Managing Large Projects: Part One

As you move forward in your career, it's likely that you may work on projects of increasing size. There are important differences between small and large projects. Perhaps the most obvious difference is that projects of greater scope and complexity require a much broader range of resources. Because of this, more risk is involved. With more moving parts, there's simply more that can go wrong. As a result, large projects require a more formal approach to planning and management. This special two-part article is filled with real-world advice to help you meet these challenges.

Planning basics

It's not wise to rush into a big project without planning it out in a very detailed and logical way. Think of this advance planning as “phase zero” and give it the time and effort that it needs. Many basics of project planning were already discussed in a previous issue. We'll start this new discussion by emphasizing these key issues:

  • Understanding the client's situation
  • Identifying the end user
  • Defining the scope of work
  • Identifying the final metrics that will be used to evaluate the completed work

Let's take a few moments to look at each of these in detail.

The client's situation

Start the planning process by quickly gathering as much advance information as you can about the client's company, their competitors and their industry. It's essential to gain a basic understanding of the larger context of the assignment—the overall situation that has given rise to the specific needs that you're being asked to address.

The end user

Next, identify the ultimate customers, audience, or beneficiaries of the service or product that your client provides. In the design process, you'll be serving as an advocate of the customer's needs. In order to put together an appropriate plan, an upfront orientation is necessary. You'll be digging much deeper within the initial phases of the project itself, so your plan must account for the time and resources you think will be necessary to gain new insights into the target audience, their interactions with your client and, hopefully, to identify needs that are not currently being met.

The scope of work

Most design firms work with clients on a fixed-fee basis. That's why project planning is so important. The accuracy of your pricing will depend upon how clearly you identify the amount of work to be done. We've touched upon several key aspects of this in previous articles:

  • In proposals we discussed the need for fixed-fee agreements to be detailed and specific (May 2004).
  • In project management basics we talked about the importance of change orders in documenting client requests that exceed the original scope (December 2004).
  • In successful design teams we discussed the size and composition of project teams (November 2006).

Your project plan reflects your understanding of the scope of work. It reflects your assumptions about the skill sets that will be needed, the amount of time that will be necessary, and the costs that will be involved. Underlying this are assumptions about the level of quality that you and your team are striving for. Accordingly, the overall framework of the plan must reflect your own creative methodology—the process that will enable you to produce your best work.

At this point in our discussion, we must also note that more and more creative firms are becoming involved in research and development projects where the exact scope of work can't be known at the start. From a planning standpoint, what do you do when the final outcome cannot be anticipated? A project of this type is sometimes referred to as an “unframed challenge.” If you're bidding on a large, exploratory project where the challenge is not routine or predictable, especially if you're going to be charging for your services on a fixed-fee basis, then the smartest move for you may be to take a sequential approach and bid on just one phase at a time.

Your first project plan should focus on the initial research necessary to develop a contextual framework for subsequent efforts. Essentially, the first proposal covers information gathering and discovery, which some firms describe as “immersion.” The goal of the first assignment is problem definition. With that in place, you can move on to problem solving in later proposals. In this way, each round of work ends with specific recommendations for the subsequent round.

The final metrics

Whatever the service is that you're being asked to provide, or deliverable you're being asked to produce, you must clarify with the client how it will be evaluated. The final evaluation must be based on objective measures that are not open to subjective interpretation—not “I like it” or “I don't like it,” but “it works” or “it doesn't work.” This is particularly true when it comes to evaluating the visual appearance of things.

The larger the project, the more likely it is that there will be multiple measures applied. Give careful consideration to all the significant factors that define success. Once the metrics have been defined, use them to assess the starting situation. This establishes a baseline so that you can later tell what has changed and by how much. Review this information carefully with the full team. To achieve success, everyone has to know how the finished work will be judged.

Planning on a larger scale

OK, now that we've reviewed some key issues that apply to design projects of all sizes, we're ready to explore a few additional planning activities and management techniques that are particularly useful when you're facing a very large project. To help you with the planning process, we'll discuss:

  • Force-field analysis
  • The importance of identifying sponsors and channels of influence
  • Risk analysis
  • The usefulness breaking out sub-projects
  • Two different ways of visualizing the plan

Force-field analysis

This planning technique was developed in the 1930s by social psychologist Kurt Lewin. It involves identifying the key things that can help or hinder the project, both within the client organization and externally. You start the process by making a list of driving forces, such as pressure from customers, suppliers and competitors—perhaps even management edicts. Be as specific as possible in listing everything that's exerting force toward the desired outcome of the project.

Next, identify the restraining forces that might limit what can actually be accomplished. If your client is a large organization, you'll need to pay special attention to political issues. There may be habits or attitudes, either on the part of individuals or within groups, that will make change difficult. Older client organizations, in particular, tend to have firmly entrenched customs. The new strategies or priorities that you represent might be perceived as threats to existing power bases. Depending on the nature of the project, there may also be concerns about lost productivity during any transition from old to new. On this list, include everything that's exerting force against the desired outcome of the project.

Now put the two lists side by side. You'll find that the current situation is largely defined by the way in which the driving forces and restraining forces are arrayed in opposition to each other. In a sense, the current status represents equilibrium. The challenge for you and your client will be to shift the balance in the direction that you want it to go. If you're not able to do this, it's unlikely that your project will achieve its goals. Force-field analysis is a very useful planning tool for large projects because it helps to clarify priorities and stimulates discussion about ways to diminish barriers and reinforce positive forces.

Sponsors and channels of influence

As you put your project plan together, gather information about the client's organizational structure. Your goal in this is to identify sponsors and channels of influence—that is to say, key people who will be involved in the project (whether directly or indirectly) and the extent of each person's power to impact the results. As you identify the key players, consider how your primary contact fits into the picture. To be successful, a large project needs an effective champion on the client side of the relationship—preferably someone with real decision-making authority. It's vital for you to determine right at the start whether or not your contact is well positioned to serve as that champion.

As you identify the various individuals involved, be on the lookout for these key profiles:


This may be the person who initially approached you. In a corporate setting, the recommender is often a staff member, such as an administrator or purchasing agent. He or she researches the capabilities of potential service providers, performs some initial screening in order to narrow the field, and requests competitive bids. However, the recommender could also be an outside advisor or industry expert, such as an advertising search consultant. You need to convince the recommender that your services should be considered for the project at hand.


This individual has the legal and financial authority to engage you for the project and, ultimately, to accept or reject the work that you produce. Within large client organizations, the decider may be a busy executive who's not actually in the initial meetings with you. For the success of the project, it's vital for you to identify the ultimate decision maker, understand his or her concerns, and keep that person in the loop.


On a large project, many of your daily interactions could be with a middle manager or assistant who controls access to those with more authority. This gatekeeper is in a position to filter or block your information and requests, which can have a major impact on the progress of the project. Identify gatekeepers right at the start and build effective working relationships with them.

Third-party stakeholders

All client organizations have key relationships with other businesses, such as suppliers, distributors, or value-added resellers. These business partners may have financial, legal or ethical concerns that will impact the project in important ways, and they may exert considerable influence on your client's decision-making process. Their points of view must be taken into account.


The final work delivered by design firms must often be implemented or maintained by people within the client organization (two common examples are identity systems and Web sites). Be sure that you know who these implementers are, understand their concerns and provide them with whatever guidelines and tools might be necessary to successfully use the system that you've created.

Risk analysis

The next issue for us to discuss is risk. Large projects tend to involve greater risk than small projects. These are not creative risks, but potential threats to schedules, logistics and finances. The most common risks fall into these general categories:


For the project to be successful, your team members must have the right skills, be available at the right time and make a strong personal commitment to the project. In addition, you must provide them with whatever critical information and resources are necessary for them to do their best work.


When working with large client organizations, you'll quickly find that corporate politics can be a problem. As we discussed above, the best approach is to make sure that all key stakeholders have been identified, and that there's sufficient agreement among them on the initial need for the project. Then, to keep everything on track, it's important to work closely with the internal champion of the project to document client approval at each key milestone.


There's always a competitive need to innovate. However, there are significant dangers involved in going too far out on a limb with new technologies. This is particularly true of interactive projects. The technology you select must be proven, reliable, well understood and available exactly when it's needed.


Adequate client funding must be in place before a large project starts and funds must remain available as work progresses. In many client organizations, financial control is a critical issue—it's not unusual for expected funds to be shifted elsewhere, bringing the project to a halt.


Many different legal issues can crop up on design projects. Because of this, you'll want to negotiate contract terms and conditions very carefully, particularly when it comes to legal liability in the event of failure of any project element.

Personal safety

Occasionally, physical risks might be involved on creative projects. Perhaps the most common dangers of this type are travel-related. In general, though, the risk of personal injury on graphic and interactive design projects is relatively low. In contrast, risk levels can be much higher for architectural and environmental design projects that involve the construction of physical spaces. Physical risks are also inherent to some entertainment projects such as filmmaking.

Natural disasters

Lastly, nature may pose a risk to your project. You might face a simple inconvenience like rain on the day of an outdoor event, or a much more serious threat like a hurricane, flood or earthquake. It's not possible to accurately predict severe weather or natural catastrophes, but it's wise to acknowledge that risk levels can be higher in certain geographic areas and at certain times of the year.

After reading through this long list, you might be asking yourself if it's even safe to get out of bed in the morning! Fortunately, most design projects will face only a few of these many issues. Once you've identified the specific risks that are relevant to your particular project, the next step is to assess them. A very useful approach is to rank each one to indicate how likely it is to occur (on a scale of 0 to 10), then assign an additional rank to indicate how serious the impact would be (also from 0 to 10). Add the scores together and sort them from highest to lowest. After you've done this, you can concentrate your planning on those threats with the highest rankings. To counter a perceived threat, consider one of these strategies:

Avoid it

Identify the cause of the threat and avoid it, perhaps by eliminating the risky component of the project altogether.

Deflect it

Get others to take on or underwrite any component that you've identified as too risky. For the other responsibilities that you retain, be sure that you have appropriate insurance coverage in place.

Have a contingency plan

Your project plan should include an alternative or substitution for any risky component that could be implemented quickly if the need arises.

Breaking out sub-projects

Large projects tend to have multiple deliverables. For this reason, it's smart to break up a large and complex project into a series of more manageable sub-projects, each with its own schedule and resource needs. Over time, this approach to planning and tracking also allows you to accumulate a database of historical information about specific job types. If you've sorted things out properly, this detailed reference information can help to make future budgets and schedules much more accurate.

In some creative fields such as architecture, this project/sub-project approach is standard. Overall coordination of several closely-related projects is called program management. A program is a set of projects with a common strategic goal. Often, there are many interdependencies as well. Even though the individual deliverables may be produced by separate teams, the broader effort benefits greatly from coordinated planning, prioritization and management. This is particularly true if the program has an extended schedule, with work being executed over a period of months or years.

Visualizing the plan 

The larger the project you're taking on, the more important it is for you to visualize the plan in some way. Preparing a project plan in the form of a chart or diagram allows you to see the “big picture” quite literally. There are several common visual formats for this. The two used most often by designers are Gantt charts and PERT diagrams. Here's an explanation of each one:

Gantt charts

As you may recall, we discussed Gantt charts very briefly in the article on proposals referenced earlier. A Gantt chart is a type of bar graph that shows activities over a span of time. This specialized format for visualizing project plans was developed in 1917 by industrial engineer Henry Gantt. A project is divided into its component phases and steps, and each of these is presented as a horizontal bar. The length of each bar represents that task's duration. The relative positions of the bars show the time relationships between them. A Gantt chart indicates which tasks can be undertaken simultaneously and which must be done in sequence (although it doesn't usually show the details of any interdependencies between the tasks). A Gantt chart showing the original project plan can be expanded to include a comparison to actual activity. For each task in the project, a horizontal bar for actual performance can be placed immediately below the bar that represented the plan. Most project management software includes the ability to create Gantt charts. There are also some stand-alone charting applications available. Several sample charts can be seen here. This topic of visualizing the actual hours or dollars expended on a large project is an important one and we'll return to it in part two of this article.

PERT diagrams

This is a completely different way of visualizing a project plan. PERT is an acronym for “program evaluation and review technique.” This format was developed in the 1950s by the management consulting firm Booz Allen. It's a network diagram that shows key activities, the interdependencies between them, and the so-called “critical path” through the project. To prepare a PERT diagram, you have to make distinctions between tasks that have fixed durations and firm deadlines and those that have some scheduling flexibility (referred to as “float”). The critical path through these activities represents the minimum duration for the overall project. A large project must be kept on the critical path if it's going to be completed on time. Professional-level project management software often includes the ability to create PERT diagrams. Some sample diagrams can be seen here.

Next time

Detailed advance planning is important so that each project is structured in such a way that it can be successful. Then, as the project moves forward, effective management is necessary to keep everything on track. We'll take a look at implementation challenges in part two of this article.

About the Author: <p>Shel Perkins is a graphic designer, management consultant and educator with more than twenty years of experience in managing the operations of leading design firms in the U.S. and the U.K. He has served on the national boards of AIGA and the Association of Professional Design Firms. He has been honored as an AIGA Fellow &quot;in recognition of significant personal and professional contributions to raising the standards of excellence within the design community.&quot; The third edition of his best-selling book,&nbsp;<em>Talent Is Not Enough: Business Secrets For Designers</em>, is available from New Riders.&nbsp;</p>