Project Priorities and Funding: Dont Go Halfway to the Moon

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Summary:
Whether you make the funding decisions at your company or support those who do, this article will help you view projects in a larger organizational context. Take a look at some of US President John F. Kennedy’s advice on committing to goals to help you get a sense of “funding sensitivity.”

I was about four-and-a-half years old when US President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. All I remember was that the adults I knew were sad and there were no cartoons on TV for several days. Growing up and attending school in the United States, Kennedy was generally remembered as a popular, iconic leader. Key to Kennedy’s mojo were his charisma and speaking skills. The Internet gives access to this by making some of his speeches available at www.jfklibrary.org.

Most people under age fifty have heard a few muffled sound bites and seen some grainy black-and-white video of some of Kennedy’s significant speeches, but I imagine few have spent much time with them. While building a project management class a few years ago, I found a clip of a Kennedy speech about clear and measurable goals. (It’s about three minutes into Kennedy’s Excerpt from an Address Before a Joint Session of Congress, 25 May 1961 .):

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”

Good definitions of project scope are elusive. The best usually involve a description of how the solution will be tested or shown to meet requirements. The United States did land a man on the moon and return him safely to the Earth in 1969—we did accomplish the goal that President Kennedy described in 1961.

During my search, I stumbled on a clip that I really liked for a different reason (about 36 minutes into Kennedy’s Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs, May 25, 1961):

“... let it be clear that I am asking the Congress and the country to accept a firm commitment to a new course of action, a course which will last for many years and carry very heavy costs … If we are to go only half way, or reduce our sights in the face of difficulty, in my judgment it would be better not to go at all.”

I interpreted this as a sobering challenge to the Congress and citizens of his day (the projects sponsors). We could choose to embrace or not embrace this goal, but there was no middle ground. Going halfway to the moon was not an option. I don’t interpret this as a cavalier call to “do or die”—any project might discover new information along the way suggesting the cost was too high or the risk too great—but it was a warning that we need to be fully committed from the beginning.

Some projects are like that. It isn’t that project scope doesn’t have some room for negotiation—there were certainly tradeoffs along the way to the moon, but the primary goal was clear and ambitious and a tepid commitment would not have gotten it done.

I was reminded of this recently when I developed an idea that seems to have promise for facilitating discussions about scope definition and sensitivity to resource reduction. I was assisting a client with a severely constrained budget to develop a strategic plan. Senior client managers were identifying candidate projects for consideration by the executive team, who would have to go through all the proposals and choose the few to be funded with limited resources. While creating a template to describe proposals for new projects and initiatives, I wanted to find a way to capture each project’s sensitivity to partial funding. How likely was the proposed initiative to accomplish its goals? What would happen if funding and resources were reduced by 50 percent?

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About the author

Payson Hall's picture Payson Hall

Payson Hall is a consulting project manager for Catalysis Group, Inc. in Sacramento, California. Payson consults on project management issues and teaches project management. Email Payson at payson@catalysisgroup.com. Follow him on twitter at @paysonhall.

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