Project Management Institute

How to find WOW! projects

Intellos Systems, Inc.


Once an organization has determined its strategy, initiatives are launched with specific funding and outcome expectations. (An initiative launched without these could only be considered a dream or a hallucination.) These initiatives are then broken into programs and projects, ultimately planned as work sequences, and staffed.

Of course, none of this is news to anyone with some work experience. What is news is that many strategies and initiatives are not sufficiently thought out, and that the results (i.e., business value) are not always causally linked to the expected benefits. If one is to build a career based on the benefits associated with the work and leadership of teams, selecting valued projects that deliver real value is critical to success. The projects that one works on over the course of his or her career should have specific and valued benefits, be well executed and planned, and have good organizational visibility. Such projects are referred to as “WOW! projects.”

This paper discusses the basics behind selecting wow! projects. Knowing how to recognize such projects and promoting their benefits is as, or perhaps even more, important than ensuring that the work is completed within the “triple constraint”---that is, within scope, on time, and within budget.


Finding meaningful work is a significant challenge. Every organization has work to do, and most of the work that is done needs to be done. So the key question to ask about each piece of work is: is the objective of this work to help the enterprise grow, thrive, and capitalize on opportunity, or is it focused on reducing the cost and effort of delivering outputs?

Projects that fall within the former description are always preferred and are usually more fun. Pursuing opportunities is a better strategy than fixing problems, as this almost always is met with more enthusiasm and less resistance, and is associated with trying new things and learning.

On the other side, there is always a never-ending stream of problems to be fixed, and, frankly, pursuing opportunities will, in part, actually create problems that others will need to fix (preferably your competitors.) Although one could argue that reducing cost and effort frees resources (capital and labor) to capitalize on opportunity, this is true only insofar as the cost savings are actually turned into freed capital, and, in the case of resources, that labor is available to undertake new work (or excess labor is eliminated to free capital.)

Interesting cost reduction is generally focused on what I commonly call the “10 lunar months” problem (so-named after the 10 lunar months that are required for human gestation, from the time of conception until birth). Technology can address defects in the process (e.g., premature delivery), but without a significant enhancement to the gestation process, 10 lunar months is generally the best that one can expect.

From a WOW! project perspective, the key is to find big cost savings opportunities. Percentages do not necessarily need to be large, but the dollars must be substantial. That is, a 20% reduction that saves $100,000 USD is not as interesting as a 2% reduction that saves $2 million USD. Note that hard dollars are preferred. How to think about projects with soft dollar benefits will be addressed later. Hint: avoid soft dollars unless the top leaders are willing to absorb the risk (and even then, be careful).

Almost every company is interested in driving its process duration (how long it takes to execute the process step or steps) to its plausible minimum, regularly referred to as its cycle time (CT.) The key is to set a target for the best case CT by leveraging the latest knowledge and understanding of the process.

Benchmarking is frequently applied to assess the current industry minimum for any given process (often referred to as a best practice), and benchmarking can be effective to gain support for an organizational initiative. Benchmarking, however, applies only when processes are nearly identical.

Aside from cycle time, most firms are trying to improve quality under the auspices of first pass yield (FPY.) FPY is focused on reducing the number of defects in a process. By minimizing CT and maximizing FPY, the “10 lunar months” of any process can be realized. However, there is another element to the equation, that of total cost of ownership (TCO.)
TCO considers the expense associated with CT and FPY. When a process is inefficient (i.e., takes longer than expected) and is of low quality (i.e., requires reward and results in defects), the total cost is obviously high. Business must pass this cost to its customers in the form of price or spend more on production and support, which ultimately impacts their profit.

In cases where CT and FPY are optimized, the TCO element of the equation considers how much is spent in terms of capital and labor to produce an output. If alternatives exist to reduce capital expenditure or labor costs, but the CT and FPY are unaffected, TCO becomes the relevant metric.

So, if we circle back to our focus on selecting WOW! projects, anything that positively affects a top-line metric (i.e., revenue growth) is probably a good project to consider. In addition, any work that significantly impacts CT, FPY, or TCO is probably a good project. These sorts of efforts will be referred to as WOW! (capital W-O-W, exclamation point) projects. Absent of impacting specific measures, the next best project is one that has significant anecdotal support. People will often spend their resources by association with a strong belief. For example, a company might invest in a Six Sigma initiative because GE does Six Sigma. This category is referred to as “wow” (lower case w-o-w, no exclamation point). Two additional categories play to the core concepts of greed and fear. If a large enough opportunity presents itself, someone with the aspirations, means, and tenacity will eventually invest. We will call this “Wow!” (capital W, lowercase o-w, exclamation point.) The best Wow! projects are entrepreneurial in nature and may have significant risk. On the other side, if there is a significant threat, one that could impair the enterprise or threaten its very existence, the organization will coalesce around “wow!” (lower case w-o-w, exclamation point.) The last category, which will not be discussed, is “Easy.” “Easy” projects are those that provide some benefit and are undertaken when there is no major opportunity or impeding threat that would cause action. “Easy” projects tend to sound good but only infrequently make a difference because there is typically no organizational commitment. However, “Easy” projects are worth considering as they provide some experiential benefits.

WOW! Project Category #1: WOW! (Be the Leader)

All businesses evolve based on the vision of the founder(s) and subsequent senior leadership. Successful models start with an underexploited market need, then evolve in line with maximizing financial opportunity. In some cases, the maximization is short-term and transactional, in others the maximization is long-term and relationship oriented. What is clear, however, is that some realization of benefits must occur in the short-term if any long-term future is to be realized.

This category is subtitled “Be the Leader” because leaders set their own direction and typically concentrate on being the benchmark. They see a reality that differs from the current status quo. They often look at a market solution to an existing need and devise a new way of meeting that need. Their thinking evolves as the feedback arrives while they assess market readiness for the customer need to be met in a different way. The social psychology and economics behind a market forming are complex, but market leaders are in tune with the pulse of and frequently drive the market. For the organization to thrive, the culture of the enterprise needs to be fixed on where the market is going and how to capitalize on needs.

The characteristics of being a market leader vary by industry, but WOW! projects in these companies are something to get excited about. One important point is this: WOW! projects of this type involve serious commitment, as they are setting the bar for top performance. The organization will typically desire a level of dedication to the vision similar to that of the founders. In many cases, people can demonstrate a level of sincerity necessary to get the project, but not many have the time, energy, and stamina to undertake these sorts of WOW! projects.

WOW! Project Category #2: wow (Follow the Leader)

Since organizations are intended to “live” beyond the career span of any given employee, firms tend to want to model themselves after organizations that are long lived. (Interestingly, the concept of the “corporation” is itself not that old, so “long lived” is clearly a relative term.) Therefore, associating yourself with a project that involves emulating an acknowledged leader is worth considering. The logic goes like this: GE is a large, complex global enterprise; GE is more profitable that its competitors; GE leverages it capital and assets better than its competitors; GE is world class. If my company wants to be world class, we need to do what GE does. GE does Six Sigma. We need to do Six Sigma. Let's group all our process improvement efforts under than banner of Six Sigma, hire Six Sigma experts, and create a Six Sigma initiative. At GE, everyone does Six Sigma, so we will do Six Sigma too. (The latest incarnation of this is Toyota Production Systems, or TPS.)

The logic sounds good until one realizes that there is only one GE. The GE culture is specific to GE, and the GE business model is unique to GE. The evolution of GE as a business has led that organization to a unique set of conclusions and processes. Although some processes are undifferentiated and can be effectively replicated, others are sufficiently different that replication will not yield intended results. Not withstanding the commentary, “Follow the Leader”--type projects may be the best that one can do in many companies. If, in fact, GE has found the best possible way to do something and your company does the same thing in the same way, why wouldn't your company replicate what GE has done?

A few important points on this approach need to kept in mind: (1) just because it works for them does not mean it will work for you; (2) you need to careful to establish realistic estimates of the benefits; and 3) you must make it clear that you will spend as little as possible in demonstrating benefits. Projects of this type are geared toward people who are oriented toward incremental improvement. Remember, you are trying to copy the results of someone else. The best case is that the copy is close to the original and provides similar benefits. One way for these projects to become WOW! Projects instead of “wow” projects is to ensure that the compensation of the sponsor, project manager, and team is tied to the business benefits realized from the project. This sort of compensation structure is unusual, but absolutely encourages the right behavior and improves your chances of success.

WOW! Project Category #3: Wow! (Maximize an Opportunity)

Every organization has a sea of opportunities before it. A start-up only has to develop a few customers to begin “changing the world;” a midsize company needs only a few more products, better distribution, and awareness to be a large company; and a large company just needs to manage its cash more effectively and be more efficient to become an attractive acquisition candidate or to be able to integrate other companies and grow even larger.

The key to this type of Wow! project is to ensure that you are working where the organization is focused. If the most important thing is new product development to exploit opportunities in the market, then find projects that support marketing and sales. If distribution and logistics are where the action is, work on third-party logistics projects. If the company needs to hoard cash to pay down debt, do a stock buy-back, or support an acquisition, then find projects that are related to these activities. Wow! projects in this category are not focused on cost cutting.

Note that, while it would be nice to have some sort of published set of metrics and related projects identified in support of those metrics, many organizations do not have this sort of information available. That does not mean that you should wait around for it. Go out and find the project and determine how you can add value. A word of caution: be careful about asking for money when the Wow! project that has no or limited organizational support. If times are tight or the project threatens an existing organizational structure, this type of project will go from “Wow!” to “Bow-wow.”

Wow! Project Category #4: wow! (Minimize a Threat)

Some of the best opportunities of making a difference within a company are helping the company survive a near-death experience. Ultimately, when survival of the enterprise is under question, an opportunity to take drastic action is always available. The faster the threat is neutralized, the greater is the perceived value by the enterprise. The reality is that most threats can be planned for, so reacting to problems is typically a sign of an organization that does not value planning. Of course, there are always unexpected, unanticipated items that arise in any firm, but a steady stream of reactionary “death marches” is simply a sign of a larger management philosophy about how work gets done.

If you are in an organization that promotes “heroic” reactionary behavior, focus on planning where you are able and work to predict events that are likely. In many cases, wow! projects can be converted to WOW! projects simply by understanding where opportunities and risks lie and being prepared to respond quickly. By doing so, you will be rewarded like a hero, and you will not need to deal with the aggravation of a reactive environment.

So What Happens if I Cannot Find Any WOW! Projects?

Although it is hard to believe, many organizations do not have WOW!, Wow!, wow!, or wow projects. A company talks about making a difference, but cannot articulate how their customers would be hurt if their products did not exist. Clayton Christensen, author of the Innovator's Dilemma, writes about firms that go out of business by focusing on servicing their best (i.e., most profitable) customers while competitors are looking for new and better ways to service everyone else. Finding the motivation and discipline to constantly look at your products and services dispassionately, to assess their value and worth, and to make decisions based on the market is hard. When things are going well, the tendency is to relax, and when business is poor, the inclination is to reduce costs. Ultimately, the time to invest in better ways of doing things is when the business is doing well. When the market is poor, there is time to think and learn. Interestingly, people in such environments tend to focus on incremental improvement and maintenance of the status quo. What's in it for me, or WIFM, rules the day. Lifestyle trade-offs are frequently made (I will keep doing this because it's good enough, and I can do other things.) Although there is absolutely nothing wrong with this approach, the ability to find any sort of WOW! project is reduced greatly in such an environment.

One could argue that the presence or absence of WOW! projects is dependent on the phase of the enterprise. Perhaps new and rapidly growing companies naturally have more WOW! projects than old and mature organizations. Or maybe the bar for WOW! is set lower and lower as the company matures. In the early days, selling us $1 million in products and services might have led to a WOW!, but now it's just a wow project. Perhaps that ERP system that enabled expansion into Europe and Asia was the leading edge when it was put in place, but now everyone has access to the same solution.

The way to keep an organization interested in WOW! is easy: constantly look for changes in the economics of the marketplace. Be early to recognize how the company can benefit from the change, and move early. Take calculated risks. Know your assumptions and evaluate them regularly to check for validity. When an assumption is proved right or wrong, an opportunity is created. New catalysts present themselves in every area, every day. Make something better for everyone by making it better for yourself and your company.

So What Happens If I Have Great Ideas and No Support?

This is where the rubber meets the road. In any situation, you can accept the status quo, be angry, or decide to make a change. Of the three options, the key is to quickly transition from being angry. If you are neither willing to accept the current situation nor have a desire to remain irritated, then the default is to make a change.

The good news about making a change is that some action will be taken. The bad news is that the change may not be supported, in which case some serious personal choices are required. Taking risk does not guarantee success. But not taking risk does not ensure success either. Everyone must make a decision as to how much risk they are willing to absorb, but taking no risk ensures that you will not have any WOW! projects to talk about.

I'm Ready to Take the Leap

For my money, the best leap to take is one that you are certain you can make. Pick “Easy” projects first, ones that deliver value, increase your confidence, and demonstrate measured risk taking. After a few of those, move on to higher risk efforts that are aligned with one of the WOW! categories outlined in this paper. Trust in yourself, knowing the today's failure leads to tomorrow's opportunity. Organizations are extremely eager to have people with good ideas who are also able to execute those ideas. As Larry Bossidy, former CEO of Allied-Signal, suggests, “Ideas are basically worthless.” The key is successful execution. Ask yourself this question, “Would I rather have a life where I constantly avoided risk and did OK or one where I took measured risks and had the opportunity to achieve more than I would have believed?” A corollary question to be considered is “Am I OK with failure, psychically, emotionally, and financially?"

Perhaps these questions are self-serving or overly simplistic. One could certainly argue that the conservative path ensures survival, that the tortoise, not the hare, wins the race. And yes, the tortoise does sometimes win because of perseverance and the overconfidence of its competitors. But remember that the tortoise is the one who challenged the hare to a race. That is all this paper suggesting: that challenging the organization, that challenging yourself, is the way to win. The challenge is just the start; you will need to persevere to see how your vision for yourself and your company evolves and is realized. Find those WOW! projects, get yourself in a place where you can provide maximum value, and ensure that those around you see and reward your contribution. It really is that simple.

WOW! Project General Rules

A few final thoughts for the WOW! project seekers out there. Not everyone is going to be ready to join the cause and make WOW! projects happen. Not every company is ready to support a WOW! project. Your own particular environment directly impacts which type of WOW! project you can realistically undertake. However, here are a few simple guidelines to consider:

  • Everyone will be interested in your success if you are interested in theirs.
  • Look to work in and with organizations that are attracting (not recruiting) great sales people. Selling is hard, so if great sales people are joining, you can bet that there is a great value proposition or lots of buyers. Either way, growth begets WOW! projects.
  • Beware of “happy meetings.” If everyone says something is a good idea, but no one will fund or support the idea, it is not a good idea.
  • If you do not know why you are doing something, find someone who does. If you can't, stop doing it.
  • If your contributions are not recognized through increased compensation, you had better be learning something valuable.
  • If failure is punished, wait until there is a big threat. Organizations that punish failure will inevitably have “near-death experiences.”

In summary, the best case is that you can find and passionately contribute to WOW! projects that have extraordinary outcomes. Second best is that you find and participate on Wow! projects that are linked to valued outcomes. Third best is finding and be associated with wow projects that are beneficial to the organization. Fourth best is being the “go-to” person for wow! projects. Such projects are fourth best because of the reactionary environment that creates related opportunities. No matter what you do, think about how your company will describe its success. Be an integral part of the future of your company by driving WOW! projects.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2008, John Dohm
Originally published as a part of 2008 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Denver, USA



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