Project Priorities and Funding: Don't Go Halfway to the Moon


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

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?

The organization doesn’t have sufficiently detailed history or performance models to develop credible detailed metrics (although this is a future goal). What we came up with for the interim was a line item on the description template that asked the author to rate his or her confidence that the proposed initiative would accomplish its stated purpose on a 1-to-5 scale (1 being “doubtful” and 5 being “very confident”).

All things being equal, when considering possible initiatives we might expect an organization to simply favor cost-effective projects whose proponents are “very confident” they will achieve strategic goals. Imagine you have $100 to invest in projects, and there are twenty projects proposed that are rated 5 to achieve their goals if funded for $20 each. In simplest terms, you can only fund five of the twenty projects, so you would pick five winners and fifteen losers and be done.

Most executives wish portfolio selection were that easy. Fortunately, the complexity of the real world can also offer richer alternatives. Imagine that in addition to the twenty projects that were rated 5, there were fifty others that were rated 3 and only required a $1 investment. (For purposes of our discussion, let’s assume that the amount of “goodness” that comes from each successful initiative is comparable.) Funding some of these lower-cost, higher-risk initiatives as part of your portfolio might increase the overall chances of accomplishing the mission.

Mindful of JFK’s admonition about tepid commitment, I realized it would also be interesting to get a sense of funding sensitivity for different projects. If an initiative were not fully funded, was it worth funding at all? Some projects funded at a 50-percent level might generate 50 percent of the value. (In farming, planting half of your field versus the whole field yields about half the crop. In marketing, buying half of the ad space might result in roughly half the product awareness.) Other projects, like the moon mission, would be a waste of time to fund at a 50-percent level.

To get a sense of funding sensitivity, we followed our original 1-to-5 confidence item on the template with an item that asked about the confidence that a proposal would still accomplish its goals if funding and staffing were reduced 50 percent—also indicated on a 1-to-5 scale. The intent of this measure was to let the executive team know whether this proposal could be eligible for funding reduction, allowing potentially more initiatives to be considered for funding. The results captured some interesting information in an admittedly crude but useful way.

If a $20 project was judged to be a 5 on our scale to accomplish its goals if fully funded and a 4 on our scale to accomplish its goals if partially funded, then this project was a candidate for selection and negotiation at a reduced funding level. The bottom line is that this allowed executives broader choices to promote more projects, even though some were not fully funded. If a $1 project was a 3 to accomplish its goals if fully funded and still a 2 if half funded, this increased options for high-risk, high-reward projects even in tight fiscal times.

My purpose for sharing this is to give you an opportunity to consider your projects in a larger organizational context. At a strategic level, this is important if you have to negotiate for funding or other resources in an environment where multiple projects are competing for attention, particularly when resources are constrained. If your project’s resources were cut by 20, 30, or 50 percent, would the project still be worth doing? Are there aspects of scope that could be cut to deliver some of the project’s value if resource reductions were necessary, or is your project essentially an “all or nothing” commitment whose value would plummet disproportionately if the investment were reduced? Have the resource characteristics of your project been discussed with your project’s sponsors and team? There are no “right” answers, but if you want to support informed decisions about your project, these are important questions.

At a tactical level, these thoughts can help prioritize the functionality to be built in a particular sprint or project phase. Are you front-loading essential functionality so that future resource constraints are less likely to kill your project?

Some readers may wonder whether they care about this stuff. After all, some of you are developers, team leaders, and testers, not project managers or executives. I would encourage you to consider that this information about your project is an important aspect of project definition if you aspire to management and critical information about your projects for your managers and sponsoring executives if they are going to make sound management decisions.

About the author

AgileConnection is a TechWell community.

Through conferences, training, consulting, and online resources, TechWell helps you develop and deliver great software every day.