5 Risks of Lengthy Projects and How to Mitigate Them

Some Key Risks Lengthy Projects and How To Mitigate Them 

A high-dollar, high-visibility, long-term project for a customer ready to spend top dollar on a successful solution sounds like a great opportunity. A career-changer, a resume-booster, and attention-getter. A very desirable scenario... right? Well, yes it, it definitely can be if it goes well, is deemed successful and doesn't become an albatross in the overall project portfolio for the organization. It can be if you are up for the challenge and know the possible risks. 

The problem with longer term projects is that, you can never really do enough planning to cover all of your exposure points on a project that will potentially run for months. I’ve managed many long term, high dollar projects and programs and each were very rewarding./ But I earned my pay on every one of those long projects – teams change along the way, timeframes become a problem, money can dry up, and organizational focuses can change. They can be extremely challenging to manage and issues can come at you from every direction. 

So what are some of the key challenges on long running projects? For me these five make up a general list... 

High potential for excessive or numerous change orders 
Any time a project is stretched over a long period of time, the potential for change orders will likely increase exponentially. The longer the project goes, the more risk exposure there is, the more issues that are encountered, the more scope changes – both necessary for changing processes and because the customer has requested more work or functionality – that are likely to exist. I'm not saying this is all bad because most of the time a change order will be adding revenue for the delivery team organization. But many change orders on an engagement can leave a project client feeling frustrated – even if they requested them and needed them. There is no way to avoid this, or even really mitigate the change orders and additional costs to the customer. The best thing the delivery organization can do is to be very fair in the pricing, possibly give a little work away for free and document each change order in detail as to show professionalism and accountability. 

Welcoming of extra potentially encountered risks and issues
Trouble comes quickly and slowly. But the longer you are exposed to the elements on a project the more the likelihood you could get burned. Risks and issues arise over time as work gets tangled and changes happen. The quick projects can happen almost without incident, but the longer the project the chance for business process changes, scope creep, change orders, new needs, requirement changes, etc. with every change comes potential risk or issues. Good upfront planning can help mitigate some of this by enabling the team to get better requirements, but no amount of planning is going to completely eliminate this risk or exposure. 

Exponential difficulty staying on time and on budget
Another key risk in the long-term project – staying on time and likewise staying on budget. Things like scope management, resource management, testing and task management always make schedule and budget a challenge, and the longer the project the bigger the challenge. As I already mentioned longer projects are likely to have more risks, issues and change orders. How do you avoid the time slippages, deliverable delays and budget overruns. Other than tight management and good planning you really can’t. Be sure to plan in the schedule for enough time for things like planning, requirements definition, deliverable and testing reviews and sign-offs and budget oversight. I always say that weekly budget review and re-forecasting is very critical. A 10% budget overage caught early is fairly easy to correct. A 50% overage that got out of hand because no one was watching weekly expenses is nearly impossible to fix. 

Higher likelihood to need to replace or exchange project resources
As other high priority projects kickoff and need specific skill sets within the organization thus needing to “steal” resources from long running initiatives, the likelihood you could lose a key resource to another project increases. It happens and the onboarding process – if you can find a good replacement – can be time consuming and expensive. And if you can't find a good replacement right away, it can cause project delays. Project delays, changing resources, missed deliverable dates – these all cause issues with the customer. The best thing you can do is keep your resource forecast up to date and as detailed as possible so your project may be less likely to be a target when someone comes looking for a particular skill set for their project. Be accurate, be detailed. 

Organizational focuses and priorities shift
This can happen at any time on any length project or any size project. But when you have a project that runs for, say, 18 months you have a decent chance of running into the latest Lean or Continuous Improvement change of focus or even environmental or industrial changes that can shift the company priorities and focus. Leaderships change, every year seems to bring new company focuses and resolutions and industries can change, too, forcing a company to go in a different direction. All of these changes can affect ongoing projects significantly – even cancel some that aren't performing. So being aware of these potential changes and watching changes in your organization while your project is still in progress is very important – especially if your project is already in trouble or experiencing issues. You and it may be considered excess expense areas when the time comes to make certain changes. The best thing you can do is continue best practices, keep the project and team performing well and keep the profit margin as high as possible so that it is a positive revenue stream for the organization as it's going through changes... not a negative one. 

Summary / call for input
Long projects are long projects... they have to happen. But managing the long project vs. the short project can be very different. Keeping scope, team, customer team, etc. intact throughout can be challenging if not impossible. It takes a different kind of management style – it's not just about getting it done and managing the team well. It can mean more negotiations, conflict management, certainly some skillful customer management and the metal and mental to make it for the long haul. 

Readers – what's on your list of risks and difficulties in managing the longer projects? What strange happenings have you encountered and how have you dealt with issues to mitigate their impact?

Online 6/20/2022
Brad Egeland
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