Should we apply large project ‘best practices’ to small projects?
A common question about project management is whether the best practices that are applicable for large projects can be applied on smaller projects. This is a really important question and one which all project managers must face up to when managing small projects.
Focusing on project delivery
One of the arguments against using project management methodologies is that they are very process-centric resulting in vast quantities of project documentation which are simply not practical or desirable on small projects. This is a powerful argument and any method which focuses on producing documentation at the expense of delivering the real business benefits of the project will be a hindrance rather than a benefit. After all, the name of the game in project management is delivering business objectives, not producing reams of documentation. That said, the crux of this particular arguement often stems from a misunderstanding about how project management methodologies should be used. One of the principles of the PRINCE2 methodology, for example, is that it should be tailored to the project environment; project managers should therefore tailor the amount of paperwork generated, to the requirements of an individual project.
There is an ongoing and active discussion within the software development community about the best way to produce software on projects. More recently, some software professionals have argued for more agile methods of producing software rather than the more traditional heavyweight methods which focused on producing vast quantities of documentation.
Agile methods focus on delivery of software rather than documentation. With this in mind, project managers everywhere can learn something from the agile methods employed in software development. In short, this leads us to focus on project delivery rather than project documentation, although the critical choice project managers everywhere need to make is how much documentation is really necessary?
Apply the best practices
The simple answer is that you should only be producing as much documentation as is necessary to deliver your project successfully; nothing more and nothing less. A simple rule of thumb states that if it is useful in helping us to deliver the business objectives of the project, then we should produce it. If it is not useful in helping us to deliver the business objectives of the project, then do not waste time with it. With this in mind, we should aim to apply in all projects, regardless of their size or scope, a minimum number of project management best practices.
Let us consider the best practices in turn and see whether or not the overhead lost in applying best practices is worth the benefits which can be gained.
Defining objectives and scope
Even on the smallest project there will be objectives which must be achieved. As a project manager, it is in your interest to define what these objectives are since you are likely to be assessed on whether the project meets those objectives. It is your responsibility to ensure the project meets those objectives and you are accountable for this. In short, as our friends in America would say: the buck stops with you.
Now suppose you do not define and write down what the objectives are? You are always going to be at the mercy of the project sponsor or of any stakeholder who decides they want more from you. The defined and documented set of objectives is your insurance policy against anyone later coming along and saying you did not meet the objectives.
However, there is another reason why you still need to define and document the objectives even on a small project. You want to satisfy the needs of the stakeholders since that is what you are paid to do as a project manager. If the objectives are not defined, then you will not be able to meet those needs through your project.
The same can be said about defining the scope of your project as this forms the boundary of your work. If you do not define what it is, the likelihood is that it will grow as the project progresses. Although you might have started managing a very small project, it could become very much bigger than when you set out.
You still need to document who the stakeholders are on a small project as well. By defining who they are, you can ensure that you cover all of their needs when you define the objectives and deliverables.
Somebody is going to have to carry out the actual work to produce whatever is delivered from your project. Even if the deliverables are small and do not take much time to produce, they should still be written down. By documenting these things and then having them reviewed by others allows any errors to be identified at an early stage. Your aim should be to document a detailed enough set of descriptions so there can be no doubt about what products are to be delivered.
These descriptions will then be used by the people who will produce the deliverables. Even if these descriptions take no more than a page of text, it is important to write them in a clear and unambiguous way. If you do not write down a description, it means that the person making the deliverable can interpret what is required in unexpected ways. This will only result in work being done later to correct the mistakes. So, always define and document the deliverables.
If you were to walk up Mount Everest, you would never do it without a considerable amount of planning. Even if you walk up the hill at the back of your house, there is probably some planning involved: what time do you go and what should you take with you? It is the same on even the smallest project. You will still need to work out which activities are required to produce a deliverable, estimate how long the activities will take, work out how many staff and resources are required and assign activities and responsibilities to specific people.
All of these things need to be written down and communicated effectively to the project team members. It is easy for a project manager to become unstuck because they think they need to use some kind of project management planning software such as Microsoft Project. This may be an unnecessary overhead on a small project. An alternative for small projects could be to create a bar chart in Microsoft Excel or even just running a timeline within a spreadsheet. This approach is simple and often more than adequate for small projects – the most important thing is that the information is being tracked in a professional, organised way that can easily be shared with other members of the team.
Regardless of which piece of software you use, do not forget to document the milestones on the project. Milestones are the dates by which you need to deliver certain things, or the date on which a major activity ends. The responsibilities of each project member should also be documented in the plan.
Even in the smallest project team, where there may only be a project manager and one other person, the project manager will still need to assign tasks and responsibilities to the other person. It cannot be assumed that they will know what they should do without it being communicated effectively. If the project manager does not assign them specific activities, then the chances are they will go ahead and work on things which are not needed by the project. So, either the project will end up delivering the wrong things, or it will get delayed since time will need to be spent later on doing the activities which should have been done earlier.
You can communicate the plans via email, or give a print-out of the plan to your project team member(s). Better still, call a meeting and run through the plan with everyone. Remember, if the plan changes, you will also need to communicate the changes to your team as well.
Tracking and reporting progress
If we still consider our two person project team – the project manager and one other person – the project manager will need to know the progress of the activities which the other person is working on. This can be done in a variety of ways: a short daily email detailing the work completed, the work still left to do, and a list of any issues or problems. In most cases this will be sufficient.
Alternatively a short 15 minute meeting (either by phone or face-to-face) can accomplish the same thing. Or a combination of the two things might be best. In any event, the project manager needs to be fully aware of the progress that is being made so that deliverables can be tracked effectively.
Even on our two person project, changes are likely to occur. Requests for change usually come from stakeholders and it is your responsibility as project manager to assess the impact of accepting these into the project. To do this, you need a good estimate of the impact the change will have in terms of the extra effort and cost involved. This will often impact the schedule as well. By having a clear understanding of how the schedule and budget will be affected, you can make the decision as to whether or not you will accept the change into your project.
On a small project there should not be any need for a change control board to decide if the change is accepted. A quick discussion with the key stakeholder(s) should be sufficient for you to come to a decision, providing you have worked out the impact on cost and schedule.
One thing you should never do is simply accept the change. Even if you think the change is small, you should never accept any change(s) without fully understanding what its impact will be on cost and schedule. That is a recipe for what we call ‘scope creep’ where the project grows bigger and bigger as more and more changes are added into the project. Before you know it, your small project has become a much larger one and you will inevitably fail to deliver your project to your original budget and schedule.
There will be risks even on a small project but the overhead in managing risks is very low. Make sure you have thought through all the potential risks at the beginning of the project, monitor the top ten risks each week (or top five if the number of risks is small) and keep looking out for new ones. Failing to manage risk properly is one the main causes for projects to fail.
With a little up-front and ongoing effort, you get a big pay back if you manage the risks throughout the project, as your work will run so much more smoothly.
What are BIG’s tips for using best practices?
Applying the best practices, even to a small project, can be done without creating too much paperwork or overhead. The best practices are the things which countless project managers have done on thousands of projects and are deemed to be the ‘best practice’ because they tend to help you to achieve the best results. In the PRINCE2 methodology, this falls under the principle of the project team learning from past experience.
Do not make the mistake of thinking that, just because you are managing a small project you can ditch these best practices. If you do, you will almost certainly regret it later when your project inevitably gets into a mess.