Special Projects in an Enterprise Environment

Director of Special Projects, Special Projects Coordinator, Head of Special Programs…. Does your company have an employee that holds a title like this? Maybe it’s time to consider finding one!

It is common knowledge that workplace stress can take a major toll on an employee, and ultimately your business. It is estimated that stress on the job costs American companies $300 billion a year! (1)  82% of employee respondents, in a survey conducted by The Marlin Company, said they experienced stress in the workplace. (2) So, now that we’ve established what a major issue this stress can be, and how common the problem is, it may be time to try and fix it.

First, lets narrow it down a bit and look at where the bulk of that stress may be coming from. 46% of people cite their workload as their main cause of stress (3), making up the largest single cause of workplace anxiety according to a recent ComPsych survey. In a world of razor thin margins and a drive for improved efficiency, hiring a slew of new employees isn’t always an option. Because of the established need to manage an employee’s stress levels, and the restrictions surrounding your options to deal with workload, maybe a closer look at the actual work day is in order.

Every company focused on success understands the struggle for internal evolution. I would bet big money against any of today’s Fortune 500 still using a DOS system, for example. However, that perpetual improvement needs to be driven by employees, and with so many people already overworked, companies all too often lose focus on these “special projects”. Of course, a glance around your office is a demonstration that they can be done, but it’s valuable to ask who’s taking the reigns on these projects.

In a lot of companies, each individual department is tasked with identifying and voicing their improvement needs. Then, after a request has made its way up the approval ladder, it flows back down and becomes the responsibility of already overworked employees to develop a plan, present, and implement these improvements. Multiple laboratory studies have found that switching tasks worsens performance (4), so it’s not surprising that projects, on top of core responsibilities, often prove too much. I have lost track of the amount of times I have heard phrases like “Oh yeah, we talked about doing that a while back” or “We’ve been meaning to look into that” or my personal favorite, “That would be awesome, but this works and we don’t really have the bandwidth to change”.

The burden special projects can place on employees, and the stress/ cost associated with them can stifle a business and burn out a work force. How do we correct for this? A Director of Special Projects! It’s infeasible to make a new hire for every department’s one-off endeavors, but we can all agree that getting a person unbound by a strict, daily work load to spearhead internal projects can go a long way to getting things done while simultaneously taking a load off of other employees/ managers.

So, what would this person do? That can be a difficult question to answer, as every company has a different set of needs. A major benefit to a special projects department is it’s flexibility in tandem with scalability. Let’s look at how you might want to implement such a role.

Small Business:

You may be thinking that this role is an unnecessary expense when you have so many other things to focus on in the beginning stages of your business, but if established in the early phases of a company, a Director of Special Projects can prove an invaluable growth driver. In small companies, a truly invested person can identify operations hiccups that more traditional C-level leadership may miss or simply overlook due to prioritization restraints.

When accounting is spending more than 50% of their time on collections, maybe it’s time to look at the costs of contracting a third party collection team. Or maybe amending the MSA to include a late payment penalty would solve the issue. It may be cost effective to get a part-time, lower salaried employee to handle these duties. A Director of Special Projects can focus completely on your accounting problem, have the conversations, do the research, and present a solution. Then, their role can extend into solution implementation as well. This role can be built as a “go-to” position. The drive to focus on high-level problems and the expertise to build/ recommend the best fix can free up mass amounts of time for leadership to focus on long-term goals and company growth.

The right person for this type of position keeps their ear to the ground. Anyone at any level can go to them with problems big or small and be confident that their issues will be considered. This support can provide a lot of comfort to employees in a small company. We just looked at a fairly large example, but what about the small stuff?

Say your administrative assistant is running into an error that doesn’t allow her to view excel sheets in her browser. It’s not a “big” problem, but she has to download 5-10 things a day instead of just viewing them in one click. Once mentioned to your Director of Special Projects, the digging begins. After some investigation, it turns out this is happening in all three departments that use this online tool. With 15 people, averaging 7 downloads a day, at 3 minutes a download… you have a loss of 26 productive hours per week! That an entire part time position that you’re paying for and getting nothing in return. Your director makes a few phone calls, establishes that your tool requires a plug in, directs IT, and solves the problem. With a minimal amount of investment, your company just reduced operating costs by about $37,537 annually (based on an average $55k salary).

A director level salary may seem like a large expenditure at the start of a company, but the right person in this role should be a value add almost immediately.

Medium Sized Business:

So, you haven’t had this role up until now, and bringing in a director level employee is too daunting at this point. Start smaller! An internal PM is a great stepping stone and can be groomed into a director as your business expands.

If all internal projects are being dictated by your leadership, having an internal PM to lead them can be a very valuable middle ground. You now have a single point person to keep track of, and drive all improvements. Instead of 6 different meetings about projects in 6 different departments, a CEO can touch base with their PM and get a clear picture of the change occurring in the company and how it’s affecting the business as a whole.

An internal PM can be given as much or as little leeway as the leadership team deems appropriate. With the flexibility of being tied to projects as opposed to areas of the business, a PM can coordinate interdepartmental efforts without stepping on toes or stirring up office politics. As their knowledge pool expands, you can encourage them to begin identifying areas of improvement on their own.

Another advantage to an internal PM is their title. Employees may be more comfortable talking to a peer about potential problems, and the right PM can be your feet on the ground, relaying issues that may be harder for management teams to see.

Eventually, I would encourage everyone to make special projects the purview of a director level employee, but it’s not a position that needs to be created overnight. Find the right fit, integrate them into your business, and build the value add you need.

Large Business:

If you are a large company, chances are that you already have a department like this. Either a team of internal PMs, or a Director who handles one-off projects, or both. If your structure is currently supporting only a PM pool, it may be time to think about a Director level position to coordinate their efforts. Once a certain number of PMs is reached, you begin to loose interdepartmental advantages. It’s important to avoid the pitfalls of the silo structure and may be time to consider mixing up where your PMs are focused.

A Director of Special Projects is only more valuable to a large company because as the number of employees, departments, and job functions increase so do the number of inefficiencies. Having a role designed to focus on internal improvements can do wonders.

Say each of 5 departments are all using their own tools for the job. That’s 5 pieces of software that you’re paying for, in addition to any intermediary systems required to make it all mesh. You’re about to make an acquisition that will introduce one more piece to this puzzle. Maybe it’s time to re-evaluate. Assuming the tools are all working correctly, it’s unlikely any department head will ask for a different solution. However, your Director of special projects may find a custom software option that will eliminate 4 software suites. One of your departments may have to sacrifice x amount of usability, but if the effects can be mitigated with 2 administration positions costing $100k while the reduction in software saves you $600k….

The projects may be larger, the complexities may increase, but at the end of the day your Director of Special Projects is the same position a small company needs. Someone to look at the big picture with no ties to individual lines of business can prove invaluable to the business as a whole.

Every business, large and small, can gain value from a special projects department. One director, one PM, or an entire team focused on your company’s evolution; any level of focus on internal improvement is better than no focus at all. I encourage you to take a look at your business. Are there improvements you’ve been meaning to make? Large, seemingly fundamental problems just too daunting to tackle at the moment? Small annoyances you didn’t think were that big of a deal? Consider a Director of Special Projects, the right person can make all the difference in the world.





(1) https://www.uml.edu/Research/centers/CPH-NEW/stress-at-work/financial-costs.aspx
(2) http://www.stress.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/2001Attitude-in-the-Workplace-Harris.pdf
(3) EAP provider ComPsych’s first half of 2016 stressPulse Survey
(4) CellierandEyrolle1992;  Allport,  StylesandHsieh1994; Schultz et al. 2003