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Project Management for SME’s – not just for the big boys!

By Bob Lewis-Basson

Effective project management is fundamental to the success of all businesses, large and small. The process and results have an impact on many key areas – business growth and development, staff motivation and staff development.

Projects do not have to be capital intensive or complex but have a number of key characteristics:

1. response to a business need – obviously, but it is important to be clear about the business need. What are you trying to achieve?
2. a temporary activity – it has a clear start and end point. At some stage (and that needs clarity) the resulting process/product becomes part of the work activities.
3. a unique activity – there may have been something similar in the past but this is not part of the regular work activities.
4. there is uncertainty – risk – which needs to be managed.
5. normally involves other people – internal or external, requiring team and communication skills, and a defined project manager.

There are many training courses and qualifications available to develop project management skills, for example, PRINCE 2 is a well recognised project management qualification (PRojects IN a Controlled Environment – www.prince2.com). However, for small businesses the cost of these opportunities is often prohibitive. They also require a level of time commitment which is often impractical for the smaller business. By applying a logical and structured approach to their projects all businesses can achieve the results they require.

The first point to recognise is that project management is both an art and a science:

o Art – the project manager role of leading people
o Science – applying the process with appropriate tools and techniques

Which is the most complicated? Often the ‘art’ because leading people usually poses the most challenges.

But let’s start with the ‘science’ – the process. In my experience of working with large corporate organisations and small local businesses, applying a logical 5 step process will help achieve a successful outcome:

1. Define your project – we have mentioned the need to be clear about what you are trying to achieve and that requires identifying the project goals or objectives. SMART is a well known acronym to help you structure your goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timing). A key problem with projects is managing expectations and the ‘Realistic’ element of your goal setting will be identifying what the project will and will not do. It cannot be ‘all things to all men’ or will lose focus and therefore effectiveness. This is the ‘scope’ element of your project and, in my experience, is the biggest cause of project failure.

Writing down, and getting agreement to, what the project will and will not cover is critical before moving forward.

Other aspects of the project to consider at this stage are:
o Alternatives – what are the options?
o Costs and benefits – depending on the most effective option
o Timescales
o Responsibilities – who is project manager and what other resources will be required
o Risks – to the project success – identifying mitigating and contingency actions

When the ‘definition’ has been agreed by key stakeholders then you can move onto stage 2:

2. Planning – this requires scheduling of activities and resources to meet the agreed timescales. There are a number of tools you can use – Gantt charts and Critical Path Analysis are well known tools – but an Excel spreadsheet is often sufficient. It is important to share and get agreement to your schedule to ensure other people involved know what is expected of them and by when. The Planning stage will also identify ongoing support required after project closure.

3. Implementation – you’ve planned the work, now it is time to work the plan! Regular updates of progress are a key part of the project manager role. Depending on the project, this is likely to be the most time-consuming stage and will require close attention to the people and process side of project management.
Full implementation may have been preceded by testing and/or piloting to ensure the final product will meet the business needs.

4. Closure – bring the project to a close by handing over to the business ‘owner’. The result becomes part of the regular business process or offering. Part of the project manager role will have been to plan for any training etc.

5. Evaluation – often not done by any business, large or small! Have we achieved what we set out to achieve? What went well? What could we do differently next time? Celebrating success and sharing in the learning so that the business and its people can continue to develop project management skills.

The ‘art’ side of project management is the project manager role of leading people and, as we have seen from the process described above, requires many organisational and inter-personal skills and characteristics:

o Effective communication
o Delegation
o Integrity
o Enthusiasm
o Team building skills
o Problem solving skills
o Influencing and persuading
o Organising and planning

Project management can be a great opportunity to develop staff and give them additional responsibilities. It can also be an important tool to help identify future managers and key staff to develop the business.

In my experience, leading and managing a successful project is one of the most rewarding activities in the workplace.

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