Do large projects really fail more often?

Top consultant and project manager, Vijay Vijayasankar, argues that project size is not correlated with success or failure.
Written by Michael Krigsman, Contributor on

Yesterday, in a post about IT failures in the federal government, I asserted that large projects are more likely to fail than smaller ones.

Related: Shocking gov't IT failure statistics!

Top consultant and project manager, Vijay Vijayasankar, responded with an opposing view on Twitter, which he elaborated in a blog post. Vijay's perspective is rooted in experience and has merit, so today I am publishing his comments as a guest post.

Vijay argues that project size is not a primary determinant of success or failure. Rather, he believes that media attention on larger failures makes them more visible, giving the appearance that project size is correlated to outcome.

Do you think project size is correlated to success or failure? Please share your thoughts in the comments.


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.

Defining 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 work breakdown structure (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.

We could argue 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…

Risk of failing 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 system integrator (SI), the customer, the product vendor, the weather and 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…


Thank you to Vijay Vijayasankar for writing this guest blog post. Photo from iStockphoto.

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