The Project Management Murder Board

murder boardA murder board usually refers a process where a committee of senior managers and/or subject matter experts scrutinize projects as a part of the project selection process. The committee attempts to stop (or murder) a project before it’s undertaken.

Aside from project selection, a murder board can also refer to a tool used to:
– prepare for presentations
– perfect project plans

Project Selection

I’ve seen murder boards in practice in a couple of different companies. These committees are never called murder boards in the industry, but it’s essentially what they are.

One of my previous companies had an IT project murder board which met quarterly. Here the heads of several IT divisions collectively approved or rejected large scale IT projects. This was a large company, and all internal projects costing over $1 million needed to be presented to this board.

The board would meet for a full morning, and project representatives were told approximately when they would be presenting. Each team showed up and waited for their turn.

All projects costing over a $1 million had to be presented to this board for approval. A project could cost exactly $1 million, while others could cost much more.

Board members then grilled project representatives in order to access the project. If a project was approved, the committee would require quarterly updates on the project. The board also maintained the ability to terminate any of these projects at any time.

This committee is not a steering committee as they do not provide support. They ask questions and can recommend your project for approval or termination.

The murder board process is different from a phase/stage gate process. In the ones I’ve seen, the project is not reviewed in phases.

Depending on how it’s created, a murder board may or may not have absolute authority over projects. When a board does not have absolute authority, their recommendations often carry a lot of weight, but they can not terminate projects. I’ve heard of an instance when a murder board recommended terminating a project, but the project sponsor pushed ahead and did the project anyway (sacrificing a lot of political capital in the process).

Advantages & Disadvantages – Project Selection

Advantages to this process are:

  • several projects can be compared against each other, and the ones with the greatest benefits will be approved.  This is important if a company has limited resources.
  • projects must be well thought out and researched before they are presented.
  • a murder board can consist of people with different backgrounds, enabling the committee to provide valuable feedback on a project.

Disadvantages to this process are:

  • a good project may be terminated due to a poor presentation, office politics, or a combination of both.
  • this process can be inefficient. It requires considerable time and effort from both project teams and senior business leaders to use this tool effectively.
  • this process could erode the confidence of the project team. If one of their projects is terminated, they may be hesitant to present another.

Presentation Preparation

murder boardIn the 1970s a director at NASA created a murder board to toughen up project managers for presentations made at NASA headquarters. This murder board consisted of a sitting group of critics who would question anyone proposing a new project or research area.

Today this practice has extended outside of project management. It’s reported that Donald Trump’s team is putting his Cabinet picks through hours long murder board sessions in order to prepare them for their Senate confirmation hearings.

Project Planning

The Aviation Guy wrote an interesting blog entry about a murder board around planning for an 8 plane flight formation. He describes getting “a handful of very experienced pilots and navigators… to look at your plan and find anything that may be wrong.” Overall he called it “an awesome chance to get an outside perspective.” This is a great way to use this tool.

Conclusion

While the murder board is primarily a project selection tool, it has other purposes as well. If you’re ever a part a project selection murder board, make sure you’re well prepared or else your project may get murder!

Author: Kenneth Ashe

Kenneth Ashe CPA, PMP, CGMA, MAcc

1 thought on “The Project Management Murder Board”

  1. The more I think about this the more it seems like a misguided approach. The fact that the board gets updates on all projects on a quarterly basis makes it seem less like a murder board and more like a portfolio management board. Having recurring quarterly project presentations (especially on multi-million dollar projects) is a waste of the board’s time as well as of the project team’s time as well as potential for the following reasons:

    • if a project needs to be re-justified on a quarterly basis, there is an inherent problem in the project approval process. Either the benefits were not articulated properly in the first case, or there is another project competing for the same capital. Either case having done a proper job at benefits and costs for the project would remove the need to a scheduled review unless something changed. If another project shows more benefit/lower cost then the decision to stop one project and start another one can be made without having one project try to plea for its life. There is also an argument to be made here that the project pipeline is not managed properly since you should see new projects with potential higher benefits coming up and not be surprised with competing capital.
    • it encourages fabrication of benefits and/or scope creep. Teams will try to add new things to keep their project fresh and relevant in the eyes of management.
    • it encourages the creation of artificial deadlines/milestone. Teams will try to have new accomplishments done and ready to present in time for the reviews to show progress and keep board excitement for the idea.
    • is project progress not already apparent from project status reporting tools.

    The only place I have seen something that would be described accurately as a murder board is in the R&D space, where each project undergoes a multi-part feasibility review (technical, financial, regulatory, strategic alignment). These however are projects that cost millions of dollars, takes between 5-10 years to see any results and on average have less than 5% chance of success. The end result of these reviews is that the project is truly killed. These reviews are done in isolation from all other projects and revisited based on the progress of the project (milestones, major deliverables)

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