Top-Five Tasks in Managing Small Projects

Almost all companies I consult with appear to have tools and processes set up for managing large projects. The assumption, whether stated explicitly or implied, is that large processes can be trimmed down for small projects. However, I observed in many places that managers forget to trim the general-purpose tasks down and spend time on unnecessary tasks. Further, they do so using  tools that are primarily developed for large and complex projects.

The purpose of this blog entry is to share my recent experience in managing a small project and the project management tasks & tools that helped it become a success story.

I will loosely define small projects as those where the team size is under 10 people, budget is under $1m and duration is under one year. The projects I am referring to are hardware/software/service development projects.

Here are the top-five tasks & the tools for them:

1) Actions and results tracking: An Excel-based spreadsheet that is updated regularly is the top tool for tracking actions and the responsible team members. The spreadsheet needs to be accurate, clutter-free and relevant. This is not the place to maintain the history of the project or fill it up with minute task details. Once an action is complete, it comes off the list. Follow-on actions and new ones should be added as they become necessary.

2) Schedule tracking: A simple, milestone-driven schedule is sufficient. The important point is to make the team members aware of the milestones and their role in achieving each milestone. I use a whiteboard with the upcoming (within the next 4-6 weeks) milestones in the project lab.

3) Team communication: Frequent and to-the-point team meetings and teleconferences with remote development partners help the team remain informed and up-to-date. When team members are spread all over the world, teleconference and Webex are very effective tools that facilitate this task.

4) Executive updates is a crucial part of project management, whether it is a small or a large project. I find “casual” updates to executives the most effective. These are typically done by the coffee machine or water cooler, by walking into their office, chatting over lunch, so on so forth. In addition, a one-page regular update is useful and effective because it forces the communicator (project manager) to be concise and has a better chance of being remembered as opposed to a multi-slide presentation, which typically puts the listeners to sleep.

5) Configuration management: At the project level, a top-level configuration summary is very helpful to the team, which moves fast and deals with frequent updates. An Excel-based spreadsheet is sufficient to maintain the system-level configuration. Specific configuration management tools are used by disciplines (eg. software, firmware, drawings, etc.) as part of the organizational quality procedures.

I hope you find this article helpful. If you have any questions or comments, I would be happy to hear them.

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