Project or phase, what should it be?

This kind of question came up several times over my years in project management. Once, I took over a major activity on the Sharepoint platform and defined three separate projects 1. Upgrade the Sharepoint installation to the newest version, 2. Beef up the Sharepoint infrastructure with more fail over servers, network bandwidth and processing capacity and 3. Define and create a complete framework for content management and governance on the Sharepoint platform.

At first glance it seemed really tempting to call these three “phases of the same project”. After all I was going to execute them in exactly that order, phase 1: upgrade, phase 2: infrastructure expansion, phase 3. Implement content management protocols.

However if you look at it carefully, phases is not the correct way to go. In reality there are no dependencies between the projects. We could easily create a content management protocol without upgrading either the infrastructure or the platform. We also could do either upgrade or only one. In fact we could choose to do any of these projects, any two of them, all of them or none at all.

It is true that ideally it would be best to do them in the order I mentioned earlier but that does not automatically make them phases. It is also not a question of semantics. Phases are different from projects. Let me explain.

Phases implies dependencies. It is appropriate to break up a project into more manageable phases especially when you will need a different set of resources, skills etc. So for example in building a house, a first phase could be creating the foundation, the next phase building the walls, the next installing wiring and plumbing etc.

All the phases combined make up the project. You cannot do any of the phases independently or in a different sequence. And you certainly can’t cherry pick which phase you want to keep and which you want to toss. There would be no house unless all phases have been completed.

Breaking down a large project into smaller autonomous projects is a good technique. It allows you to complete one and then decide if you still want to spend time and money on the other. You might want to postpone one project to a later date when more resources are available. Maybe when you have finished one project, something else comes up that is more important and you need to think again about doing the second project right now or do it at all.

Not so with phases. If you only do the foundation and drop the other phases, then you don’t have a completed deliverable, you don’t have a house.

When you’re not sure whether a big chunk of work should be a project or a phase, ask yourself this: Is it possible for me to do the other chunks without this one? If the answer is yes, then the chunk in question is a project.

Hope you found this informative. Give me your feedback. Send me a comment.


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