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Experienced project managers will tell you there is a definite art to managing small projects.
However, senior management may show little interest, expecting the team to just get on with it. Therefore, the art lies in winning enthusiasm and support from stakeholders. Even more importantly, a project manager (PM) must approach a small project as if it were a large undertaking.
Every project manager has to start somewhere, and a small project can be an ideal testing ground. A budding PM, perhaps moving up from a technical role, can use their first project to gain confidence and experience.
However, they will need support and mentoring from someone with more experience. Being thrown in the deep end can result in a failed project and a poor reputation for the new PM.
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Here we look at the challenges that are likely to occur in small projects, along with practical advice as to how project managers can deal with them and deliver on time.
The Challenges Inherent in a Small Project
Unclear goals: Imagine being told that the project is straightforward and that the team knows what they’re doing. However, the goals aren’t clear. So how will you and the team know what the expectations are? How will anyone judge if it’s a success?
Limited team size: Obviously a small undertaking will only have a small team. However, this makes it vulnerable to resourcing issues such as illness, poaching by another manager, or lack of specialized skills.
Project manager overload: Team size frequently requires the PM to work as part of the team, or to carry out administrative tasks, or both.
Lack of oversight: If senior management perceives a small project as straightforward, there may be a lack of support and supervision. Then if difficulties arise, they may go unnoticed.
These challenges, as well the issues faced by a novice PM, can be overcome with the practical advice suggested below.
Learning to Follow a Trusted Project Management Methodology
The most valuable asset for a project manager, whether they have lots of experience or are a novice, is methodology. Following a robust but adaptable methodology such as PRINCE2 will steer any project, large or small, through its initial phases. Moreover, it will ensure the use of best practice in managing quality, risk, and change.
Various methodologies are available. Some are based on the practices of particular sectors. For example, Lean Six Sigma lends itself well to manufacturing, and Agile is useful in software development. However, PRINCE2 is the most widely practiced, having been used worldwide on projects of every type and size.
Gaining Support at the Senior Level
Senior management can assist in a number of ways. Firstly, although they may not be project managers, they are knowledgeable people. Their experience means that they will have encountered most of the issues that are likely to arise, and they can give advice on how to deal with those issues.
Secondly, they are familiar with overseeing the business. They will be able to spot the warning signs when a small project is about to run into difficulties.
Lastly, their clout within the business means they are a vital backup. For example, if another team manager is trying to poach a team member, they may be able to get involved or help with finding a replacement.
Ensuring Resources Are Committed to the Project
In small business, staff may have multiple roles. For example, a team member on a small project may have other day-to-day responsibilities. This is perfectly acceptable. However, the PM must take this factor into account during the planning phase.
Therefore, check the availability of each team member at the start. Take account of holidays and training, and be realistic as to how much time each team member will spend on non-project tasks.
If they report to other managers, discuss and clarify with those managers also. Use a project-planning tool that can allocate resources based on availability as well as monitor actuals versus estimates during the life of the undertaking.
Pay particular attention to specialized roles. If there is only one person with a particular skill, be cautious about over-committing that person. Also, have a back-up plan in case they fall ill.
Risk management is a key project management skill. The PRINCE2 technique is particularly effective. This is because it quantifies each risk by both the likelihood of its occurring and the effect it would have.
Keep in mind, however, that risks are not merely negative issues. For example, a risk can also be a positive opportunity.
However, all risks need to be assessed at the start and at frequent intervals. Having identified a risk, the next step is to mitigate it in one of four ways:
- Avoid: Adjust the project to remove the risk
- Reduce: If the risk cannot be avoided, minimize its impact
- Transfer: Move the risk to another party, perhaps as a contractual obligation
- Accept: Accept the risk if it is unavoidable, or it has a low impact
Managing as an Art
If there is an art to running a small project, it’s about using the same techniques that successfully deliver large ones. Also, it requires the manager to get everyone on board. Senior management, stakeholders, and the members of the team all have to perceive the project as important, even if it’s a small one.