“Focus on the journey, not the destination. Joy is found not in finishing an activity but in doing it” – Greg Anderson. So it is with managing a small project. Of course, delivering on time and within budget is the acid test. Focus on best practice and these objectives will be achieved, as well as a satisfied client and a reputation for excellence.
The problem with a small project is not the project, but people’s perception of it. Knowing that it has a short duration, a small team or a limited budget can make it seem less important. It’s easy to underestimate risks and to cut corners in an effort to get it out of the way with minimum effort.
Here we identify 6 project management aspects where you may be tempted to cut corners, why that’s a bad idea and some practical advice on good practice.
There will be a temptation to simply let the team get on with it. After all, it’s a simple project and they know what they are doing. However making assumptions as to scope, estimates and resources brings a high risk of failure.
Using a proven methodology such as PRINCE2 will give a structure to the project and ensure that scope and risks are properly investigated. PRINCE2 has been used to manage projects of every size and complexity and has evolved over many years. The PRINCE2 2017 update deals specifically with tailoring its themes to the needs of the project, with practical examples of applying the method.
Does the team understand the goals and objectives for the project? Some small projects start with only sketchy information, perhaps from the salesperson. It’s not surprising to find a discrepancy between the team’s understanding and what the client expects.
Planning the project means understanding and defining:
- Goals – what the project is intended to achieve in terms of benefits to the client and justification to the business
- Quality expectations, especially acceptance by the client
- Communication – how information will flow between the team, stakeholders and the client
- Budget – it’s essential that this is calculated and agreed. The project manager is accountable for the cost of running the project
- Project plan – a statement as to how the project will deliver the goals
In some ways, a small team is a positive. Having everyone in the same room should give a feeling of team spirit and good communication should just happen. The obvious challenges will probably be skills. It’s likely that people will need to take on additional roles, outside of their usual day job. Absence could be an issue, due to holidays or sickness. Finally, a team member may be poached to work on another project, especially if they are a specialist.
The worst approach is to adopt a laissez-faire attitude, expecting to deal with issues if and when they arise.
Be clear on expectations with the team members, especially if this involves working outside their comfort zone. Think through the impact of absence and what you would do in response.
In managing a small project, perhaps alongside working in the team, it’s easy to take your eye off the ball. Scope creep can happen if team members interact directly with stakeholders, or the client makes a request during a product demo. Perhaps the original analysis was not thorough enough.
It’s essential to keep a handle on scope creep using a change control process. Insist that any change goes through a formal process and is documented and approved.
A common risk on a small project is the failure to conduct a risk assessment. If the project is short duration or relatively low cost to the business, it’s tempting to ignore this activity.
During the planning phase, assess the possible risks to the project. These could be risks to the schedule, to the cost or to the project’s goals. Identify each risk in terms of its cause, likelihood and effect. Think through how you can avoid these risks or how you would respond if they occur.
It’s common for a small project to operate under the radar. This could be seen as a positive, saving time on management reporting and being free from interference.
Oversight is important, however. Senior managers have a knack of being able to spot issues. By asking awkward questions they can dig down to an underlying issue that needs to be addressed.
In the communication plan, define how the project will report to senior management and stakeholders. This need not be onerous. The most effective communication for senior managers is exception reporting, flagging up cost or schedule issues.
Focus on the journey
The art of managing a small project is to follow the same processes as a large project, but to tailor them. In addition to achieving the project’s goals, this will demonstrate best practice. Focusing on the journey will satisfy the client and build your reputation for excellence in project management.