Do bigger projects really fail more often than smaller projects?

Common sense and Michael Krigsman tell me that bigger projects fail more than smaller projects.  However, this does not match what I have experienced in the past. From what I have seen, project size does not have a significant impact on its odds to fail.

First – how do we define size ? Size can generally be expressed in terms of effort, which in turn drives duration and headcount.  occasionally we do run into situations which are akin to asking 9 women to deliver a baby in 1 month – but assuming that doesn’t happen , there is a logical way of arriving at duration and headcount from a WBS.  There are always compromises made between the triple constraints – scope, schedule and budget.  Once all the stakeholders agree to this – project is good to go.

Now, assuming this exercise is done – size is generally not a reason for failure any more.  The reason is that in this planning exercise, you should have covered the effort required to mitigate the risk for duration and headcount. After this planning exercise irrespective of size – all projects start on the same footing. 

It could be argued that bigger projects are harder to plan and hence should fail more. However I am not sure if this is a true statement entirely.  The reason is that planning for a bigger project is done on a larger scale with a more intense process and  will have better scrutiny than a smaller project. Since the planning effort is proportionate – size should not be an unmitigated risk after that. For example – if headcount increases, then there is more overhead on communication. But once you factor that increase into the schedule, this risk has a valid mitigation.  and so on and so on…

Then there  is the risk that we fail on execution.  This is not rare – but the question is – does it depend on size?  As an example – lets say a small project was commissioned to build a UI in 5 days.  Planning was done in an hour on a whiteboard, and the stakeholders were 2 people. It only needed one developer to write the code and test it and move it to production. Total cost was calculates as say $2000. In execution, it took 6 days to finish because one of the stakeholders was out sick for a day and hence could not clarify a requirement in time. Cost over run is $800. What is the chance that this failure gets highlighted in blogosphere? ZERO  or NEAR ZERO.  As a percentage – cost slipped by 40% and schedule slipped by 40%. But since the materiality was so low, it is not worth spending time to analyze it.  And guess what – in most cases, people won’t even say that this was a failure.

But on a project that is $10 Million in size – a 40% miss is enough to get some serious blogosphere attention. Then we need to find out what went wrong – and point fingers at the SI, the customer, the product vendor, the weather and the macro economic factors. 

My point is – as long as we compare projects and their risks apples to apples, I have not seen big projects fail any more than smaller projects. The difference is that when big projects fail, they fail SPECTACULARLY, and hence they overshadow the similar failure rates of smaller projects. Several decades later, we still talk about sinking of Titanic. Since that time, more people have probably dies of smaller accidents – but do we talk about them?

 Lookin forward to hearing your perspective on this topic…