Project Practitioners > 5 Things to Consider when Initiating a Mega-Project

5 Things to Consider when Initiating a Mega-Project

By Alan Zucker

Mega-projects (aka, massive strategic initiatives) are not just big projects. The scale and complexity of these undertakings can overwhelm the typical enterprise. To successfully execute mega-projects, enterprises should adjust and adopt their ‘regular’ approach to project management.

Cooking is the best analogy to describe the difference between a regular project and a mega-project. On a daily basis I make dinner for four. I can easily scale to eight; but after that, my pots aren’t big enough and I don’t have enough seats at the table. On occasion, I have hosted large parties of 100. But, I could not scale to 200, let alone serve that many people every day.

By comparison, if you are accustomed to managing a several million-dollar project, you can probably scale to a project 2-3 times that size. Could you use the same processes and tools to manage a $100 million, multi-year project with hundreds of resources? If you started the mega-project today, could you sustain it? Managing a Mega-Project

Here are five areas to consider when starting or planning a mega-project:

1. Establishing the Project Management Organization

When establishing the mega-project’s program management office:

  • Establish a single organization that is responsible for managing the entire program.
  • Staff the organization with enough people that are also experienced executing mega-projects.   

I have encountered mega-projects with multiple management organizations. Resist this urge for local control. Support a culture of collaboration where the single, central authority is empowered and trusted. Having a central authority is more efficient, reduces conflicting guidance, and enables consistent messaging and communications.

Initially, many mega-projects are understaffed because the demands on the PMO are underestimated. Err on the side of initially overstaffing. To quote the old adage, "a stitch in time saves nine." Building the PMO’s capabilities early will help the effort get off on the right foot.   

Set the role of the PMO as the enabler of effective delivery. Avoid having an organization that prioritizes best practice theory over execution.

2. Executive Stakeholder Management

Active and engaged leadership is critical to the success of any project. It is even more critical for mega-projects. Mega-projects generally cross multiple organizational boundaries. Establishing and maintaining alignment across the executive leadership team is essential.

Successful initiatives have senior leaders that are at least 75% committed to the effort. The sponsor needs to both lead the project team and manage the executive coalition.  The sponsor should:

  • Hold regular meetings with all of the key stakeholders to ensure alignment of expectations and priorities. 
  • Meet individually with stakeholders to build and maintain their support, as well as uncover unspoken concerns or hidden agendas.
  • Scan the landscape to identify non-stakeholder executives that are potential allies or enemies.
  • Stay actively involved in the day-to-day leadership of the initiative by regularly meeting and engaging with the project team leads.

3. Communications Management

The number of communications paths on a mega-project is daunting. I once worked on a mega-project with eight senior executive stakeholders and several hundred resources. There were 28 communication paths within the leadership team and over a hundred thousand across the entire project.

A comprehensive and well considered communications strategy is indispensable. The communications plan should be created to ensure that people receive information that caters to their needs. Poor project communications can resemble the children’s game ‘whisper down the lane’ or ‘telephone.’

Effective communication is measured by what is received, rather than what is sent. Consequently, the communication should be ‘listener centric’ and should be tailored to the recipient. For example:

  • Status, issues, and risks should be articulated differently for the project team and the executives.
  • Requirements or design changes should be communicated in a way that is meaningful to the impacted team.

4. Project Management Processes

Organizations starting mega-projects often see an opportunity to change their project development methodology.

If you have a functioning, well-adopted, and well-understood methodology, do not introduce radically different practices. Project teams know and understand the current process. Introducing a new one may create more confusion than benefit.

If you adopt a new methodology, ensure that the process is clear and simple and that all scenarios have been incorporated to avoid having teams improvise parts of the process. The risk and rewards built into the methodology should also anticipate the impact on the organization’s culture and role expectations.

5. Project Tools

Project tools are not typically implemented to meet the unique needs of the mega-project. When effectively used, the following types of tools can enhance collaboration, communication, and coordination:

  • Project scheduling and interdependency management
  • Resource estimation, tracking, and cost management
  • Documentation management
  • Change management
  • Communications 

Establish the tools before the project gets too big, and configure the tools to enable rather than hinder the teams. Reconfiguring tools midstream distracts from execution and is costly.  Seemingly simple questions can have large impacts on how the tools are configured and the project data is integrated. For example: What is the hierarchy of the projects to the program?  Do we organize the document repository by project or by document type?

Ensure that you have skilled and experienced resources to build, maintain, and use the super-sized tools. For example: a master scheduler with mega-project experience is invaluable. If you hire new external resources, pair them with tenured staff so that the new processes resonate with legacy operations and culture.

Mega-projects are exciting—they enable transformational opportunities. Leaders of mega-projects and project organizations need to understand that they are different than typical ‘large’ projects. To be successful, plan for the scope and scale required for managing this massive effort. Good luck!

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© 2015 Alan Zucker

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