Why Small Projects Take Too Long

Small projects are easy right?

People tend to think that “small” projects equals “simple” projects – but in my experience small projects can be really frustrating to manage and consume a disproportionate amount of time to their size.

Project Managers often need to be quite tenacious and really exercise all of their skills and experience to get them finished. They will often be juggling multiple small projects at the same time or together with a larger project.

In this article I explore some of the constraints on small projects. I also outline some typical types of small project, how they come about, the associated challenges and some strategies for running them.

Note – it should be said, at this point, that size is relative and small in one organization doesn’t necessarily translate directly to small in another organization so you will need to adapt this information to your own organization.

Small project constraints are the same as any other project

All projects operate within a set of constraints in terms of the scope that can be delivered in some timescale to some agreed budget.

Small projects will typically have to deliver a limited scope, but they may have constraints on budget which could manifest itself as follows:

  • Project Management time available is small (say 1-2 days per week)
  • Resources or delivery team limitations such as time available or ability to increase team size or capacity

Limiting the time available on a small project can actually be beneficial as we will see later. This assumes that there are less constraints on budget and scope.

There are also other constraints that impact small projects.

Small projects are often “lower priority” projects

Small projects can often be lower priority projects for the delivery team. This may be fine if the project gradually works its way up the priority list and gets completed as planned. However, this can become problematic if it gets bumped down the priority list repeatedly.

The impact of this could be on other dependent activities and extended timelines for your project.

The Project Manager needs to address this with whoever manages the delivery team and also seek help to increase the priority via the Project Board.

Low priority extends timelines so use time as a project driver

A project with a low priority will mean that time constraints have been lowered, removed or become flexible. Whilst having unrealistic timelines in a project can be a bad thing, having a project with flexible or changing time constraints can also be a bad thing too.

Having a time driver can be really beneficial as a focus for getting a small project done and out of the way.

The Project Manager should do all they can to raise the issue with their Project Board for assistance and also negotiate with whoever prioritises the work in project delivery teams. 

Some typical small projects

There are a number of other types of projects that present challenges for the Project Manager. They are often associated with small projects.

The “unloved essential” project

This type of project may be seen as essential by the Project Sponsor but no-one else involved is bought into it or wants to do it. The Sponsor normally has a good business reason for doing the project but there is a disconnect between the technical delivery team and business viewpoints.

Sometimes you also get a disconnect between the people managing the delivery team and the sponsor.

What you have here is a disagreement in the priority level. This can be even harder if the disagreement is not explicit ie people are saying one thing and doing another – so they may appear to be supporting the project but in reality, they are not backing it. This rubs off on the delivery team and the result is slow delivery, lack of focus and often lots of moaning from the delivery team as they would rather be doing work that they see as higher priority (and so do their managers).

The Project Manager needs to get hold of this and try as many of these as possible:

  • Meet with the Sponsor, Key Stakeholders and Managers of the delivery team to discuss and clarify the priority of the project
  • Question the need to do the project and get it stopped if possible
  • Cut scope to the bare minimum
  • Push to get the project finished and out of the way
  • Communicate any agreements to all involved in the project

The “post-launch phase” project

This type of small project could be a mopping up phase, final phase or decommissioning phase of a much bigger project that has been running for a long time. Typically, the main launch has been completed but there is still a body of work to complete. Often these types of projects are handed over to more junior project managers to complete.

These can often be quite good projects to run but the problem here is that sometimes the urgency element has gone out of the project so getting traction can be difficult.

Another challenge with decommissioning type projects is that they can actually be quite complex and involved to unpick from a technical level.

Another challenge with these types of project is that they are often handed over mid-flight so this process can be a bit messy.

It is really important for the Project Manager to either setup the project properly from scratch or do a project audit to establish the real status of the project and set it up for success. I cover this later in the article.

The “must do but tricky” project

These types of project can be challenging because although the work required may appear to be small in fact it may be tricky, boring, time consuming or just really difficult to do. So, if it is also lower down the priority list too then project teams tend to put it off as long as possible in preference for other more straight forward work.

This can obviously delay the project.

The Project Manager needs to tackle this head on and urge the team to take on the challenge, support them as much as possible, make tea, offer cake or do whatever it takes to get the project done.

The small “nearly finished” project

I’ve been handed a few of these small projects in my time – the ones that I could run in my “spare time” – one of them took nearly 2 years to finish. The Project Manager is taking over an in-flight project, so they need to get a handle on it quickly.

The problem here is that someone has perceived the project as small and nearly finished. You need to go in with your eyes open and make your own assessment of what the true position is.

One really effective approach is to run a really quick project audit – I have outlined how to do this in a later section.

The “important low priority” project

These ones are always a challenge to run. Typically the organization really wants to do the project. They may even have to do the project to reduce business risk, comply with some regulations or some other important reason. However – the importance and priority never really quite makes it far enough up the priority list and so gets pushed back and back. Sometimes the project may have been started and some elements finished but has since sat on the shelf to come back to later.

The only real way to tackle these types of project is the same as the “unloved essential project” ie by trying as many of these as possible:

  • Meet with the Sponsor, Key Stakeholders and Managers of the delivery team to discuss and clarify the priority of the project
  • Question the need to do the project and get it stopped if possible
  • Cut scope to the bare minimum
  • Push to get the project finished and out of the way
  • Communicate any agreements to all involved in the project

How to tackle small projects

There are many ways to tackle small projects, but the key is to run them as you would any other project.

Light weight Project Management process

All projects benefit from using a repeatable Project Management framework or process. This is no different for small projects – it simply means that some of the processes and governance put in place will need to be simplified and pared back to a minimum, but still effective, level.

Starting a small project from scratch

Using a standard planning and startup process will really help the project. This should be documented. The project startup framework should cover the following:

  • Identifying the Project Sponsor and Key Stakeholders
  • Understanding the project requirements, scope and deliverables
  • Defining the project benefits and criteria for success
  • Identifying and establishing the project delivery teams and any suppliers
  • Agreeing the delivery approach, timelines and delivery schedule
  • Setting up a simple governance process

I covered this in a separate post How To Start Your Project Faster.

Once the project is planned and approved to start then the project needs to be managed closely but efficiently.

Taking over projects in mid-flight

Some of the small projects outlined above had the scenario where the project was handed over to someone else in mid-flight – this can be a bit messy but again the project needs to be established or re-established on a solid footing.

If you are taking over the project you need to understand where we are on the project. One method is to run through the Project startup framework and fill out a standard plan to understand the project in its entirety. This may be just for the benefit of the Project Manager’s understanding, but it is really effective for getting to grips on what the project is all about.

Project audit

Another method effective method is to run a project audit.

Asking lots of questions like these can help to understand the true picture:

  • What is the scope of the project?
  • What has been delivered?
  • What is there left to deliver?
  • When is this forecasted to be complete?
  • Do we think we are going to be able to deliver this?
  • Is the team on track to deliver?
  • Are there any issues, blockers or risks to the delivery timeline?
  • What is the project budget, how much has been used so far and is it enough to complete the project?

Simple project governance

On small projects it is essential to run a simple light weight governance process. This will help to tackle the challenges around project prioritization and keep everyone up to date on the challenges of the project.  The minimum governance I would run would be this:

  • Regular Project Report:
    • Weekly or fortnightly (but always done)
    • Issued to Sponsor and key Stakeholders via email
    • Includes Progress update against plan and summary of risks and issues
    • One-page summary should be the max required here
  • Project Board:
    • Monthly if possible
    • With Sponsor and key Stakeholders
    • Progress update against plan, and budget since last meeting
    • Summary of risks and issues and any help needed
    • Decisions to be made
    • A few simple slides should suffice for this

Small projects are fun

As we have seen running small projects has its challenges. However, if they are run in the same manner as any other project, but with a lighter weight set of processes, they can be run quite smoothly and effectively. They can also be quite fun to run as you can run a number of them together and you get the satisfaction of finishing things and moving onto the next project.

How to start your project faster

Getting your project started correctly is the foundation to the future success of the project. If you don’t start the project off properly you will find it challenging to get it back on track later on.

Avoid the temptation to just get going with the project

There is a temptation to just get going on the project without some of the key project fundamentals in place. Avoid this approach at all costs – you will pay for it later.

You may initially come flying out of the blocks, everything will go great for the first few weeks, even a few months, and then gradually you will get into a quagmire and everything will slow down to a crawl. At the start everyone was really excited to be working on something new – but things aren’t going quite so well now.  People are uncertain about what the project is about, where it is heading and who is doing what.

Get the project fundamentals in place

This is actually quite common with projects and even happens with some experienced Project Managers. Most often I have seen this happen when the project has not been setup properly from the start. Specifically – I mean that some of the project fundamentals are not in place. These are typically some, or all, of the following:

  • Unclear business owner (sponsor) for the project
  • Unclear reasons for doing the project
  • Unclear project objectives ie what the project is aiming to deliver
  • Unclear definition of what success looks like for the project
  • Unclear roles and responsibilities on the project ie who is responsible for what
  • Unclear understanding of who the project is for, how they are impacted and what influence they have in the decision making processes in the project

These are the fundamental aspects that need to be understood before you can even start to get deeper into the project planning to understand what the detailed requirements are, what will be delivered and then start to estimate timescales and costs on the project.

Document the key project elements in the Project Plan

Another key point to make is that this must be written down. It is remarkable the number of times that I have seen troubled projects in mid flight without these fundamentals in place, with only some vague or very out of date agreements in place. If it isn’t written down people then either forget some of the specifics about what the project is about, or purposefully change what the project is about along the way.

Changing the scope, direction and deliverables on a project is fine as long as everyone involved understands what the impact of the changes are and agrees to the changed approach. Often these changes are subtle and can appear to be small in nature but when added up they can have a major impact. If nothing is written down there is no reference point for making these decisions.

If you build the project on shaky foundations you are not setting the project up for success and as a minimum the project will not proceed as fast and smoothly as you want and at the other end of the scale can lead to disagreement and plenty of stress for everyone.

So how do we set up the project for success?

Create a comprehensive Project Plan

A Project Plan is more than just a timeline – lets clarify our terminology here – I will call the plan the “Project Plan” document. I have worked in many organisations and the name of this document can vary from place to place. It is also often called a “Project Initiation Document” or PID (a PRINCE methodology term) or sometimes it can be called a “Terms of reference” (ToR), if it is to be used as an external customer facing document it may be called a “Proposal” or even a “Statement of Work” (SoW). However essentially all of these documents have similar content. The purpose of the Project Plan is to outline the key elements of the project.

Project Plan sections

The Project Plan is the written down specification, or shared view of the project and it is used as the reference document on the project so that everyone involved agrees what the project is about and what it will deliver. It can be quite a lengthy document and should have the following sections:

  • Project Overview
  • Vision
  • Business case and benefits
  • Objectives
  • Sponsor and key stakeholders
  • Requirements summary
  • Deliverables and outcomes
  • Main activities
  • Organisation and delivery team
  • Project delivery approach
  • Timelines and schedules
  • Governance
  • Finances
  • Key Risks

Creating the Project Plan is time consuming but worth the effort

Creating (writing down) the Project Plan can be a time consuming and laborious task – this is one of the reasons why it is often done so poorly. It should be written before the project starts but is often written at the very start of the project.

The work, of course, is not just in documenting the plan but in gathering all the information together from everyone involved, then writing it down and then walking it through with everyone again to make sure what you have written down is in fact what they said. Then you have the process of negotiation between all the different stakeholders. Eventually, all being well you get agreement and get the Project Plan signed-off and you can officially start the project.

The process of documenting the plan helps clarify the project itself

There is often huge pressure to “get going with the project” rather than “messing around” writing things down at the start. However the mere process of writing the Project Plan down and getting the agreements in place enables everyone to get great clarity on the project. So it is all about the process of creating the Project Plan and the by-product is the document itself. This pays huge dividends later on in the project. If you don’t do it at the start, then you will end up doing it later on under even more stressful conditions when the project is going off track.

I liken not doing a Project Plan at the start to taking off in a plane with no clear idea on where you are going, how you are going to get there and if you have a enough fuel in the tanks – it might work out but there is a good chance that it won’t.

5 key questions to start your Project Plan

Before you can into the actual planning of the project in terms of deliverables, approach, timescales and cost you need to know 5 key things about the project:

  • Who wants the project?
  • What is the project about?
  • Why are we doing the project?
  • Who is impacted by the project?
  • What does success look like for the project

In order to answer these questions you need to identify the Project Sponsor and Key Stakeholders. They will then help you understand the project Business case and benefits and project Objectives.

These are the first few sections of the Project Plan and it makes good sense to “start at the start”. If you don’t have the first few sections confirmed you are going to have a lot of trouble getting the later sections of the Project Plan agreed and written down.

Understanding the Project Sponsor role

The Project Sponsor is the person who wants the project and is typically the person paying for, or funding, the project. It is preferable to have one sponsor as you have only one person to deal with. Projects with multiple sponsors require more project management time as there is the potential to have conflicting requirements and the potential for people to pull the project in different directions.

The Sponsor may also be one of the main stakeholders in the project (see next section) and they can be seen as the main customer and the key decision maker in the project. It is really important to be clear on who the Sponsor (not always as straightforward as it should be) is and the role they will play on the project. They will set the direction for the project and will help you outline the key objectives, requirements and deliverables for the project. They may have a senior role and therefore be busy and sometimes delegate their responsibilities to someone else in the project. Whatever the position this is a key role for the success of the project.

Identifying the Stakeholders

A Project Stakeholder is anyone impacted by the project. In any project there are likely to be multiple stakeholders. The project manager needs to

  • Identify all the stakeholders or groups of stakeholders
  • Identify which are the key stakeholders (normally the ones most impacted by the project)

The key stakeholders will help you define the project requirements and will help you define how the project will need to be approached. They will also provide you with some of the constraints that the project has to work within.

The Project Manager will work closely with the Key Stakeholders or the people that represent the main stakeholder groups.

Understanding the Business Case and benefits

The Sponsor should be able to articulate the business drivers, benefits and case for doing the project. Often there will be a detailed Business Case that is agreed before the project has authorisation to start (this is often dependent on the organisation or type of project).

The business case should be summarised in the Project Plan. This can then be used as a reference point throughout the project to ensure that what is being delivered matches with what the sponsor requires. If there is a request for change in requirements, deliverables etc. then this should be referenced against the Business Case and clarified with the Sponsor.

There could be many different business drivers for a project. Some of the typical ones are as follows:

  • Improve efficiencies and reduce operational running costs
  • Deliver a new product or service
  • Meet a set of legal requirements, standards or regulations

Where possible the business case should state the specific values such as time, cost saved, revenue expected etc.

Project objectives and defining success

I have found that writing down a really clear set of measurable objectives for a project can be really beneficial. It is then really clear to everyone what success will look like when the project is completed. If done well they should be cross-reference throughout the project to ensure what is being delivered is compliant with the objectives.

The objectives need to be agreed with Sponsor and validated with the Key Stakeholders. They should be stated unambiguously ie there is no room for different interpretations of the objective and typically you should aim for a minimum of 5-7 depending on the size of the project. They are closely linked to the Business case and benefits can be used as a reference framework for creating detailed requirements and definition of scope for deliverables and outcomes.

Next steps – planning the project delivery

With these project planning fundamentals in place then hopefully you can see that you have everything in place to start the main planning activity on your project. As stated if you aren’t clear on who wants the project (Sponsor) and who is impacted by the project (Stakeholders) then it is very difficult to have any meaningful discussions about project requirements and from there drive out what the project deliverables and outcomes will be. From there you can build out the rest of the Project Plan and start to plan timelines and costs.

Good luck with your Project Plan!

Chris Wilson