Project Management Institute

Small projects, big results

Small projects may not seem all that complicated, but project managers still need to consider planning and process.

by Karen M. Kroll // illustration by Fredrik Brodén




That doesn't mean you can skip over the planning phase and dive right in, tempting as it might be. Small projects may not be as glamorous or prestigious as their larger counterparts, but they're still important— and still require project management.

“The most common mistake people make when executing small projects is thinking that because of the small amount of effort required, the project doesn't need planning at all,” says Roberto Toledo, PMP, managing partner at Alpha Consultoria, a project management consultancy in Mexico City, Mexico.

Project managers who opt to cut back on project management principles run several risks, says Margo O‘Farrell, a teacher of project management at TAFE Tasmania, a training organization in Tasmania, Australia.

First, if the project manager becomes ill or otherwise unavailable, the project will probably come screaming to a halt. Ms. O‘Farrell speaks from experience. In 2003, she was the project manager within the Tasmanian Department of Premier and Cabinet for a nine-month project aimed at—appropriately enough— developing resources specifically for small projects. For several months during that period, however, Ms. O‘Farrell was out due to illness. Fortunately, the project proceeded. The other team members “did a fabulous job in my absence, all due to the fact that we had comprehensive planning and project management discipline,” she says. “If the project planning and documentation hadn't had any rigor to it, the other team members would have had far more trouble knowing what had to be done and when.”

Failing to apply project management principles can also result in a lack of executive commitment, Ms. O‘Farrell says. If team members aren't giving the project an appropriate amount of attention and planning, senior management probably won't take it seriously either.

A project manager's reputation may be at stake, too. Small projects are often used as a training ground for larger ones, says Sandra F. Rowe, PMP, a senior project manager at Blue Cross Blue Shield in Detroit, Mich., USA, and author of Project Management for Small Projects [Management Concepts, 2006]. “If you're on a smaller project and fail, what's left? The moral: Use project management tools to maximize your chance of success,” she says.

It's All Relative

Of course, it's always helpful to know what exactly defines a small project. No strict guidelines exist. After all, a project that's small for a multinational corporation could be quite the grand undertaking for another organization.

What's more, accurately classifying a project by its size requires assessing more than just the timeframe and budget. A project sizing calculator used by the government of Tasmania takes the following factors into account:

  • Budget size
  • Team size
  • Execution time
  • Solution complexity
  • Schedule flexibility
  • Strategic importance
  • Level of organizational change the project is likely to prompt.

Some projects, for instance, may have relatively paltry budgets, but will spark deep changes throughout the organization. When this is the case, it makes sense to apply project management principles with more rigor than might be needed for a project that affects just one department.

Accurately gauging these factors can help project managers avoid being misled by first impressions. Some projects that initially appear minor can actually be quite involved.

Earlier this year, Ellen T. Vitt, PMP, a project management consultant based in Kauai, Hawaii, USA, started work on a project overseeing the installation of an exhibit about metallurgy in the ancient Middle East at the Museum of Man in San Diego, Calif., USA. Compared to some huge construction project, this undertaking, with a timeframe of several months and a budget of about $1 million, wouldn't seem all that massive. However, it consists of nearly 20 sub-projects, including monitoring copyright and permissions; translating exhibit panels from English into Spanish; building out the exhibit hall; overseeing fabrication and delivery of display cases to house the exhibit items, some of which date back 6,000 years; developing education programs; and installing additional security systems at the museum.

So even though the project isn't all that massive, Ms. Vitt is diligently using A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) to assist in formulating the processes and strategies she uses in areas including scope, time and cost management.

Ms. Vitt learned the hard way how those “small” projects can turn into a big deal. She once received an assignment over the phone from a producer in England who wanted her to put together a film shoot in one week's time. “He asked, ‘Could you arrange for a little bit of props and a little talent?'” Ms. Vitt says. It seemed like a fairly simple affair. It was only after she received the script that she realized the film was set in 1963. “I was stunned,” she says. The project may have been fairly small in size, but she only had a week to track down actors as well as search for vintage cars, costumes and props. Tapping into her project management skills, though, she succeeded—and ensured a happy ending for the movie.

flying solo

Some projects are so small the team consists of just one person. If you're that person, it can be especially tough to crack down and institute all the project management principles. “When you're a team of one, you won't always have someone constantly asking to see project management deliverables,” says Sandra F. Rowe, PMP, Blue Cross Blue Shield and author of Project Management for Small Projects.

Try not to succumb to the allure of skipping over steps—you need to be disciplined. “It's easy to tell yourself that you know what's going on and you have everything under control,” she says. “However, if you don't plan, you're guessing about much work you have and how much time you have to complete it. If you guess wrong—and this often happens—you're faced with the embarrassment of having to explain why you missed the deadline.

Of course, if you're the only one on the project team, you do have some flexibility that you otherwise might not be privy to. Within reason, you probably can set the schedule so the work fits well with your other responsibilities. Be prepared to keep yourself motivated, monitor your progress and maintain the project documents. Otherwise, it's easy to let the project and schedule slide.

Also, resist the temptation to focus your efforts on the areas in which you're strong and avoid ones in which you're not, Ms. Rowe says. To prevent this, seek input from others, even if they're not part of the official project team.


If you're on a smaller project and fail, what's left? The moral: Use project management tools to maximize your chance of success.
—Sandra F. Rowe, PMP, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Detroit, Mich., USA

Big Payoff

Even when a project is relatively small, the objective can be substantive. Dirk Vermeeren, marketing consultant at Saudi Aramco in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, is working on a team charged with planning a three- to four-day leadership meeting slated for November. The invitation list includes about 100 Saudi Aramco managers from several departments, including refining, marketing, distribution and shipping. Although the project clearly doesn't have the magnitude of building an oil refinery, which Mr. Vermeeren also has managed, it's of clear strategic importance to the company.

On one level, the project requires securing food and lodging for the attendees. But the project's true deliverable is to develop a meeting format that “will facilitate the various organizations to come together, develop a common view and align their business processes so that they work more closely together,” Mr. Vermeeren says. “It's applying project management to drive organizational change.”

Given that Saudi Aramco employs about 54,000 people, driving change across the organization requires a concerted effort. Leading the charge, Mr. Vermeeren has put together an agenda that includes exercises designed to stimulate discussions and highlight synergies among various departments.

Scope It Out

Managing a project of any size requires first determining the answer to two questions: “What is the definition of success? And what can go wrong?” says Elaine Krazer, PMP, president of Pentri Training, Dallas, Texas, USA. Having identified the objective, project managers must define the project parameters. “Even on a small project, you need to manage the scope,” Ms. Rowe says.

Last year, Dulce Morales, PMP, managed a project to develop a project management office at her company, Sistemas CBT, a provider of human capital management solutions in Mexico City, Mexico. From the outset, the scope and schedule were clear: The $25,000 project was to be completed in eight weeks. To keep things on track, Ms. Morales scheduled two three-hour meetings each week.

By establishing the goal, defining the scope and developing a schedule and budget, she was able to manage the project effectively. “I had project control at all times,” says Ms. Morales, a mentoring services manager and project administrator manager at the company.

Operating without the project management framework would have made it difficult to determine if the project succeeded, she says, because the goals wouldn't have been clearly defined. The timeframe and costs also could easily have expanded without benchmarks. And little problems would have had a greater chance of growing to the point that they interfered with the project.

Just the Right Size

All of this is not to say a smaller project requires the same magnitude of project management as a larger one. “The extent to which you document the project and communicate can change,” says Felix Olivares, PMP, vice president of Latin America IT at Stanford Financial Group, Panamá City, Panamá. “But, you still have to manage every dimension: time, human resources, scope, cost and quality.”

Mr. Toledo offers this guideline: For projects lasting one or two weeks, he and his colleagues allot one or two days for planning. When the timeframe increases to four to five weeks, they devote about three days.

The amount of planning and process should be proportional to the project's scope. “You don't want to do so much planning that you don't get to the work,” Ms. Rowe says. “You don't want too much process.” For instance, on some small projects, project managers may want to trade in the complicated project management information system for a simple spreadsheet.

Mr. Toledo relies on three documents when managing smaller projects. One is what he calls the project agreement, which outlines the goal, major resource requirements, main restrictions, assumptions and risks. In place of a formal schedule, he develops a detailed list of expected deliverables. Finally, he creates a matrix showing each team member's roles and responsibilities.

Developing a work breakdown structure is as important on small projects as on large ones. However, a simple system, such as a list classifying activities and the people responsible for each, will probably suffice.

For each project Ms. Vitt manages, for instance, she organizes team members according to the work they'll be performing and the time they need to show up. That way, workers—many of whom are independent contractors rather than salaried employees—know exactly when to report in and the scope of work to be performed.

Finally, once the project is under way, project managers must find ways to keep team members focused on the goal— which can be particularly tricky on small projects. “Since it is a small project, team members tend to wander around, caring more about other daily activities or bigger projects,” Mr. Toledo says. To prevent this, he schedules regular meetings. They can last just 30 minutes or so, but happen frequent enough—perhaps daily—to keep everyone motivated and progressing. “Let them know that it's a small effort, but important,” he says.

Even on a small project, you need to manage the scope.

Sometimes it's the small things that help companies reap the big rewards. PM


Karen M. Kroll is a Minneapolis, Minn., USA-based writer who focuses on business, finance and technology.

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.




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