Project Management Institute

Custom fit

Smaller organizations can benefit from all that project management has to offer—once they get over their fears of complexity

custom fit

BY SARAH FISTER GALE ILLUSTRATION BY MATT KENYON

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Big organizations worldwide understand the value that project management best practices bring to the bottom line and have created formal methodologies and career tracks.

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), on the other hand, often lag behind, dismissing project management practices as too complex and requiring too much overhead for their leaner operations.

And that puts them at a disadvantage, says Philip R. Diab, PMP, CEO of Leadership Formation, a management consultancy in Amman, Jordan, and author of Sidestep Complexity: Project Management for Small- and Medium-Sized Organizations [PMI, April 2011].

“SMEs have this idea that in order to be successful in practicing project management, you have to be able to deal with all of these complex concepts, tools and methodologies,” says Mr. Diab, a former PMI chair. “This misconception scares them away from project management.”

Such fears are unfounded, though, he adds, because project management is not simply about tools but an approach to management. Smaller organizations can reap huge benefits from implementing even the basics of project management.

Developing simple processes for scoping projects, identifying risks, and keeping project teams and stakeholders focused on common goals can enable small businesses to cut time and waste from the project development process by eliminating mistakes and standardizing repeatable processes. Even those SMEs with limited cash flow can reap benefits from a small initial outlay.

»Smaller organizations can reap huge benefits from implementing even the basics of project management

“It's not about investing in expensive tools and complex methodologies so much as it is about changing the way you look at your business,” Mr. Diab says. “Project management helps organizations adopt principles based on best practices and build a roadmap for success.”

But first they must invest time and effort into developing a project management process that has enough structure and transparency to expose inefficiencies—without the red tape that can hinder improvements.

“In the end, good project management is about achieving results,” Mr. Diab says. “Forget the buzzwords and focus on how successfully delivering projects will make customers and stakeholders happy.”

To do that, begin by looking at your corporate culture and how likely it is to embrace project management. Gain an understanding of what needs to be changed or fixed in the organizational process, as well as how change most easily can be adopted at your organization.

“For some companies, it is dictated from the top, while in others, you need to build grassroots support,” Mr. Diab points out. “Understanding the culture helps you position the change so it will be accepted.”

SMEs often have a harder time indoctrinating project management into the corporate culture—particularly when a small group of key employees juggle multiple roles and resources are scarce, says George Bock. He is COO and principal of ZenoLink LLC, an Endicott, New York, USA-based motion-analysis software technology start-up focused on biomechanics.

“You are never too small for project management,” he says.

Sometimes taking a pared-back approach to project management is the best strategy. For Mr. Bock's company, that means project teams don't spend a lot of time developing up-front project plans. Instead, they set broad project targets, then focus much of their project management process on quality control and testing to ensure the deliverable meets customers’ needs.

“For us, testing is more important than planning because we can't afford to put a product out there that's a flop,” Mr. Bock says.

The challenge is finding the balance between too much management and not enough. Because he runs a small enterprise, Mr. Bock doesn't use a steering committee or a project management office. However, the company's three corporate leaders review all key milestones and determine whether projects get the green light.

“We keep it simple and we make quick decisions,” he says.

Simplifying project management processes also was a priority for the founders of Gist, a Seattle, Washington, USA-based contact management software development company. When it set up shop in 2008, Gist implemented a slim project management methodology based on agile processes. The development team produces product releases every two weeks, and uses short status reports and 30-minute stand-up meetings three days a week to keep everyone on track and connected—without bogging down project teams with excessive meetings and paperwork.

Prior to each stand-up meeting, everyone on the team sends a simple status report with two sections: what he or she did since the last report, and what will be done over the next couple of days.

“Sharing this ahead of time keeps you from having to share all the details in person,” says Robert Peas, vice president of marketing at Gist.

At the meetings, “we resolve things quickly and dynamically using a simple framework and few bullet points,” he explains. “When you know you only have a few minutes to update the team on your status, you become very efficient.”

Project management is even more important in a start-up, Mr. Peas says.

“Once you scale up past five or six people, you need that structure or you lose alignment and your interdependencies fray.”

Thanks in part to their project management processes, Mr. Peas’ 25-person team was able to develop and release a professional contact management software product in a small amount of time. That attracted interest from the marketplace, he says. The company was acquired earlier this year by Research in Motion, which developed the BlackBerry smartphone.

IT WON'T KILL INNOVATION

One of the biggest challenges SMEs face in implementing project management is overcoming resistance at the leadership level, says Curt Finch, CEO of Journyx, a time-tracking and resource-management software company in Austin, Texas, USA. Entrepreneurs tend to be risk-takers who abhor formal structure, he says. “They think that too much process will kill their innovative environment.”

Many SME executives see project managers as process police who stifle creativity, slow progress and say no to good ideas.

The reality, however, is that project management helps these organizations develop innovative ideas by building on fruitful processes and weeding out inefficiencies.

“Project management creates structure around commonality—and that's where profit and value come from,” Mr. Finch says. “Project managers are awesome at that.”

Being a visionary is not enough to achieve success, Mr. Diab says. “You need organization and structure to bring that vision to market. To do that requires project management skills.”

In the last few years, Mr. Finch's company has worked to improve its project management processes, with a particular focus on identifying and dealing with risk. While evaluating the company's project management processes,his team came to a stark conclusion: “We were doing a poor job of risk management,” he says.

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Project management creates structure around commonality— and that's where profit and value come from.

—Curt Finch, Journyx, Austin, Texas, USA

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TECHNOLOGY, TRUST & TRANSPARENCY

For many small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs)— particularly those with virtual teams—adding simple tools and technologies can help employees make the transition to implementing project management processes, says Taylor Vogt, Gomez Palacio, Durango, Mexico-based operations and customer service director at Crooner Labs, an online content-distribution services company. He relies on a low-cost suite of project management tools to manage his virtual project teams.

“Project management is vital in a company like ours,” he says. “It creates order and structure so we can be more innovative.”

Using software to track progress and increase collaboration has led to transparency and better communication among virtual team members, without adding complex process and oversight.

Team members are encouraged to spend part of each day pursuing independent tasks that promote the broader goals of their projects, such as participating in conversations in Internet marketing forums or searching for public relations opportunities from the website Help a Reporter Out. They are free to choose those tasks themselves, but are required to report to the team daily, updating colleagues on what they are working on, what they've accomplished thus far and how those tasks align with the project.

“No one is looking over their shoulder, but everyone knows what everyone else is doing,” Mr. Vogt says.

The project management tool and reporting process creates a balance of accountability and freedom that appeals to the organization's innovative approach to business. It also prevents duplication of efforts on self-defined tasks. For example, if one team member reports that she is blogging to generate traffic to the company website, another team member may instead focus on investigating new technology solutions.

“As long as we all communicate, it creates complete transparency,” Mr. Vogt says. “That is vital for a virtual team to work.”

It was common practice at Journyx to make broad assumptions about projects without evaluating whether all the relevant data were present. For example, when rolling out a product to a new industry, team members didn't research potential buyers or put much thought into the marketing message.

“We might roll out a campaign based on assumptions of who or why the customer buys the product, only to find out the assumption is all wrong,” Mr. Finch says.

In response, team members took a step back and began incorporating discussions about risk into the project planning process. This has helped team members scrutinize their assumptions more closely, so they ask more of the pertinent questions on the front end.

“Just talking about risk management opens you up to possibilities you hadn't thought of,” he says. “It makes you more critical and causes you to ask questions you wouldn't normally ask.”

»For more on incorporating project management into smal and medium-sized enterprises, read A Closer Look.

His organization now performs more intense research before launching projects.

“It may take longer to get campaigns rolling,” Mr. Finch says, “but they are certainly more effective. Team members are also doing a better job of understanding whether the opportunity is large enough to deserve their attention.”

ONE SIZE CAN FIT ALL

Whether they're setting up simple project management templates or tackling more complex processes and tools, SMEs should always remember to keep their own needs and business goals in mind.

“Small companies don't have the time or money to make mistakes and do reworks. Project management reduces those risks, and in the end, everyone benefits,” Mr. Bock says. “When you find the project management pieces that work for you, it pays back in dividends.”PM

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

PM NETWORK OCTOBER 2011 WWW.PMI.ORG

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