Project blobs: How to manage your big projects smoother with subcontractors

Project blobs: How to manage your big projects smoother with subcontractors

Big projects are different from smaller ones. It isn’t just that they involve more moving parts, the real difference has to do with the limitations of the human mind.

Experienced project managers can get their minds around smaller projects. They have an intuitive sense of how to build a house, launch a modest-sized ad campaign, or create a simple piece of software. To complement this intuition, project milestones are an indispensable check on this gut-level understanding. Still, the experienced project manager is likely to have a pretty good intuitive idea of their progress and challenges, so long as the project remains relatively small.

With big projects, the experience is different. Projects can span months or even years. It might involve dozens of subcontractors, hundreds of milestones, thousands of tasks and subtasks, and millions of dollars to keep track of. No mere human could hope to monitor such a project by intuition and gut feel.

Simple project systems don’t necessarily work well either. The reason is that there are too many undifferentiated tasks, which we will refer to by their scientific name: blobs. A blob is a large task or series of tasks required for the project, but with details that are poorly defined and hence poorly understood. An example could be if a project manager’s task list for a shopping mall had a line that said, “Assemble all necessary materials,” that would be a blob. So how do you go about conquering these blobs?

One common solution is to delegate complex tasks to be performed by a subcontractor. As project manager, you’re depending on that subcontractor to complete the job on time and on budget. Yet you have no real idea of how the subcontracting company plans to go about its work, and you don’t really know whether your on-time-and-on-budget expectations are reasonable. All you have is one line on your budget that says something like “Task X: ABC Contracting.” Any project tracking system depends on close monitoring of progress, but with a blob like this you have none of the detail that you need for effective tracking.

So how do we delegate a responsibility to a subcontractor while still being able to track a project effectively? There’s no easy way around this one: whenever a subcontractor is responsible for a large, essential piece of a project, you as project manager have to know exactly what’s going on. You don’t need to manage the task as if it were your own—it’s not—but you need a detailed view into how the subcontractor plans to manage it.

Managing subcontractors in this way can be difficult and time consuming. But allowing such a blob to dictate the outcome of your project is usually an unacceptable risk. If you divide the blobs up into agreed-on subtasks and milestones, you and your subcontractors can accurately track progress, identify issues more quickly, and ultimately turn in better performance. They may initially not like that idea, but in the end it helps avoid miscommunications and helps to keep projects on track and on budget.

Using subcontractors can be an excellent solution to conquer blobs in a large project. By effectively and frequently communicating with your subcontractors and setting agreed-on milestones and tasks, you and your subcontractor can more accurately track progress and performance.  This way, you- not your blobs- dictate the outcome of your projects.


Source: Project Management for Profit by Roger Thomas, Joe Knight and Brad Angus, together with input from Joe Cornwell and Joe Van Den Berghe from Setpoint Inc. Setpoint has a 25-year history of successfully designing and implementing custom rides and attractions for the top amusement and theme parks in the world.

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