Project Management Institute

Managing small projects

by Geza Fuezery, PMP

NEW PROJECT MANAGERS are often overwhelmed by the vast amount of knowledge that has been collected and can be applied in project management. Even experienced project managers sometimes face a dilemma, when running smaller projects, as to what portion of their routine tool set they should apply. With the full set applied, productivity and profitability may suffer; with no controls applied, the project may be a failure. The focus of the project management industry is mainly on the large projects that can provide many lessons to all of us, and rightly so. The problem is, however, that cookbook tips for smaller projects are rare. Here are some practical tips on what is vital when managing small projects and what may be handled more casually.

Are There Small Projects Out There? Yes, and plenty of them! Despite the lack of focus on small projects by the industry, a study by RHI Consulting (see PM Network, November 1996, p. 43) indicated that 88 percent of those companies that intended to add IT staff in 1997 had 100 or fewer employees. This, by itself, means lots of new, small projects. Also, the need for project management is gaining recognition across all industries. With the world around us clearly getting projectized, the supply of trained and skilled professional project managers cannot keep up with the demand. This necessitates that more and more “technical” people become familiar with project management principles and take on managing projects. Indisputably, the number of small opportunities that require project management is growing.


What Is a Small Project? There are only subjective answers to this question. To me, a three-to-five-month duration, $300,000 budget project with a staff of three-to-five is a good example of a small project. For organizations handling long-running, capital-intensive outsourcing projects the answer may be much different. An indication of a small project situation may be remarks like these by the sponsor: Why do I need a project man>ager to do this? We need some structure here; can you come and help us to start? John, Liz and Kathy will help you with this; can you get it done by the end of next month?

The really important thing, however, is not to label it small or big, but to recognize the initiative as a project. The definition in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge clearly states: “a project is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product or service.” Every time you start an assignment, even if you are the only person involved, consult this definition and do not hesitate to recognize and run your assignment as a project—apply the project management framework to it! For the novice project manager, this is an invaluable opportunity to build a standard project management tool set that will be readily applicable to future projects. For the experienced project manager, it makes the smaller project a routine job to manage. Also, it provides the opportunity to fine-tune those project management areas that have not been strong points in recent assignments. There are two further characteristics of small projects that make the recognition and the proper running of them particularly important:

Success expectation. For a small project, this is always 100 percent. Because the undertaking is considered to be relatively simple, usually with few resources, anything other than a totally successful delivery is seen as failure. And failure with a small project looks far worse than with a big one.

Skills development. Small projects provide excellent opportunities for new or less experienced project managers to develop or enhance their project management skills, and to prepare them for the big tasks.

Do Project Management Processes Apply? Yes! All project management principles and processes can and should be applied to small projects, too. It is the extent of their application that can be tailored to the size of the project. Let's look at the processes in the PMBOK Guide knowledge areas for applicability to small projects:

Project Scope Management. No compromises here; every step has to be executed. If the scope is not properly defined, documented, and changes to it maintained, it may be very difficult for a small project to justify missing the original date, budget (because of changes, retrospectively viewed as very minor—if remembered at all—by the client). For small projects, the effort to manage the scope can be minimal, though—scope definition may be just a few lines. The emphasis is on getting it done properly.

Project Time Management. Some kind of schedule activity list is unquestionably needed. The rule still applies that, for control purposes, work must be broken down to the level where activities do not exceed one week in duration. Depending on the extent of the project, it may not be necessary to use an automated, sophisticated management tool; manual scheduling and controlling may be appropriate. But it is essential that control of the schedule be maintained.

Project Cost Management. At planning time, it is often said that the small projects are included in some departmental budget, so the project manager need not worry about costs. Don't believe it! I have yet to see a small project where costs didn't really matter. In most cases a simple spreadsheet will do for both planning and controlling the cost management effort.

Project Quality Management. Whether the project is small or large, quality is important. Everything said about quality management in general is true for small projects. Of course, not every small project environment is ISO 9000-compatible, and it may not always make sense to apply sophisticated methods to plan quality for smaller situations, but the trio of planning-assurance-quality must be observed. Quality must be planned in, not inspected in. In small IT programming projects, for example, plan according to the answers to questions such as, What standards are applied to design, coding, documentation? To what extent does the programming methodology ensure stable code? For the novice project manager, small projects are the way to recognition and bigger assignments, and delivering excellent quality will help to build that reputation.

Every time you start an assignment, even if you are the only person involved, consult the PMBOK Guide definition of a project—and don't hesitate to recognize and run your assignment as a project.

Project Human Resources Management. Organizational planning and team development may be trivial exercises for small projects. With small projects, I usually concentrate on staff acquisition. I look for a firm commitment of the resources. In many small projects, resources are assigned to the project on a part-time basis. As soon as there is another critical situation, or just a workload issue, the small project disappears from the priority list in an instant. (This is particularly the case with internal company resources. With a contractor, there may be legal issues, so it happens less frequently.) Try to anticipate what is coming by knowing what's going on in your teammates’ lives outside the project—an important aspect of team development.

Project Communications Management. This is a vital area regardless of project size. At least two communication channels are extremely important:

Small projects tend to lack visibility. Performance reporting is an excellent means to let the world know that the project is alive and that valuable work is being done. Be meticulous with reporting. Make sure performance reports are short and to the point, but make sure they are there. Avoid the temptation to just drop in at the sponsor and chat a little about progress—words disappear into thin air; you may not have a chance to regularly drop in due to your sponsor's busy schedule; you may catch your sponsor at a bad time or in a bad mood. Just-dropping-in can be used as a good complementary method to formal reporting, but should not replace it.

Closure to big projects comes almost naturally; not so with small projects. In many cases, work just stops being done, or the last stitches are left to the project manager to work on. Wrong! This is how individuals end up with life-long jobs, or, at the very least, working on past topics long after becoming involved in a new project. Take the time to formally close the project, however small. Write that closing report to let the world know that the project has been successfully completed. It is in your best interest.

Project Risk Management. This is also indispensable in small projects. Consequences of adverse events may impact smaller projects to a lesser extent (less money lost, smaller delays of deliverables, and so forth), but the expectation of success for small projects is much higher; therefore, the project manager should be prepared to avoid or avert failure. Risk identification and quantification are a necessity. One-page risk profiles, rather than complex calculations and forms, can be used effectively. In most cases, the forms can also contain the risk responses.

Project Procurement Management. This is an area that seldom plays a role in small projects. If resources (including people) are to be obtained from the outside, the project manager is typically involved in the planning step (preparing the statement of work and specification of requirements for the resources). Most organizations have functional units that deal with procurement; the project manager can rely on them for most small projects.

Project Integration Management. Even small projects need the full project management cycle implemented; the only difference may be the extent to which automated (and sophisticated) tools are used to do the job. To increase productivity, it may be a good idea for the experienced project manager still to use the customary tools and be selective in the features rather than thinking of something different just because the task at hand is smaller. Since managers of small projects do not have the luxury of a Project Control Office performing most administrative tasks (such as plan maintenance), any tool is welcomed. A manual integration method is also fine, as long as the cycle is followed.

Documentation is one project management aspect that is not a separate major project management process, but is embedded throughout the whole project. Documentation has particular significance for small projects because it is usually neglected, and often omitted. To neglect documentation is a big mistake, for which the project manager could pay a price later. PM Network published an excellent article by Michael G. Petko (“Documentation, Documentation, Documentation,” September 1996) summarizing the kinds of documentation that are critical to the success of any project.

The Role of the Project Manager. Managing a small project is rarely a full-time occupation. Instead the small-project manager generally falls into one of two categories:

He or she takes on this management in addition to participating in the technical project work and performing tasks like any other team member. Frequently a technical expert has the project leadership role assigned because of either the small proportion of management tasks relative to the technical aspects or the unavailability of other project managers. He or she is expected to fully return to the technical field after project completion. A common pitfall in this situation is that the project manager gets bogged down in the task work and does not give enough attention to managing the project. The first warning sign is when a status meeting is skipped or a report is delayed because “I did not have time to do it; it was more important to have this critical piece tested.” At this time, the person in the project manager role must step back from the details and return to management mode.

He or she takes on a portfolio of small projects, managing each in part-time mode. For a professional project manager, this is what I recommend. It may be interesting to delve into the technical world occasionally, but I believe that, from the personal development point of view, it is much more beneficial to build up a project portfolio and obtain the experience of managing multiple projects. The challenge here is to find the optimal number of projects to take on and still bring value to each of them.

MANAGING SMALL PROJECTS is somewhat different than managing large ones, although the same project management processes need to be applied. In small projects, however, the extent of applying those processes is more limited. It is the project manager's productivity decision whether to apply the full repertoire of processes and tools, selected components, or a manual management system. In any case, the project manager must ensure that all nine project management knowledge areas are considered when managing a small project. ■

Geza Fuezery, PMP, a senior project manager with IBM Canada Ltd., has over 16 years of experience in managing small and large projects. He is a member of the Southern Ontario PMI Chapter.

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PM Network • July 1998



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