Winston Churchill once said that “those who plan do better than those who do not plan, even though they rarely stick to their plan.” This is true of all projects, but particularly so for small projects. With a tight deadline and a scope written on the apocryphal cigarette packet, there is a huge temptation to just get on with it.
The project manager will often have a hands-on role too, further limiting the time available for planning and control. A small project carries the same potential for risks and challenges as a mission-critical one; indeed being under the radar for senior management oversight can exacerbate some of the issues.
Here we take a look at some of the challenges that can particularly affect a small project, and how to mitigate them.
What if the key specialist gets run over by a bus, or less dramatically goes off sick, or is poached? Having only one person with the right skills is a high risk. It’s more likely to happen on a small project as there are fewer people and the team may already be doubling up on roles. In some project management circles, this is known as the bus count; that is the number of people a project could lose before it is unable to fulfill its end goal. The more multi-skilled the team, the higher the bus count.
The key here is to identify those critical skills and bus counts during the planning process. Have a contingency plan in mind, for sharing roles within the team. Escalate the risk and the contingency, to the steering group. Give them advance warning and if the worst happens, they will be more willing to help.
There are always risks, whatever the size of the project. Their consequences may affect the reputation of the business, cause a knock-on effect on other projects, or delay a new product being available. For a small project, it’s tempting to underestimate the risks or to fail to carry out proper risk assessment and mitigation.
The project manager should carry out a robust risk assessment for every project and detail the risks and mitigations in a risk log. In being thorough in assessing risks and being open with the steering group, the project manager can improve visibility and management of risks.
“I don’t remember reading that on the back of the cigarette packet”. Of course scope creep can happen at any time on any project. It’s more likely, however, if the stakeholders don’t understand their roles or are not properly consulted as to the requirements and goals of the project. If the overall resource hours and timescale are short, it’s more difficult to absorb extra functionality, even if it’s just adding a week or so.
A small project should follow best practice for scope management, with goals and high-level requirements being defined at an early stage and shared with stakeholders. Detailed functionality should be agreed with expert networks or subject matter experts and any changes to scope must be written in the change log and agreed with the steering group.
Project Manager Workload
On a small project, the project manager may have a hands-on role as part of the project team. Perhaps one of the team members has an aspiration to move into project management, or an experienced project manager is looking to refresh their technical skills. In the former case, workload is likely to be an issue; if the team member’s tasks overrun, planning and control are likely to suffer.
A forward-looking business will use an opportunity, such as a small project, to help a team member to advance their career. This needs to be properly managed through training and mentoring. A junior project manager needs to be mentored by someone with experience, who can advise on workload issues and suggest when they need to reallocate tasks or ask for help.
Roles and Responsibilities
Agreeing and assigning project roles is one of the most overlooked elements on a small project. It’s easy to sidestep this discipline when senior management are not really interested and stakeholders demand that the project is kicked off as soon as possible.
The project manager can tailor a methodology such as PRINCE2 to suit the size and scope of the project, especially using the flexibility envisioned in the PRINCE2 2017 update. The methodology will give them the credibility and confidence to insist that senior management, stakeholders and a steering group play their part in the project.
Senior management backing is essential for resource allocation, which can be more of a challenge on a small project. It may be difficult to get the whole team available at the same point owing to other commitments and other projects may see a small project as a target for poaching resources if it is seen as lower importance.
The project must have:
- A sponsor at a senior level in the business
- A steering group to approve scope changes and risk management
- Stakeholders representing customers and other parts of the business
Opportunities and Risks
A small project can provide an aspiring team member with a route into project management. They will still need to follow an established methodology and they will need support from senior management and from someone with experience in the role.
Running a small project might seem from the surface to be a lot simpler and less complex than running a large project but many of the same principles of project management methodologies like PRINCE2 still apply. What’s more, for a small company, the stakes on a small project will be just as high than any large corporate infrastructure project. It’s why planning and getting things right is key.