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6 Common Challenges in Managing Small Projects (and how to overcome them)

Small projects are often seen as less important than larger projects, which get a lot more internal promotion and attention.

But, smaller projects are often the building block upon which later bigger projects are built on. They also carry their own set of unique risks and challenges specifically because they are smaller in scopy. It’s the smaller projects that will often experience scope creep and come off the rails precisely because they aren’t seen as high up on the agenda.

Let’s take a look at six common challenges posed by smaller projects, and how a project manager can address them in order to deliver the project successfully.

1. The project method doesn’t get scaled

Some businesses are using project methods that are inflexible and difficult to scale down and whilst project management methodologies like PRINCE2 are very scalable, some PMs will still tend to write off any application of methodology as being too unwieldy and bureaucratic for a small project. They may recognise its value in larger projects with big teams, able to fulfil all of the required roles individually, but the methodology must adapt to fit the flexibility and limited team size and budget associated with a small project. Light touch management is often equated to a play it by ear attitude.

Simply put though, project management methodology is irreplaceable and should be adapted not abandoned in the case of smaller projects.

In fact methodologies like PRINCE2 have been designed and adapted over time to be totally scalable method in which almost every aspect of the project organisation – for example documents, stages, defining roles and responsibilities – can be adapted for a smaller project team.

2. Lack of buy-in from senior management

Even a project with a modest budget and no compelling need for senior input needs a senior management sponsor and buy-in from the organisation. Sometimes, projects that don’t seem particularly crucial turn out to be a key forerunner of another, larger project. Projects that don’t have senior management engagement soon stall. They become an easy target if resources are needed elsewhere and it becomes difficult to deliver key pieces of work. In the competition for resources within the organisation, the PM can often find it harder to get bids prioritised.

The key to overcoming this challenge is to emphasise the business case and the reasons the organisation decided to fund the project, not just during the planning phase but throughout the project. Communication to the project board, whilst not overbearing or excessive, should be regular and succinct. The influencing and persuading strategies of a good PM will really come into their own in small projects, where attention and budget can both be in small supply.

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3. Scope begins to creep

When a project is small, it can be subject to scope creep as the organisation adds extra jobs into the project. While these would be ruled out of scope on a larger project, on a smaller one they may escape formal notice. Organisations sometimes find that a small project that was regarded as not worth worrying about has quite rapidly spiralled out of control. Without any changes to the business case, it may have become a much bigger project with a much greater scope.

An agreed project methodology, even though it is scaled down, will prevent this from happening because changes will have to be documented in a change log. At that point, they will also be costed and as the costs rise, so will the attention being paid to the not-now-so-small project.

4. Small teams can be subject to pressure

A small project team can be a stressful place to work and staff may even have welfare issues as a result. This kind of pressure can lead to dissatisfaction and the departure of key team members. This risk should be recognised formally and added to the risk log for the project. Mitigating measures might include stress audits or informal one to ones.

Because there is far less slack in a small team, it’s important not to plan the project too tightly. Make sure the project plan allows for holidays and down time, otherwise the team will be permanently trying to catch up.

Smaller teams are more vulnerable to staff absence so it’s useful if some members can cover more than one skill area and wear multiple hats when required. Whilst it’s unlikely they’ll be experts in many areas, having a broad overview of how processes and systems work across the business areas the project is covering, is gold dust.

Finally, good leadership remains more essential than ever even with fewer team members, as keeping up morale during challenging periods and inspiring loyalty will both be inevitable challenges for the PM.

5. Specialists are hard to access

It can be hard for smaller project teams to get access to specialist resources. There won’t be enough work to justify hiring a contractor or a seconded resource from the main organisation. And the project will find itself at the back of the queue for scarce IT and other resources because bigger, higher profile projects are being sourced first.

The remedy for this lies in project initiation where resources, or the budget to acquire them, need to be identified and approved.

6. Communications and engagement are neglected

These softer areas are as vital as any other deliverable because they ensure acceptance by the business of the project outputs. So scale them down rather than leaving them out and use communication methods that require the least resources while reaching the largest number of people. When there is less vested interest from corporate sponsors and the project board, then it’s important that communication is maintained at all times.

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