The Top 6 Challenges of Managing Small Projects
Small projects are the often forgotten middle child of the project management world. Despite small projects making up a significant amount - globally - of all projects put into action, it is often only the more complex, and exciting, large scale projects that garner any attention. Even outside of individual companies and in the wider project management community, small project management tends to be ignored.
Think, for every article and how to guide on project management, how many feature smaller projects? Not many.
Despite their size, there is a lot to love about managing a smaller project team. A small project often means you can have much more of a direct impact on its outcome. Alongside improved communication channels and interpersonal team relationships, due to the fewer people to oversee and coordinate - and that’s before factoring in the shorter duration and greater project simplicity.
Still, as with all projects, there are a number of unique challenges that small project teams face. Becoming aware of the most common issues arising when managing a small project can help you come up with creative solutions when leading and negotiating the project work. Luckily for you, we’ve listed the most common obstacles facing small project teams, and how to overcome them, below.
The Irreplaceable Individual
Within a smaller project team, each team member must be utilised to their fullest capacity in order to complete the project within a deadline. Often with team members having to use a technical expertise outside of their usual roles, or donning multiple hats at once. However, as utilitarian as this is, it can quickly become problematic if one of your team members falls ill or takes a day off work. Throwing your project timeline out of whack and forcing dreaded scope creep.
Outside circumstances, like illness and emergencies, are, unfortunately, outside of your control, and could have a huge impact. Establishing open communication channels from the outset and regularly scheduling progress with each of your team members can mitigate the surprise of a suddenly abandoned work schedule. However, some creative risk assessment strategies are needed to truly minimise the risk of the irreplaceable individual.
TIP: Although planning for what if’s may seem less important within a smaller team, as team members are better able to assess and communicate potential risk quickly, setting up risk prevention and mitigation procedures are still vital to small project leadership. Without being over optimistic, try to set goals and task deadlines prematurely, to leave some breathing room in case another team member needs to pick up the slack.
Utilising Critical Path project management methodology is beneficial for planning projects that lack an overabundance of resources. Its structure, organising tasks by duration, can help to reduce the potential impact of the irreplaceable individual by prioritising the longest tasks first.
Fewer Specialised Roles
As I briefly touched upon above, smaller teams require solo members to use a broader range of skills in order to cover multiple functions. Although the variance in skill levels and overlapping roles create a viable opportunity for growth and teamwork, the lack of intimate technical knowledge can also present a rather large pitfall. With a lack of expertise or technical skills in specific areas, the project team may become reliant on outside specialists for certain information, which can compromise efficiency and add a substantial financial burden to the project budget.
Unless you have the opportunity to recruit a specialised small project team, calling in an outside expert is often a necessity, as trying to fill the gap with someone who isn’t as trained or as knowledgeable in the role could compromise a project beyond repair.
TIP: So, whilst hiring a specialist isn’t ideal, it often isn’t a compromisable point. Assessing your project plan and pinpointing where specialist knowledge may be needed can help to mitigate costs by allowing a clear oversight of where help is and is not needed. Similarly, pairing a team member up with the specialist, or creating a training plan, can provide a valuable opportunity for your team members to develop their skill set.
Choosing team members that are flexible enough to cover multiple roles, or comfortable enough with the specific aspects of your project to be able to properly assist out of team experts, will also benefit.
Increased Accountability for Project Manager
Whilst being a PM on a small project team provides the opportunity to realise a greater impact on the direction and success of your project, it also means more work and greater accountability. With the increased oversight that managing a small team brings, if the project fails or falters, there’s nowhere else to look but you.
Although the responsibilities of a project manager on any size project can be vast and diverse, on small project teams it is not uncommon for the project manager to pick up the slack across multiple, disparate roles, even if it is not your strength.
If approached intelligently, this can be a platform for a great project manager to demonstrate their strength in a difficult role. Equally, however, it can expose the weaknesses of a project manager who is underprepared and leading without a true understanding of the client’s business.
TIP: Preparation, as always, is key. In order to excel at leading a small project team, even across an industry or subject matter you are unfamiliar with, you must ensure that you are fully briefed in the client’s business, objectives and targets. Learn as much about the client and the industry as possible before project kick off.
Obviously, I’m not asserting you should become an expert in a matter of days, as well as the impossibility of it, a significant amount of learning must always occur on the job. But, approaching the project with an open mindset, and seeing a lack of knowledge as an opportunity to educate yourself better, can make up for a lack of particular expertise. To misquote Socrates, the only true wisdom in project management is knowing you know nothing.
Increased Workload for Project Manager
As I touched on briefly in the previous paragraph, just as it is necessary for your project team to don many hats, it is equally, if not more necessary, for a project manager to. In a smaller team there are fewer people to delegate tasks to, meaning that alongside your specific responsibilities, you may also have to carry out the less exciting administrative tasks, such as compiling progress reports and checking time sheets.
A problem with this is that it could mean spending less time away from your team, and more time with your head in paperwork. A potential solution is to ensure that your team are somewhat knowledgeable, if not trained completely in project management methodologies. A training programme like PRINCE2 Foundation offers an accessible course in the basic tenants of a universal standard of project management. Having a project team that is aware of management processes could lessen your workload considerably.
TIP: You need to be realistic, not optimistic, from the outset how many roles you can take on and complete to a high project standard. When drafting up your project plan document, take the time to truthfully assess the effort and potential duration of all the work items and duties, ensuring you only take on as much as is possible.
More importantly, don’t be afraid to open up a line of communication with your management and be frank about the demands of the project, especially if your workload is becoming unmanageable. Asking for part-time support from your boss, or to loan a colleague from another team, can make all the difference.
Limited Attention From Senior Management
Unfortunately, it is the bigger projects that tend to receive the most attention and oversight from senior management as they often have more at stake than the smaller projects. Although this can be a positive, as you have more freedom to manage without the involvement of senior management, it does become a challenge when you require a decision from a project stakeholder and their attention is diverted elsewhere.
TIP: Project success can be made or broken by the backing, or lack, of an engaged sponsor, and you owe it to your team, and your project, to address this potential obstacle quickly and directly. Communication is an essential skill for project managers, and clearly articulating how much attention and support your team will really need throughout the project lifecycle, to stakeholders and steering committees, is necessary to set an important precedent.
Resources are Tighter
As smaller project teams are less of a priority, the lion’s share of distributable resources will be shared out amongst the larger projects. Even your own project team may be redirected if a bigger project dictates it. Not only does this have a noticeable effect on the functioning of the project, but could also decrease team morale. Most people would prefer to work on a project where they feel valued and are receiving something of value in exchange for their effort or time, such as recognisable experience.
TIP: A strong and cohesive project team is the driving force of any project, and as project manager, you are in a prime position to establish a strong and healthy working environment. Spending the time to build your team morale and interpersonal relationships is an investment that always comes with big returns. A good leader possesses the skills to inspire and motivate their team and encourage their best work. Continuing to highlight the importance of the project to your team, setting up regular check-ins and performance reviews, can help to better engage your people.
Moreover, remind senior management of your project’s benefits and objective purpose, so resources aren’t taken from you.
Completing a project can be exhilarating, but focusing totally on the destination and not on the journey can lead you into one of the many pitfalls described above. Working as a small team can provide a number of opportunities, but to properly take advantage of all a small project can offer, you must be aware of the potential challenges along the way. By incorporating these actionable strategies into your project planning, you can safely lead your team through to project success.
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