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Five ways to ensure SME project management success

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The rules of good project management are as applicable to SMEs as multinationals, but SMEs often have an advantage where project management is concerned. Smaller teams and simpler projects make management easier, but failures still occur all too often. 

Project management is a big subject; there are many ways to do it well and even more to do it badly. Silver bullets do not exist, but here are five tips that may go some way to achieving project management success.

(1) If your team has the skills, go agile

Agile is one of the most common project management methodologies. Originating in the software development sphere, it has outgrown its roots to move into other areas of business practice. Why? Because if done correctly agile is often faster, more streamlined and adheres closely to what the customer wants, so the quality of your project is improved.

With agile a project is divided into small parts, and your team’s focus moves from documenting each step you need to take to actually doing the work. By splitting the project into manageable chunks, there’s never too large a gap between what’s required and what’s delivered. The short delivery cycles in agile also mean that projects can be quickly changed and problems fixed; with other methodologies, the need for change can be seen too late, and the cost of it is therefore much greater.

(2) People for the job

Many projects fail because the right people aren’t assigned the right roles. This is especially true of agile, where the philosophy is to empower team members to take action wherever they see the need for it without too onerous an authorisation process. 

Another important factor is that business owners, or an empowered representative, need to be easily accessible to the team and available to make important decisions quickly. In a smaller organisation this could well be the founder or chief executive. Often the time constraints of a senior managerial job mean this access is severely curtailed, so bear this in mind when assigning project roles. Consider appointing an empowered representative of the business owner if regular access to him/her is going to be difficult.

Making sure the best people are managing and running your project from the outset will make the journey far smoother. In a smaller team, this is even more important because project management will be less formalised, but success will strongly depend on the people involved. People are your best assets – make sure the best ones are in the most important roles and empower them to use their talents.

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(3) Stakeholder buy-in

A common problem I come across, is obtaining support from everyone who will affect the project. This applies not only to those who must authorise the project, but all the people whose time and goodwill may be necessary for success, ranging from system administrators to those who control physical facilities such as access to buildings. Remember: you will rarely be the priority for those types of people. Managing this problem successfully boils down to the old adage “do your homework” – there will inevitably be stumbling blocks throughout your project, but with pre-planning these can often be overcome.

For example, if your project takes place on a customer’s site there might be problems ranging from accessing company systems to having enough desks for your team. Are your customer’s staff going to have the time to work with you when necessary, or will they be busy with their own jobs? These are all potential bottlenecks that can be solved or mitigated with forward planning. The full support of senior management is also important; very often their intervention is necessary to authorise the support staff to help the project

(4) Baby steps

It’s tempting to get carried away and focus on your project’s goal to the detriment of its day-to-day running. However, there are many milestones to pass in a successful project. This is particularly true if you’re following an agile framework, as explained above. There are other benefits to managing a project in small steps too, such as making it easy to handle problems and spot opportunities to shorten time scales or prioritise tasks.

(5) Don’t expect perfection

A key aspect of project management is managing expectations – those of your customer, your team and yourself. No project ever runs perfectly, but it’s better to make imperfect progress than no progress at all, and it’s important that inevitable setbacks do not affect team morale or client relationships. 

Openness, foresight and transparency are necessary to keep everyone on track, and there also needs to be two-way communication between the project manager and team members. Getting good people on your team pays dividends here: they’re less likely to be put off by problems, and with experience, will understand the blocks that might slow a project down and how to avoid them.

Francis Miers is director at Automation Consultants.

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