Successfully managing high-risk, critical-path projects

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High-risk, critical-path projects are by definition very difficult and complex assignments. Broad scope, complex technologies, internal politics, intense media coverage, inadequate budgets and unrealistic schedules often converge to make even experienced project and program managers cry. However, the reason that high-risk, critical path (HRCP) projects exist is that they are considered to be important by their supporters and future users. Planning, designing, developing and delivering these projects can be a huge challenge, and opportunity, for project managers able to manage large-scale chaos while moving the team towards successful completion.

Drawing upon 20 years of personal experience managing mega-projects, this paper defines high-risk, critical-path projects, discusses their unique characteristics, outlines ways to manage them based on the successes of others and provides some tips on how to gain recognition for your hard work and success.

HRCP Projects Are Difficult

  • 16% of all Information Technology projects that started completed successfully (Standish Group, 1995)
  • 5% of all HRCP projects that started completed successfully (Oliva, 2002)

It's clear that HRCP projects are very difficult – even more difficult than standard projects that have a 16% success rate. Multiple studies have shown very high failure rates due to massive complexity, competing political and financial interests, and unrealistic budgets and schedules (Standish Group, 1995; Oliva, 2002.)

A working definition of high-risk project activities used in this paper is: a majority of the activities inherently having a risk of failure or loss due to project scale, scope, technology, budget, schedule or delivery tasks.

A working definition of a critical-path project plan is: following a plan that has every sequential task planned with a minimum duration schedule (i.e. best case scenario.)

While not the single reason for project failure, managing a multi-year project plan without any slack time for unplanned work creates a highly pressurized, multi-task, parallel-path, continuous schedule recovery effort to accommodate the inevitable extra activities required for project completion. Often combined with an understaffed resource pool and unclear deliverables or performance requirements, project managers are forced to make continuous trade-offs between what can be done, what can't be done, and what the customer is expecting. Avoiding all – or almost all – of these problems at the start of the project is critical to successfully completing HRCP projects.

HRCP Characteristics

HRCP projects are relativity easy to identify, regardless of industry, technologies involved, geographic location, or objectives. Characteristics include:

  • The project contains many unknowns (technical, political objectives, unidentified resources or skillsets, undefined requirements or deliverables, overly broad scope, etc.)
  • Project failure may lead to significant financial impact or physical injury – often on a large scale
  • Timeframe is immoveable (such as Y2K remediation or World Trade Center cleanup efforts)
  • Deliverables are large and desired by project sponsors and users/citizens
  • The Project may include public or worker safety requirements and/or objectives
  • The project may be mandated by law, driven by community desire or caused by nature or technology

HRCP managers are usually challenged to balance all of these elements simultaneously often in the harsh spotlight of media analysis and public observation. That is what sets HRCP projects apart from other, smaller, less visible projects.

Examples of HRCP Projects

As the science of Project Management gains media attention, the public is exposed to HRCP projects more frequently and in more depth than ever before. Recent examples reported by the news media include:

  • The Pentagon Reconstruction efforts after 9/11
  • The World Trade Center cleanup after 9/11
  • The TSA Baggage inspection program
  • The Y2K software remediation activities
  • The Brentwood (Washington DC) Post Office Anthrax decontamination project
  • Global Olympic events every two years
  • The hunt for the Washington DC snipers
  • The search and recovery of Shuttle Columbia vehicle and crew
  • The military planning and prosecution of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

Of course, there are many dozens of other HRCP projects known to PMI members that are currently being started or in process. These are a few of the most prominent ones in the media. Perhaps you are working on another.

Reasons High Risk Projects Go Critical Path

Not all High-Risk Projects use a critical path schedule. For example, a pharmaceutical development program may involve a high-risk biotech approach to designing a new drug, but the overall schedule is driven by clinical trials and regulatory approvals that are often difficult to predict an exact schedule against. Of course, if the high-risk biotech approach fails, then the entire schedule becomes moot.

After studying dozens of high-risk projects, and personally managing over 15 HRCP projects, specific reasons begin to emerge as primary causes for projects that had a high initial risk migrate to a critical path schedule:

  • The initial budget and schedule planning was inaccurate
  • Unplanned or undocumented scope changes and change orders occurred
  • Unplanned events happened outside the project
  • Unplanned key personnel changes occurred
  • Key technology systems or software failed to operate properly
  • Unexpected financial conditions or changes occurred
  • The loss of a dependable Executive sponsor or owner occurred
  • A critical supplier defaulted or contractually failed
  • A small failure or problem triggered a series of increasingly larger failures in a cascade effect

What is interesting is that the project team often has no control over many of these factors – they occur outside the team's ability to influence or correct them. Despite these events occurring, the project team must compensate for them through a combination of changes in schedules (going critical path, for example,) budgets, use of different technology solutions, hiring new staff members, contracting with new partners, or heading off larger problems from getting even larger. While management or customers often see a critical path schedule as “optimal,” in many cases it makes sense to allow some slack time in the schedule to avoid extreme overtime costs and missed milestone dates later in the project plan.

Political Aspects of HRCP Projects

Large civil infrastructure and publically funded projects often become high-risk efforts due to the reasons outlined above. Project managers need to be especially aware of the unique political aspects of these types of projects, including:

  • Unexpected reviews of the project by elected officials and unelected bureaucracy
  • Working with a culture focused on service delivery, not revenue generation
  • Political posturing to the media
  • Linking political agendas to the project's success
  • Working with the media to obtain public support for the project
  • Balancing public disclosure with governmental constraints
  • Offsetting outsourcing requirements with institutional resources
  • Bridging elective terms-in-office (presidential administrations, etc.)

These unique management and communication aspects can often aid in establishing a strong business case for funding the project by requiring a strong, cohesive statement of benefits linked to clearly identified citizen usage. Once firmly established, the project manager has the financial and political support needed to drive the project to completion regardless of external events outside of the project team's control (such as a change in presidential administrations.)

Five Common Aspects of HRCP Projects

1. Underestimation of Problem Complexity

HRCP projects are often so large or so expensive it is difficult to understand their overall complexity. Not fully realizing their complexity sometimes leads to a series of situations involving conflicts with the science of scope estimation and the art of managing HRCP projects. Situations often include:

  • Having non-technical experts establish unrealistic budgets, goals and schedules
  • Requesting project management methodologies not suitable for high risk or critical path projects
  • Announcing exuberant optimism for project completion dates
  • Having senior management overlook their responsibilities for political and financial support
  • Linking political or corporate agendas to the project's progress or completion
  • Using limited technical knowledge to help reduce the “technical complexity.”

Project Managers of successful HRCP projects double and triple check budget, schedule and technical estimates from different sources prior to committing human resources and personal credibility capital to the effort. Making large mid-project changes due to initial errors is often difficult, and sometimes impossible once the media or stakeholders have identified the project as flawed.

2. Unclear Requirements and/or Deliverables

Considered to be the leading cause of project failure (Standish Group, 1995) unclear requirements and/or deliverables are especially important to HRCP projects. If the requirements used to define the initial schedule are inaccurate, or the deliverables change in scope or function, the entire project may need to stop and reset all of its activities, personnel and budget. Obtaining written confirmation of the requirements and deliverables is always an excellent idea, but these become paramount to the success of a HRCP project. Signals that may indicate a problem with requirements and deliverables include:

  • Team members asking what requirements to use
  • Requirements appear to be obsolete compared to other projects
  • Deliverables seem to constantly change every week
  • The Team cannot find written documentation about the deliverables
  • The Requirements were developed without user, customer or stakeholder involvement
  • Contracts are not in place to pay for the deliverables

HRCP Project Managers must be able to quickly locate relevant requirement and deliverables documents and share them with the team on a frequent basis to ensure project success, as measured by achieving and delivering the results expected.

3. Lack of Proper Change Controls

During the project lifecycle, changes will occur. Being able to effectively manage changes to a HRCP project requires a strong process methodology for analyzing the impact to the schedule and budget, and upon mutual approval, incorporating changes with minimal impact to other project elements. Project Managers must enforce the change process through a formal review board composed of technical, financial and schedule subject matter experts. Upon approval, the project team must be provided the change order documentation and have it included as part of the project logs and deliverables knowledge base. Indicators that problems may exist include:

  • No documentation prepared about changes requested or performed…by either customer or project team
  • No methodology to determine schedule or cost impact of changes to baseline schedule or budget
  • No client / management approval process for changes
  • If it exists, change control process takes months, outliving the project work performed

4. Underestimated Resource Levels

Just as critical to the project as schedule and budget are the human resources required to perform the work. The Project Manager must triple check both the quantity and quality of resource they estimate it will take to complete the project, and insist on adequate funding. Given the training and acclimation time required for most complex projects, starting the project on day one with the proper staffing levels is a requirement, not a luxury. Working to a critical path requires all resources to be available when they are needed. Any delays in starting planned work will probably cause a downstream schedule cascade, impairing the projects overall success. The Project Manager must have visibility to staffing and skillset deficit situations in order to take corrective actions to add adequate resources or reschedule unique skillsets temporarily diverted to another assignment. Indicators that resource levels may have been underestimated include:

  • Severe budget underruns with simultaneous schedule slips
  • Excessive overtime hours for the entire staff
  • Inadequately trained staff trying to perform work that should be done by missing staff
  • Taking several months longer than expected to locate rare skillsets
  • Inability to absorb billable contract hours due to a lack of planned resources

5. Cumulative Cascade Effort of Small Failures

Large, complex projects rarely fail because of one problem. In the vast majority of cases, a sequence of ever increasing problems, most small and seemly independent of each other, cause a ripple effect that cascades into a very large and unplanned catastrophe. According to NASA (London Telegraph, 2003) this seems to have been the situation with the Shuttle Columbia, which had a small piece of insulating foam hit its wing on lift-off, subsequently causing the loss of the vehicle and crew. From a Project Management perspective, preventing these types of cascade events from occurring is a constant and critical challenge. Four events to monitor that may indicate a cascade effect is about to occur include:

  • Ever expanding “gaps” between schedule, actual performance and budgets become visible
  • Small schedule overruns expand into indefinite times
  • Small budget overruns become infinite estimates
  • Key technology elements operate in unimagined and uncontrolled ways

The good news is that fixing the small problems is usually easy and inexpensive. Once they have been compounded several times, however, corrective actions take much longer, are more expensive and often impact project schedule. Asking the project team to watch for, and notify everyone about small problems is a reasonable request from the Project Manager.

Unique HRCP Factors

HRCP projects often involve unique legal or financial factors. In certain industries, patents and government regulations (ex. food and drug safety) may dictate processes and make changes difficult to incorporate into new products or services. Unexpected litigation from competitors or patent holders may impact project deliverables or schedules as they claim financial benefits or unfair market advantage. HRCP projects supporting Federal, state and local governments may have special regulatory and compliance guidelines. And it is possible that political pressures may cause a project to be terminated despite the potential benefits to citizens or product users.

Smaller, lower-risk projects rarely face these situations because people are not aware of them; they cost less, and have less impact to the marketplace when completed. While Project Managers need to be aware of these unique factors existence, these potential issues should not stop projects from starting or completing as planned.

Managing the Media Aspects of HRCP Projects

News about business activities, including large projects, is now part of the mainstream media coverage. Any project funded by taxpayers, or used by the public (even if privately funded) that appears to be exceeding its budget or taking longer than expected usually draws attention, a situation Project Managers should anticipate and prepare for.

There are usually two problems that must be managed by the Project Manager during interviews:

  1. Complex projects usually have complex explanations
  2. Media coverage usually focuses on problems, not benefits of the Project

Creating a set of statistics and benefits of the project is a good place to start. The Project Manager should be able to educate media personnel about the project objectives, technologies and benefits so they can understand the inherent complexity in their reporting. Having a 30 or 60 second “sound bite” ready to use about the benefits of the project is also a good idea should the Project Manager get interviewed on radio or television. Of course, explaining problems or delays in a few words is difficult, and usually requires critically thinking through the consequences of the answer prior to saying it publically.

For a project facing termination due to public or political criticism over budget or schedule issues, media coverage can be vital to retaining or attracting financial and political support. Project Managers must be able to clearly articulate the projects benefits and impact to society, business or government while keeping the project moving toward completion.

Managing HRCP Projects To Success

1. Develop and Use Relevant Metrics

The historic axiom of “manage what you can measure” remains true today. Project Managers and their team must establish tangible and relevant metrics at the start of the project, and use them as measurement yardsticks every week to determine progress or regression. Most HRCP projects use Earned Value Reporting as a primary method for tracking cost and schedule variance. In addition, tracking milestone accomplishments every week or two provides tangible evidence of progress to management and stakeholders.

Project Managers should also consider the use of utilization metrics, which track the degree to which labor, equipment, network and other resources assigned to the project are used at any given point in time. Underutilized resources should be reassigned to other tasks, or released from the project until a later time. Other metrics to consider using include:

  • Risk measurements (Risk of Failure vs Success)
  • Workplace safety measurements (OSHA if applicable)
  • Benefits to society, business or government
  • Systems or software installed or developed
  • Thousands of yards of concrete poured or tons of steel erected
  • Hours of media coverage obtained or broadcast
  • New budget dollars obtained or obligated
  • Quality levels achieved in a six-sigma environment

2. Develop and Update Backup Plans

All projects have critical elements that can stop the entire effort almost immediately. Examples of these elements include: key skillsets that leave the project due to death, accident or unplanned events, weather related incidents such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes, and man-made incidents such as accidents, terrorist attack or civil disobedience. To achieve HRCP project objectives, the Project Manager and his team must anticipate several scenarios in advance and assemble a programmatic backup plan to mitigate the cost and schedule impact and hold to the original plans.

For example, backup experts can be identified in advance as replacements to key skillsets. Additional experts can be pre-trained and kept at an “on-call” basis in case they are needed on a moments notice. Response plans to weather related events can be created and kept available for immediate use when needed. And, contingency plans can be written for mutual assistance situations above the projects ability to manage them when caused by tragedy, violence, or cyber warfare.

The Project Manager and the project team need to refresh the plans every month or two to ensure they are viable for use on a moments notice. Having several Plans (B, C, D) for super-critical elements is not only prudent, but expected. Project Managers also need to look at potential areas of confusion, uncertainty and single points of failure and work to clarify unresolved issues. Plans to inform key supporters about the engagement of backup resources are also critical aspects, to ensure that everyone knows what's happening. After stabilizing the situation, the Project Team also needs to reconfirm, or change, the deliverables priority list if they have been impacted so severely the original list cannot be achieved.

3. Develop and Update Recovery Plans

In the case of catastrophic failure or accident, recovery plans are focused on recovering resources, assets and information that can be used for analysis of the failure or situation. One recent example involves NASA's recovery of pieces of the Shuttle Columbia after it was destroyed during landing. NASA had recovery plans for such a scenario and activated them within a few hours of the tragedy. However, the loss of Columbia will impact the overall space shuttle launch dates and other planned activities by about a year, according to NASA estimates.

NASA's recovery plans include understanding the accident causes, applying equipment upgrades to remaining shuttles, changing launch procedures, management controls, and reducing critical path risk points. Project Managers of HRCP projects often apply these activities into their recovery plans:

  • Reducing scope and risk through clarity of objectives
  • Reducing critical path points by adding time to the project schedule
  • Breaking the project into smaller work or release packages
  • Outsourcing critical deliverables to qualified partners and organizations
  • Creating parallel tasks where possible to reduce overall recovery times
  • Re-confirming stakeholder priority of deliverables

Recovery planning is not easy, as it assumes a terrible event has occurred. In a complex world of many uncontrollable events, however, pro-active planning must be done to minimize the impact of these unplanned situations on the project and project team.

Summary and Conclusions

Managing HRCP projects is an inherently complex and difficult process, but it can be done successfully using several well-defined project management tools and processes. First, key elements and activities of the project must have defined and reliable metrics available to measure progress against. Second, backup plans must be created and available for use on a moments notice to retain the original schedule and budget. Third, plans to recover from catastrophic impact must be available to understand what happened and to refocus on the objectives of the project, with probably a revised schedule and budget. Assuming the project provided substantial value and benefit to society, business or government, it will continue forward.

HRCP projects are a special type of project that requires dedication to success, personal involvement and strong communications abilities. Project Managers that have managed these types of projects appear to share a common characteristic of being able to solve impossible technical challenges, overcome substantial schedule obstacles, and motivate team members to make progress on a daily basis. Isn't that why people become project managers?

Derbyshire, D. (2003, August 07). What Really Destroyed Columbia. London Telegraph, Retrieved from

Oliva, L. M. (2002) Review of 100 High-Risk, Critical-Path Projects in the United States. Private Report written for Intelligent Decisions LLC., Reston, VA: Intelligent Decisions LLC.

Standish Group. (1995) T23E-T10E Standish Group Report. Connecticut. URL

Proceedings of PMI® Global Congress 2003 – North America
Baltimore, Maryland, USA ● 20-23 September 2003



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