Best Practices for Managing Small Projects
It might not seem as though rigorous controls need to be applied to small projects, but a small project that goes awry can create a ripple effect of inefficiencies that quickly spreads throughout an organization. The same tools and processes that keep large projects humming along can -- and should -- be applied to their smaller counterparts.
Small projects, though often overlooked, can make up the bulk of the portfolio and are crucial to a company's success. They might not involve large sums of money, but the fact is that if managed improperly, these small projects can add up to some major costs in the long run.
The good news is that project managers need only apply standard best practices to these smaller projects in order to manage them more effectively. Here are the top three best practices that can and should be applied to all projects, regardless of size.
Visibility Into Resource Allocation
Let's say you want to assign 40 hours worth of project work to Jack, and you need him to complete it this month. Before making that assignment, do you know for a fact that he has the time to get it done? Are you sure he isn't going on vacation, working on someone else's project, or spending the month in meetings?
Project managers must know who is available to do the work before they assign tasks to people (or, better yet, before they decide to take on a project at all). Simply assigning tasks to team members without regard for their current and future allocation, including upcoming vacation time, is unwise. The goal might be to complete the project on time, but it will never happen unless the resources are, in fact, available when you need them to be.
Not only should resources be available to do the work, but they should be the right resources. Different projects require different types of employees, such as database analysts, programmers, salespeople, marketing professionals or project managers. For example, if a database analyst is needed for a project, the project manager must have the ability to search for one who is available for the specific time frame.
Managers can also use this data to identify staffing gaps. If Jill is the company's only database analyst, and she's consistently working at over 100 percent allocation, additional database analysts must be hired. Without insight into resource allocation, management might not know that Jill is working too hard until she burns out and leaves the company.
Unfortunately, many project managers believe that they can simply use status emails or Excel spreadsheets to manage the smaller projects. These tools, however, are simply not sophisticated enough to handle project management, even on a small scale.
For one thing, they are not as widely accessible or easily updated as a project and resource management system can be. Let's say a department manager assigns Martha to a new project, cutting her available time in half. Unless this is properly documented and communicated to the entire project team, how will the project manager know to revise Martha's timelines? How will the other team members know that their tasks, contingent upon her work, cannot start for another month?
Resource allocation changes all the time, and project managers need a solution for keeping this information up-to-date and accessible at all times. They cannot afford to have team members working from an older version of the project plan spreadsheet or missing out on crucial emails.
Another important best practice to apply to smaller projects is to open the lines of communication between team members and project managers. Are you scheduling projects that your team cannot finish on time? It can be tempting to just create project plans and demand that team members get it done, but that is a pretty unrealistic expectation that will set you up for project failure and lower employee morale.
The alternative is to allow team members, who are the experts on their own tasks, to provide input on how long it will take them to complete the work. A software developer who has performed hundreds or thousands of similar tasks will be able to tell you right away how long it will take him to write that new piece of code while you, as a project manager, probably have no clue.
It is also important to let team members communicate with you while the project is in progress. Small issues or holdups can snowball very quickly if they are not addressed in time. For this reason, project managers who implement project and resource management solutions should make sure that the solution they choose will give team members the ability to submit requests for additional time when necessary. Everyone on a project team should know what is going on, and changes and adjustments like these should roll up to the general project timelines.
Project Time Tracking
Large and small projects alike are executed in order to bring in a positive return on investment. This return, however, cannot be accurately measured unless project managers know what the full investment was in the first place. In today's business world, project costs correspond with the cost of labor, so tracking time to projects is necessary in order to measure project ROI.
This data is important not only for understanding true project cost, but also for monitoring project status at all times. Keeping tabs on the actual work hours being spent allows project managers to identify and address problems early on, which is absolutely crucial for success.
For example, if 30 percent of a project's allocated budget has been spent and only 10 percent of the actual work has been completed, then there's a serious problem. Project managers who have their team members tracking time to task will find this out early enough to actually do something about it, while those who do not will have to explain to management why they came out over budget. The project might be a small one with a small budget, but cost overruns can add up fast and really hurt the organization.
Applying best practices to projects of all sizes is one of the best ways to drive success. When project managers have visibility into resource allocation, give team members a voice and enforce project time tracking, they are well on their way toward executing their projects on time and on budget every time.
Curt Finch is CEO of Journyx, an Austin, Texas-based provider of Web-based time-tracking and project accounting software designed to guide customers to per-person, per-project profitability. An avid speaker and author, Finch recently published All Your Money Won't Another Minute Buy: Valuing Time as a Business Resource. He authors a project management blog, and you can follow Curt Finch on Twitter.