employ an additional resource costing $10,000 on a critical path activity? Well, will it reduce the drag cost by more than $10,000? Or would we be better off jettisoning that activity because its true cost will be greater than its value-added?
  6. We will be able to track each project during performance not just on the basis of earned value cost and schedule metrics, but on the basis of investment metrics: the expected project profit (EPP) of the project as tracked through the DIPP and the DIPP Progress Index.

All of these are just a sample of the benefits that would accrue if we start dealing with projects as investments. I believe that practitioners would rapidly develop new metrics and techniques to do an even better job of measuring and ensuring greater project investment value.

But perhaps the most important benefit would be for our profession: the value of project managers and project management techniques and contributions would become clearly measurable in value/cost terms. Instead of being looked upon as “overhead on cost centers” project managers would become valuable contributors to the organization’s bottom line.

Surely this would only help PMI to market its ideas and techniques to senior managers who know little about projects, but who care a great deal about investments!

Fraternally in project management,

Steve the Bajan

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