How to Make Project Management Best Practices Work in a Small Organization

One thing I've noticed about smaller organizations, though, is that beneath that layer of enthusiasm lies a company in need.  They often lack structure, but that may not really be their primary need.  Indeed, too much structure will stifle the efforts of those entrepreneurial spirits running the show at a smaller, startup-type company.  But they are almost always in need of more efficient processes and some organization.  Their wins are often coming by luck, because they're too busy innovating and meeting growing customer demands to actually track what's working and repeating those steps again.

Setting the stage

So, as a project manager or incoming consultant, the best thing you can offer to a smaller organization is an injection of project management best practices.  How you do that and what exactly those best practices are may indeed be somewhat dependent on the organization, the industry, and the state of the projects that are in progress or ready to start.  From my past experience, what I've found these organizations need quickly are:

Customer education.  Sit down with each customer for the small organization and explain what changes will and are being made to make their projects more successful and the PM oversight more accountable.

Injection of successful project management processes.  Next, rollout PM best practices within the organization and on the many projects being executed.  This likely will involve some teaching and learning and it will definitely take some refinement over time.  Eventually it will be second nature as project successes become more frequent with more PM structure.

Project management oversight of the development process.  To further ensure a tighter ship and more successful PM practice, I highly recommend initially having heavy oversight of the development team by project management.  I've seen it work in smaller startup-type situations…I've made it work personally in smaller startup-type situations.  When you must inject better processes and you must turn projects around quickly, it may be your only choice.

The best practices

We've discussed some quick actions to take to roll out best practices into a small organization where they were previously needed but lacking.  Now let's consider what those best practices should be for the small startup-types...

Consistent project status reporting.  Come up with a fairly standard project status report and stick to it.  Include project status, key dates, key tasks and assignments and outstanding issues.  Include all key information for both your team and your customer and provide it on a weekly basis to every stakeholder on the project.

Consistent project status meetings.  Hold weekly meetings with your team and customer on the project.  Adhoc meetings are ok and often necessary, but relying on them all the time can be annoying and can lead to decreased attendance and, subsequently, decreased effectiveness.

Detailed budget management.  Manage the project budget tightly.  Too many PMs shoot from the hip in small organizations because they're given too much freedom.  And then they wonder why the project failed because it went way over budget. A budget that is watched carefully, reforecasted consistently, and reported on relentlessly can never get too far out of hand.  Don't let the financials be the reason why your project failed.

Use of a collaborative project management software.  I highly recommend going web-based for a project management tool, but it's imperative that it be a collaborative tool.  In a smaller organization like the ones we're discussing, everyone is wearing multiple hats and often working long hours.  They also may be very decentralized – they may often be very geographically dispersed.  Many small organizations don't even have a headquarters yet.  So a powerful, inexpensive, and web-based project management tool that allows the team to gather, share documents, update tasks, etc. on their own without the obligation of running every piece of information through a central PM figure will ensure that the project is well-managed in real time.

Summary
While there's no way to guarantee project success in any organization – big or small - no matter what you do, utilizing PM best practices will always provide some level of benefit to the projects being managed and the organization as a whole.  Communication is improved, customers are more comfortable during the engagement, and the project staff is usually able to work more cohesively as a unit focused on the overall goals of the project.  Injecting PM best practices into a newer, smaller, growing organization will help that organization retain customers and develop into a mature organization that can regularly and successfully deliver on projects in the future.
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