Project Management in Small Business

A project manager working in a large corporation will find no shortage of articles and resources to help them in their work. More are published each month, quarter and year; authors and their online critics argue about the roles of the project manager, business analyst, stakeholders, etc. Discussions are peppered with a wide, but very specific, set of terms and concepts: PMO, Six Sigma, PMBOK, and Agile. The reading list aimed at project managers in smaller businesses is very sparse. The small company project manager is typically a one-man band. He may employ a range of excellent methods, but he has little time for acronyms. The only black belt this person wears holds up his pants and phone holster.

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Smaller companies operate in an environment very different from those described in glossy business magazines. The project manager in such organizations is the project coordinator, business analyst, and project (as well as program) manager. She writes the scope statement, negotiates with the stakeholders, estimates the cost, schedules the work, and ensures a smooth execution. She also negotiates any changes with the stakeholders and asks for final payment at the end of the project.

Oh, I forgot to mention, this person generally manages multiple projects simultaneously.

Project managing for a small business is an exciting experience. The demands are overwhelming. The environment tests the project manager’s ability to apply project management methodology in an organization that may not have one. These challenges are also dynamic, changing with the company. As one veteran put it, ?just when I have the existing personnel all using the same project completion methods, we add staff in a big way.? If she is to be successful, she will need to create or adapt methods that work for old and new staff alike, while providing additional support to the new folks.

Such challenges also have their rewards. Project managers truly own their projects. As one project manager, a transplant for a large company, remarked, ?In a small shop, you are the front line. All plans and details come to you. You learn every detail because you have to. There is no one else to follow up on milestones. The only delegation is for your team to complete their portion of the project.?

In large companies and small, project managers set the methodology. The difference is that the tools all seem to focus on the larger, more structured, more richly-resourced environment. The PMBOK, for example, offers a wealth of information. Small project managers should not ignore these tools. They need to adapt the information they contain for their very different business environment. It is a major challenge, but one which can yield rich rewards. One good starting point for adaptation is change process. Small businesses often miss opportunities to increase project revenue and protect (or enhance) margins because they lack of an adequate change process. Create one if one does not exist. The process does not have to be complicated, but it does have to capture scope changes in ways which support a business case for a budgetary adjustment. Consistent communication leads to a habit of enforcement.

Project managers also have to learn and teach team-building techniques. Most small companies do not have formal training programs. It is up to the project manager to set the guidelines for team functionality. There are only a few people on any project team. Each person is a specialist and knows the role they play. They can directly address scheduling milestones. They personally agree to them. The project manager can add value up-front by teaching how each member’s role affects the overall project. The project manager cannot assume that the four or five people on the team know what each other are doing and how it affects the overall project. She cannot rely on the ?high-ceremony,? high overhead processes that make sense for larger project environments. The project manager must take the lead in ensuring the team is communicating throughout the project, so that individual efforts remain properly aligned.

Some project managers never leave the small business environment. They like the immediacy and chaos that is part of the lifestyle. Project managers in this environment are creative in developing efficiency techniques. In my most recent role, we were forced to develop and test new techniques in the midst of our busiest season, for example. Our team was small enough to be flexible, improve techniques, and apply them overnight. We didn?t have a host of acronyms, but we were able to use the good practices embodied in brand-name processes, together with our own good sense (and sometimes senses of humor) to get the job done.

Project managers in small business will continue to adapt, innovate, and achieve. The project management community should pay more attention to us, the project managers in small business. Among us are a great many well-tuned, if seldom heard, one-man bands.

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Neil P. Posnansky, PMP, is Vice President/Principal of Right Track Business Services, Inc. Right Track consults on operations and project management development for small and medium size businesses. Mr. Posnansky served in the roles of Director of Operations and Director of Project Management in the low-voltage electronics industry since 2000.