12 Good Reasons You Are Struggling With Small Projects

“Why am I still having problems with small projects?

This plaintive question is one I’m asked from time to time. I’d like to give a few brief reasons why project managers struggle with small projects.

Photo courtesy of iStock.com.

Photo courtesy of iStock.com.

1. You think small projects are simple. In general, smaller projects have less risk. However, some small projects touch a complex set of variables.

Be sure to analyze the complexity of the project. For example, you may engage your team to draw a context diagram and/or a data flow diagrams early in the project. This exercise allows the team to understand the context of the project.

2. You don’t have a project charter. Project managers are assigned small projects at the last minute with a tight deadline. Rather than discussing the project with stakeholders and documenting the business case, problems, goals, and deliverables, the project manager hits the ground running. Later, stakeholders demand costly changes.

Make it a priority to engage your key stakeholders and develop a project charter. This exercise will provide a good foundation and reduce the changes later in the project. For small projects, the project manager should be able to create a charter in a short order.

3. You are applying the wrong level of rigor. I see two extremes in small projects: First, project managers do not follow any methodology. They throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Second, project managers take a sledgehammer approach, checking off numerous tasks usually performed for large, complex projects.

Keep it simple. Determine the steps you plan to take and develop the planning documents that will provide true value. Execute and stay with the plan.

4. The Project Sponsor is invisible. Many small projects have no sponsor at all. The organization may assign a sponsor, but the sponsor has abdicated his role to the project manager or someone on the team.

If you don’t have a sponsor, solicit a fitting sponsor. Discuss with the sponsor their role and ask for their commitment.

5. Your team has been poorly staffed. Small projects often get the leftover resources. Any warm body will do…or will it?

For all projects, define the required knowledge and skills. Seek to staff the project team accordingly.

6. You are not performing project risk management. Yes, small projects typically have less risk. This does not mean there are zero risks.

Risk management should not take much time, but be sure to integrate risk management in your project activities. Simple qualitative analysis should be sufficient for evaluating the risks.

7. You are not performing change management. A stakeholder asks for a change in the scope. It’s not a big change. You say okay.

Users request additional changes over time. The cumulative effect becomes significant.

Decide up front how you will manage, track, and report changes. When is a change order required? Who has to approve it?

8. You are managing a project no one cares about. Projects are selected arbitrarily in informal environments. The project does not align with the company’s strategy. The team knows the project is a low priority and give it little attention.

This is a management issue. Management should establish a project selection committee that reviews project requests for strategic alignment.

9. Your project team is too large. The project is a small project, but it impacts several areas of the company. Everyone feels like they need someone on the team. You have fifteen people on the team when a handful will do.

Create a small core team. Make sure the team represents the primary stakeholder groups. You may wish to create a supplemental team of individuals who may be engaged as needed.

10. You are using the wrong tools. Some project managers spend more time setting up their tools than managing the project.

Keep things simple. For example, rather than using complex scheduling tools, you may use Excel or Trello.

11. You are managing too many projects. Some less experienced project managers may be assigned numerous small projects. The project managers may have difficulty prioritizing and juggling the management activities resulting in wasted time.

The person or persons responsible for assigning project managers should be careful to assess each project, estimate the time required by the project manager, and maximize project management resources. Monitor success rates for small projects and make adjustments as needed.

12. You have not identified the important stakeholders. It’s a small project. Surely we know who the stakeholders are…or do we? We are tempted to skip the stakeholder identification.

Don’t make the common stakeholder mistakes. Small projects can touch a complex set of variables. Neglect in identifying and managing the stakeholders can be costly later in the project.

Be Faithful in the Small Things

Take a minute to review this list. Do you need to let go of some misconceptions and make some behavior changes, however difficult that might be? Create some new habits. Don’t allow yourself to slip back into old unproductive behaviors.

Question: What other problems would you note for small projects? How should project managers address the problems?