Managing and leading small projects


Project managers need two things to aid in the success of small projects: (1) a methodology specifically designed for small projects and (2) the ability to lead by influence, which can be enhanced by developing key character qualities. This paper details project management methodology and leadership best practices for managing small projects.


Most organizations rely on a variety of projects, both large and small. Although small projects have unique challenges that are not present in large projects, small projects can still benefit from project management best practices. Regardless of the project size, the project manager is responsible for project success. And to be successful, the project manager must both manage and lead the small project.

Managing projects requires time, effort, and discipline. The difference between managing larger and smaller projects is not only the amount of time, effort, and discipline, but also the process and tools. Even experienced project managers are sometimes faced with the challenge of how to manage small projects. Most project management methodologies, designed for large projects, cannot easily be tailored to fit all the needs of smaller projects. To obtain maximum benefits, what is needed is a methodology specifically designed for small projects that includes scalable and adaptable project management processes, tools, and techniques.

Leadership is also important. Often project managers of small projects will have to lead by influence and not authority. The character of the project manager is a key contributor to managing by influence. Character defines the person. Character development takes place every day and should be included as a vital component of leadership development.

It has often been said that managers do things right and leaders do the right things. This combination of effectiveness and efficiency is what makes a good project manager. To operate effectively and efficiently, it is imperative that the project manager stays focused. This paper explores project management processes, tools, and leadership skills, and also includes best practices for managing and leading small projects.

Definition of a Small Project

Before we begin our discussion on managing and leading small projects, we need a common understanding of small projects.

Small projects are perceived to be relatively easy, but other than this there is no one way to define a small project. In some cases small could be defined on the basis of cost, such as costing less than $1million. Cost is relative, however, and depends on the income of the organization. Parth (1998) uses two indicators. The first indicator of a small project is its impact on the company's bottom line. If a company loses a large project, it may have significant detrimental impact to the company's future. If a company loses a small project, or even several of them, the impact to profits may be negligible. As a second indicator, Parth uses whether or not the project has dedicated resources. Small projects typically don't have dedicated resources—the project personnel may be working on multiple projects in various stages of completion at the same time (Parth, 1998, p. 1). Small could also be defined on the basis of time, for example, taking less than six months to complete. For the purpose of this paper, we will use the guidelines suggested in Project Management for Small Projects (Rowe, 2007, p. 6) to define small projects. Therefore, a small project generally:

  • Is short in duration, typically lasting less than six months, and usually part-time in effort hours
  • Has 10 or fewer team members
  • Involves a small number of skill areas
  • Has a single objective and a solution that is readily achievable
  • Has a narrowly defined scope and definition
  • Affects a single business unit and has a single decision maker
  • Has access to project information and will not require automated solutions from external project sources
  • Uses the project manager as the primary source for leadership and decision making
  • Has no political implications with respect to proceeding or not proceeding
  • Produces straightforward deliverables with few interdependencies among skill areas
  • Costs less than $75,000 and has available funding.

If the project involves a few skill areas but the deliverables are complex, it is not a small project. If the scope is broad, the project usually involves more skill areas so it would not be considered a small project. The more skill areas involved, the more effort will be required to manage the project.

Most small projects center on changes in organizational processes. Other examples of small projects include the following:

  • Developing a training course
  • Implementing a project office
  • Implementing a purchased software application
  • Enhancing an existing information system
  • Developing a website
  • Evaluating an existing practice
  • Developing a strategy
  • Developing a project proposal.

Many assignments can also be treated as small projects, even if only one person is involved. For example, improving your filing system or planning a department social activity may require the efforts of a single resource for a few weeks, but can still benefit from a simplified form of project management. Treating assignments as projects allows more effort to be carried out in an efficient manner with better use of resources (Kallman & Williamson, 2002, p. 1). Treating assignments as projects provides you with the opportunity to clearly define the goal and expectations at the onset, thereby eliminating the frustration of wasted effort and unnecessary rework.

Small projects require both management and leadership to be successful. There is a distinct difference between managing and leading. Maxwell (1998, p. 14) says that the main difference between the two is that management focuses on maintaining systems and processes, while leadership is about influencing people to follow. Therefore, it is important to remember that you should always manage processes and lead people.

Managing Small Projects

To manage is to have charge of or responsibility for the project. Management includes general management knowledge and skills and project management knowledge and skills. In general, the project manager plans, organizes, directs, and controls project activities. The project management practices are best described by the Project Management Knowledge Areas in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Third Edition (Project Management Institute, 2004). The knowledge areas include processes, tools, and techniques for the following nine areas: project integration management, project scope management, project time management, project cost management, project quality management, project human resources management, project communication management, project risk management and project procurement management. Although the Project Management Knowledge Areas are applicable to small projects, not all of them have to be used in their entirety or on every small project. As the project manager performs the process activities required to initiate, plan, execute, monitor and control, and close project activities, the project manager must also understand the knowledge areas and know which ones are applicable for the small project and which ones can be omitted. This is a project-by-project decision.

Small projects require less formality and structure than larger projects. Processes and tools should be scalable and adaptable. They should be scalable so that the time spent using the processes, and the focus of the processes, all fit the needs of the project. The processes and tools should be adaptable so that the tools chosen to support the project can be easily applied (Rowe, 2007, p. 39). The key project management documents to consider are project charter, work breakdown structure, deliverable list, and project schedule, depending on the project's size and reporting needs. It is also important to be prepared for what could possibly go wrong; therefore a means of capturing project risks is also recommended.

Project Charter

The project charter provides the project manager with the authority to apply organizational resources to project activities, and also identifies the project objective and defines the project scope. The project charter is used as a reference throughout the project to ensure that the project scope does not change. The project charter includes the following: project roles and responsibilities (project sponsor, project manager, other project stakeholders, core team members), project description (background information, project objectives, project scope, project budget), project information (high-level deliverables, assumptions, constraints, dependencies with other projects, risk or opportunities), and supporting information (business process impact and acceptance criteria).

For even smaller projects an abbreviated project charter or project charter “lite” can be used. The project charter lite consists of project objectives, stakeholders, project scope, major deliverables, assumptions, constraints, risk factors, dependencies with other projects, and acceptance criteria. At an absolute minimum, always develop a fully defined scope statement.

Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)

The work breakdown structure (WBS) is a tool for breaking a project down into its component parts. As stated in the PMBOK® Guide – Third Edition (PMI, 2004), a WBS is a deliverable-oriented grouping of project elements that organized and defines the total work scope of the project. It is a top-down decomposition of deliverables, where each descending level represents an increasingly detailed definition of the project work.

The WBS can be a simple hierarchy showing only major deliverables or high-level deliverables, or it can be more detailed and contain lower level deliverables. The intent is not to become too detailed but to make sure all of the project components are included. After the deliverables have been identified and organized, the deliverables should be numbered and responsibility should be assigned at the lowest level. The WBS can be displayed in a graphical organizational chart format, which is preferred because it is easier to read, or in an outline format. Regardless of the format, always remember to indent the lower level deliverables underneath the higher level deliverables to show the relationship.

Deliverable List and Task List

The deliverable list and task list are outlines of the deliverables and the associated tasks. The task, the lowest level on the list, indicates the steps or actions required to complete the work. This document can also show who is responsible for completing the deliverable or task. This document can be used as a simple checklist to track progress, or start and end dates can be included for more control. Depending on the needs of the project, the deliverable list, which only includes the deliverables, may be all that is required.

Project Schedule

Scheduling involves converting the work into sequenced tasks. Developing a project schedule could become a burdensome task. Small projects could benefit from a simplified version of a project schedule. The schedule can be managed at a high level by including only deliverables or, if needed, key tasks associated with each deliverable. The project manager needs to decide what information will be shown on the project schedule. For example, is it necessary to show hours?

Risk Register

The PMBOK® Guide – Third Edtion (PMI, 2004) defines risk is an uncertain event or condition that, if it occurs, has a positive or negative effect on a project objective. Positive effects of risk are considered opportunities. For small projects these new opportunities are usually handled as a separate project. Therefore, we will focus on the negative effects of risk.

Even for small projects it is important to be prepared for what could go wrong. A simplified risk register is recommended. The risk register should include the risk category, risk event, probability, impact, priority, risk response, and risk owner. Even if a formal document is not used this information should be captured and communicated to project stakeholders.

Leading Small Projects

To lead is to go before or with and show others the way. It is to guide in direction, course, action, and opinion. A good leader has the ability to motivate others to accomplish an objective. The project manager must command authority and be able to inspire and motivate others. The project manager sets the general direction of the project and allows team members to provide input along the way. During difficult times, the project manager must remain calm and be able to provide solutions to get things back on track. Being a leader is not about having a title, it is about having followers. People will follow you because they have to or because they want to. A common leadership proverb says that if you think you are leading and no one is following you, then you are only taking a walk. In reality, most project managers of small project have to lead based on influence, not authority. And influence is the ability to get others to participate. Having the ability to lead, even on a small project will enhance your project, management success.

As a leader the project manager should develop and sell the project vision, set the direction and pace of the project, coach and empower the project team, facilitate communication with all project stakeholders, and demonstrate good character. A lot of material regarding the importance of leadership skills is available; however, the importance of good character is worth mentioning.

Good Character

Character defines the person. Hill (2007) defined character as the qualities built into a person's life that determine his or her response, regardless of circumstances. Hill included 49 character qualities to help develop good character. Character is the inward motivation to do what is right in every situation. An effective leader has good character. Character development takes place every day.

Some key leadership character qualities are:

  • Availability – making your schedule and priorities secondary to the needs of the project team
  • Compassion – investing whatever is necessary to heal the hurts of project stakeholders
  • Creativity – approaching a need, a task, or an idea from a new perspective
  • Determination – intending to accomplish project goals at the right time, regardless of the opposition
  • Decisiveness – having the ability to recognize key factors and finalize difficult decisions
  • Diligence – investing time and energy to complete the project
  • Flexibility – being willing to change plans or ideas according to the direction of key project stakeholders
  • Forgiveness – clearing the record of those who have wronged you and not holding a grudge
  • Integrity – adhering to moral and ethical principles
  • Orderliness – arranging yourself and your surroundings to achieve greater efficiency
  • Patience – accepting a difficult situation without giving a deadline to remove it
  • Respect – showing regard or consideration for a person or position
  • Responsibility – knowing and doing what is expected
  • Self-control – rejecting wrong desires and doing what is right
  • Tolerance – realizing that others are at varying levels of character development
  • Truthfulness – earning future trust by accurately reporting past facts
  • Wisdom – seeing and responding to project situations from a perspective that transcends your current situation

Your character determines who you are. Who you are determines what you see. What you see determines what you do (Maxwell, 1999, p. 4). And what you do determines your ability to influence others. As mentioned earlier in this paper, influence is the ability to get others to participate. And you will want your team to accomplish the project goals and objectives.

Leading by Influence

So what must you do to increase your ability to lead by influence?

  • Earn the trust and respect of your team by having good character.
  • Know yourself and become proficient at performing your project responsibilities. Look for solutions, become a problem solver.
  • Get to know people. Work to build good relations. Develop good communications and respond rapidly to project stakeholders.
  • Mentor project stakeholders by making yourself available to dispense advice to solve immediate problems.
  • Coach and develop project team members and then delegate project responsibilities.

In the beginning people will do only what is required. In time, people will begin to see what you do for them and the project and will want to follow you, and will begin to do more than is expected.

Planning—A Major Challenge for Managing and Leading Small Projects

Planning is a major challenge for small projects. Getting the right people together at the right time to discuss the project details can be painful. With small projects, everyone seems to have a solution, and time for planning is often overlooked (Campbell, 1998, p. 1). The first reaction after receiving the small project is to jump right in and start performing the project activities without planning. Even the most experienced project manager has fallen into this trap at least once. Campbell goes on to state that without project management, the biggest risk to small projects is that the scope keeps changing. By not planning, you start out thinking the project is small and then end up hoping that the project really is small. Also, by not planning it is possible to overlook a critical component of the project. The project manager should also make time to plan because the plan provides direction for the project and is a communication tool for the sponsor and other project stakeholders. Planning gives the project the respect it deserves.

A challenge is a call to action. When planning a small project, the project manager should consider a few things (Rowe, 2007, p. 14).

  • Remember to plan. It is easy to overlook the importance of planning on a small project. Add the planning deliverables to your list of project deliverables.
  • Involve in planning the work the people who will do the work. It is easy for you to quickly create a plan based on what should be done, but the people who will do the work have more accurate information on what really needs to be done, how much effort it will actually take, and when they are available to do the work. Without this information, even a small project will fail.
  • Be careful not to overplan or become too detailed. Decide how much detail is required and know when enough is enough.
  • Control the urge to structure the project to overemphasize the elements you are most comfortable with. The result of this can be that you don't give the attention required to the elements with which you are not as comfortable. Remember, don't get stuck on what you know.

Best Practices for Managing and Leading Small Projects

Project management activities may only require a few dedicated hours per week; however, leadership for small projects is more fluid, as the project manager encourages the project stakeholders to work together to accomplish the project objectives. As you continue to work on small projects, you will develop your own best practices. A best practice is something that has found to work over time. Below is a list of standard best practices for managing and leading small projects.

Managing Small Projects

Best practices for managing small projects:

  • Engaging stakeholders early in the project and keeping them engaged throughout the project.
  • Knowing that the project charter sets the stage for project activities; remembering to include input from key stakeholders.
  • Planning to plan and then being prepared to replan. Also including in the planning activities the people who will be doing the work.
  • Keeping key project documents in a project notebook and setting up an electronic filing system at the beginning of the project.
  • Monitoring project progress, responding to variances, and managing change.
  • Making sure the project objectives are met and that the project closing activities are completed.

Leading Small Projects

Best practices for leading small projects:

  • Having good character and leading by influence.
  • Knowing how much process is required for the project and which tools are appropriate, then making sure the team is aware and follows the processes.
  • Creating and nurturing the project vision, and mapping the project objective to the business goal.
  • Identifying project stakeholders and remembering to communicate, communicate, communicate.
  • Holding a project kickoff meeting. Building, motivating and empowering the project team.
  • Using ground rules for your team meetings and facilitated work sessions.
  • Solving problems, making decisions, and handling conflict when it arises.
  • Recognizing the project team members for their contributions to the project.


Managing requires that the project manager plan, organize, direct, and control project activities by developing plans and keeping them current, understanding the needs of the project stakeholders, and responding appropriately. Leading requires interaction with people. The project manager must command authority and be able to inspire and motivate others. The project sets the general direction of the project and allows team members to provide input along the way. During difficult times, the project manager must remain calm and be able to provide solutions to get things back on track.

In order to effectively manager and lead, the project manager must have communication, facilitation, problem-solving and decision-making skills. Because small projects are viewed as easy, they are sometimes used as a training ground to prepare a project manager for larger projects. To become proficient, the project manager will first acquire knowledge—an understanding of the project management theory, processes, and practices necessary to manage projects. Then the project manager will develop the skills necessary to lead project activities.

It is important to be successful on small projects. When a project manager fails on a large project, he or she might get a second change by being reassigned to a small project. When a project manager fails on a small project, what's left? The moral: develop your ability to both manage and lead small projects to maximize your chance of success.


Campbell, R. (1998, October). Small projects, the biggest returns. Proceedings of the PMI Annual Seminars & Symposium, Long Beach, California, USA, 1998. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Christensen, B. (2005). Simple project management: What everyone in your organization needs to know about project management. Retrieved from

Fuezery, G. (1998, July). Managing small projects. PM Network, 12(7) 33–36.

Greer, M. (2002). The project manager's partner: A step-by-step guide to project management. New York: AMACOM.

Hill, T. (2007). 49 character qualities. Retrieved June 19, 2007 from

Källman, A., & Williamson, D. (2002, October). Everything's a project! Proceedings of the PMI Annual Seminars & Symposium, San Antonio, Texas, USA, 2002. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Kerzner, H. (2003). Project management: A systems approach to planning, scheduling, and controlling. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Kroll, K. (2007, July). Small projects, big results. PM Network, 21(7), 28–33.

Mochal, T. (n.d.) Tenstep project management process. Retrieved June 23, 2003 from

Mochal, T. (n.d.) 1.2.1 Define the work/goals and objectives. In Tenstep project management process. Retrieved June 23, 2003 from

Maxwell, J. (1993). Developing the leader within you. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.

Maxwell, J. (1998). The 21 irrefutable laws of leadership. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.

Parth, F. (1998, October) Categorization of small projects. Proceedings of the PMI Annual Seminars & Symposium, Long Beach, California, USA, 1998. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Project Management Institute. (2004). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® guide) (3rd ed.). Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Rowe, S. (2003, September). Project management for small projects. PMI Global Congress 2003 – North America, Baltimore, MD, USA. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Rowe, S. (2007). Project management for small projects. Vienna, VA. Management Concepts, Inc.

Snead, G., & Wycoff, J. (1997). To do, doing, done! A creative approach to managing projects and effectively finishing what matters most. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Watson, M. (2002). Managing smaller projects. England: Project Manager Today Publications.

©2007, Sandra Rowe, PMP
Originally published as a part of 2007 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Atlanta, GA, USA



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