Planning Successful Small Projects

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By Jason Hecker

Being a Project Management instructor I’m often asked how we can use PM methodology to manage small projects*.

*As a point of reference, I typically characterize small projects as those that are (give or take) less than a month in expected duration and have no formal allocation of budget or human resources.

The biggest challenge with small projects is that they’re tough to bring back into control if we experience schedule slippage. In many cases we fill the roles of both the Project Manager and the project executioner, hence we can’t just throw additional resources at project activities when they fall behind schedule.

Consequently, before I begin a small project, I really need to make sure it is set up for success.

My “Set For Success” Tool

As a result, I’ve developed a 5 step “filter” that helps me determine if my projects are “ready to go”. If I can’t answer “yes” to all five of the following questions, I have to consider what needs to happen in order for me to turn the “no’s” into a “yes”.

If I’m unable to turn a no into a yes, then I know I need to proceed very cautiously – possibly breaking the project down into even smaller phases and timeframes (where I can get “yes” answers to all five of my filter questions.)

1. Does it have a clearly defined goal AND deliverable?

A project’s goal and deliverable are different.

A goal is an objective, an achievement, a level of performance, or an outcome. We use goals to describe a project’s overarching purpose. They tend to be wide-reaching and related to management and/or client expectations.

A deliverable, on the other hand, is an output or a product of a project that enables the goal to be reached. Deliverables are typically tangible.

Before I begin planning my small projects, I have to have a clear understanding of both the project goal (or goals) AND deliverable. Otherwise, I’m likely to run into issues like scope creep, schedule slippage and stakeholder dissatisfaction.

2. Does it require a planned sequence of activities?

Basically, what I want to know is: Do I have a project – or just a to-do list?

If the activities can be done in any particular order – without any time or resource constraints, I’ll just go ahead and schedule them on my Outlook Calendar.

However, if certain activities have deadlines and are dependent on other activities – I know I have an initiative that needs to be planned carefully.

3. Is it clear who the requestor (sponsor) is?

Have you ever tried to coordinate a project where upper management has no enthusiasm or support for the initiative?

If so, then you know why I always make sure I know who the specific sponsor is for my projects.

By definition, the project sponsor is the stakeholder that provides the authority and resources (financial and otherwise) for a project to begin.

One of the first project activities I do is develop a chartering document that highlights my understanding of the project deliverable and constraints. I then send that document to my sponsor for approval – hence the reason that I can’t begin a project if I’m not clear who the sponsor is.

4. Is it clear who the Project Manager is?

Unlike some Project Managers, I actually enjoy working on projects where I’m not the PM – as long as there is a designated leader. But if I’m responsible for the project deliverable, then I need the authority that comes with being formally named the Project Manager.

Projects without a project manager are like the proverbial ship without a sail. Without individual accountability, efforts are likely to be wasted — resulting in more work and reiterations than necessary.

5. Finally, is the initiative unique?

This is my final filter question, simply because I hate recreating the wheel. If this is an initiative that we’ve done before, I want that information ahead of time.

When I have a series of activities that I can confidently sequence and estimate the effort and costs needed– I have a process. I love processes!

As anyone who’s put together IKEA furniture can vouch – the eighth IKEA chair is much easier to put together than the first – because by the time we get to that eighth chair we understand all the steps that needs to be done. The first chair was a project – the eighth is simply a process.

Using My Filter

This filter may seem like a challenge at first – since we often feel pressure to begin project work as soon as possible and not look for reasons to actually delay project planning. Yet when we take the time to ensure that our projects are set up properly in the beginning, we are rewarded with more efficient and effective project execution.

What questions do you have – and what strategies do you use?

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