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Project Management for Small Business isn't boring!

Updated on March 29, 2015
Project Management for Small Businesses
Project Management for Small Businesses | Source

How project management can help your small business

Great products, services and processes are at the heart of every successful small business. Developing your ideas into something that you can sell requires effort, discipline and a guided framework to get things right: that framework is Project Management.

Project management can help you manage many aspects of your small business including product development, testing, customer service, advertising, marketing, payroll, invoicing and other business processes. Used well, it's an excellent way to refine, tweak and create more effective and efficient ways of doing things.

Don't be put off by the rather grandiose title of 'Project Management', it's not something that should scare you. At a basic level, it’s really about applied common sense: knowing and planning what needs to happen when, who should do it and what you expect the outcome to be.

In this article we'll explore some of the main concepts of project management in a small business including:

  • What is project management?
  • How does it all fit together?
  • What does a project manager do?
  • Tasks and To Do Lists
  • Resources and software applications for project management

Benefits you'll get from reading this article include:

  • Finding out about the key parts of a successful project
  • Learning how project and task management can help you achieve your business goals
  • Discovering how everything fits together
  • Download and try out software to help you with project and task management

Project management is simply applied common sense, with a sensible approach and ways of doing things
Project management is simply applied common sense, with a sensible approach and ways of doing things | Source

What is Project Management?

Project management is a vast subject and there are hundreds of books, training courses, online resources, methodologies and more dedicated to teaching people how to become good project managers. Although you’ll certainly learn a lot from reading books and getting training, there are some simple elements of project management that you can learn without formal courses.

Definitions of what project management is include:

'Project management is the discipline of planning, organizing, motivating, and controlling resources to achieve specific goals.' - Wikipedia

‘At its most fundamental, project management is about people getting things done.' - Association for Project Management

'It’s a temporary group activity designed to produce a unique product, service or result.' - Project Management Institute

Let's explore some of the key elements that make something a project; projects are:

  • Temporary
  • Unique
  • Constrained
  • Planned
  • A series of steps
  • Outcome based

A project is 'temporary' and doesn't go on indefinitely

Projects don't last for ever (although some of the bigger ones can take years). Projects should have a defined beginning, when work starts, and a planned end, when work is delivered and everyone is (hopefully) happy with the results.

Projects are 'unique', not 'Business as Usual'

There are generally two types of business activities, 'Business As Usual' and 'Projects':

  • Business as usual - Ongoing business functions and processes that need to take place for a business to function (e.g. manufacturing, administration, financial control, employee processes, customer services etc.)
  • Projects - A project has unique outcomes. It doesn't produce the same things time after time, but has distinctive inputs (time, money, requirements, resources), processes (planning, project management, analysis, testing, implementation etc.) and outputs (milestones and deliverables)

Projects are 'constrained' by time, resources and scope

A project is 'constrained' or bounded by several areas:

  • Time - Most projects have to deliver something in a planned, specific amount of time
  • Budget / Resources - There is only a finite amount of money or other resources that can be spent on a project
  • Scope - The 'Scope' is exactly what a project impacts and delivers and is generally what the project is setting out to accomplish

These three things together are known as the 'OTOBOS Triangle' - On Time, On Budget, On Scope and if you can deliver a project to those three things, you are doing well!

The center of the OTOBOS triangle is 'Quality' and you generally can't affect one point of the triangle (e.g. Time), without also impacting the quality of the project (for good or bad).

You can mitigate this by changing one of the other points on the triangle, so for example if you reduce the time, you can maintain quality by also reducing scope or by increasing resources.

The OTOBOS (On Time, On Budget, On Scope) Triangle for Project Management
The OTOBOS (On Time, On Budget, On Scope) Triangle for Project Management | Source

Projects are 'planned'

All successful projects have a plan, created at the beginning of the project and regularly reviewed and updated as the project continues. The plan will normally show:

  • What needs to be accomplished (scope, outcomes and quality)
  • Key deliverables (what's being created) and milestones (goals and deadlines)
  • Who is performing the various tasks (resources)
  • Time expected to be taken (cost and hours spent)
  • What is happening and when (timing)
  • Dependencies (if something relies on something else being completed)

Project plans can be as simple as a document that lists everything out, as complicated as a repository of documents or anywhere in between, as long as it serves your purpose. Project Management software will often output project plans as 'Gantt Charts'.

An example Gantt chart
An example Gantt chart | Source
Moving House - An example of project steps
Moving House - An example of project steps | Source

Projects are a 'series of steps'

A project will always have more than one task that needs to be accomplished, with larger deliverables and tasks split up into smaller and smaller tasks. As an example, if you were creating a project to move house, you might have part of it that looks like this.

The more that you can break a project down into deliverables, those deliverables down into tasks and those tasks down into sub-tasks, the more control you will have and ultimately the more likely your project is to be successful.

Projects are 'outcome based'

Projects are designed, created and managed to achieve change and add value. If a project doesn't achieve one or both of those objectives, it probably isn't worth doing.

Examples of outcomes a project might help with are:

  • Advertising for, interviewing and taking on a new employee
  • Decorating your office space
  • Creating a more efficient invoicing and financial management process
  • Prototyping and testing a new product idea
  • Developing effective customer service processes
  • And many more...

How does it all fit together?

This picture illustrates how project managers, tasks and projects fit together to deliver your desired outcome.

An Introduction to Project Management for Small Business
An Introduction to Project Management for Small Business | Source

More project management guides

Read more of our helpful, expert guides to successfully managing a project:

A project manager coordinates everything and brings it all together
A project manager coordinates everything and brings it all together | Source

What does a project manager do?

The responsibilities of a Project Manager can vary widely, but in general they are responsible for:

  • Planning a project, reviewing that plan and ensuring it goes ahead
  • Organizing resources, people and budget so that what needs to happen is achieved when it needs to be by the people that need to do it
  • Managing people, processes and other aspects to ensure successful delivery of a project
  • Leading by example and working to remove barriers, risks and issues that prevent the project achieving what it needs to
  • Delegating appropriately to other areas
  • Controlling different aspects of the project and keeping things on track
  • Communicating with stakeholders, people impacted by the project and people working on the project
  • Reporting on what the project is going to do, how it is progressing and what it has achieved

Project manager areas

Planning the project
Scheduling tasks & teams
Managing people
Reviewing progress
Organizing resources
Managing processes
Fixing problems
Organizing budget
Checking results
Delegating tasks

This will involve asking and answering the following questions:

Understanding what you want to achieve

This is about defining what your project is setting out to do, specifically:

  • What does the outcome of your project look like?
  • What type of service, product or process are you trying to create?
  • How will you be able to tell if you've been successful?
  • What is the scope of what you are trying to do?

Estimating the resources that you will need

You'll need to accurately understand and obtain the resources (people, money etc.) that you will need:

  • Do you need someone else to help you achieve this outcome or will you do it yourself?
  • How will you find the right people to help you?
  • Will you need to spend money to achieve it and if so, how much?
  • What other resources might be needed?

Calculating how long things will take

Working to the right timescales is essential, so calculate how long the various tasks and activities in your project will take:

  • How long, from beginning to end, should the project take?
  • What are the key dates and milestones in the life of the project that you would like to reach?
  • At what points will you review the progress of the project?
  • How will you tell if the project is still on track to deliver?

Planning the project out and breaking it down into tasks

You'll need to plan out the various outcomes, deliverables, milestones, tasks and subtasks that need to be accomplished:

  • What is the overall aim of the project?
  • What are the main things you need to deliver and when?
  • How can you break these deliverables down into distinct tasks?
  • How can you break those tasks down further, into subtasks?

These discrete steps and tasks need to occur in a specified order for you to achieve your outcome. Each of these tasks will be to accomplish a specific thing, which together will deliver your project.

Delegating and doing

Once all the planning is done, the project will get underway. You’ll need to actually carry out the tasks yourself or delegate them to someone else to do for you. Keeping track of these tasks, who is doing them, how and when is a critical part of being a good project manager:

  • Who is the best person to do this work?
  • Do you have their agreement and commitment to complete the work?
  • How will you track who is doing what?

Ensuring quality

You will need to be sure that whatever the project is delivering, that it is of the right quality; this means knowing what is good enough for you to achieve what you want and sufficiently controlling the project to achieve that quality:

  • What measures are you using to ensure a good quality outcome?
  • How do you test for quality?
  • What does a successful outcome look like?
  • If something is delivered that isn't of a high enough quality, how will you manage it?

Managing problems

All projects hit problems and snags. The unexpected and unplanned is a fact of life; reacting to these curveballs in a realistic way and keeping the project on track will help you achieve your goals.

  • How can you understand the risks and issues you might encounter?
  • How will you manage risks and issues that might impact on your project?

Tracking progress

Reviewing and keeping an eye on progress will ensure you’re able to keep moving your project forwards.

  • How often will you review your project plan and progress towards outcomes?
  • How will you track activities and keep things moving forward?

Communicating your project

Communicating is essential to delivering a successful project, the groups you'll want to communicate with are:

  • People doing work on the project - If it's not just you involved, you'll need to make everyone aware of the goals, tasks and anything expected of them from the project
  • Your audience / customers - If the project is going to impact a group of people or your customers (internal or external) you will need to keep them informed
  • Stakeholders - This is anyone else who has a vested interest in the outcome of the project. They might be supplying money or resources or be impacted by what the project is delivering. They can also be powerful decision makers

Project management in under 8 minutes

A 'To Do' list and actions are at the center of every project
A 'To Do' list and actions are at the center of every project | Source

How do tasks and to do lists fit in with project management?

Despite all of the responsibilities of a project manager and the varying degrees of complexity around managing projects, at the most basic level, a project is simply a series of tasks that need to be completed to achieve a desired outcome.

Tasks and to do lists are the building blocks of getting stuff done. This means that having an effective way to capture everything that you need to do, knowing when it needs to be done and who is going to do it becomes a critical part of running a successful project.

Some of the software shown below is great for overall project management, whilst some of it is good for task management. Ultimately, you should try the software out to see what works best with your approach.

There are some good business software solutions to help you plan, track and manage your projects, tasks and to do lists so that you can deliver what you need to, with the minimum of fuss.

Project Management software (local install)

Project management software that you can install and use on your PC.

  • OpenProj – An open source project management solution similar to MS Project
  • jxProject – An open source project manager that allows planning, resource scheduling and more
  • Project HQ – A collaborative open source project management tool, similar to Basecamp
  • Gannt Project – A cross-platform desktop tool for project scheduling and management

Project Management software (web based)

Software that runs in the cloud, through your web browser.

  • Comparison of Cloud based services - An excellent Google Docs spreadsheet comparing many of the online project management services; recommended
  • Teambox – A comprehensive collection of collaboration, communication, file sharing and task management tools
  • Freedcamp – A free alternative to the popular Basecamp project management online software
  • Zoho Projects – An online project application that allows management of one project at a time for free

Task Management software

All of this software runs online, through your web browser. Some of these applications have local, desktop applications that work with them.

  • Toodledo – A highly regarded, full featured online task management system
  • Remember The Milk – A comprehensive and popular task management application
  • Wunderlist – Beautifully designed and easy to use, Wunderlist is also fully featured
  • Asana – A collaborative, team based task management solution with a focus on project management

If you found this article useful, interesting or informative, please do check out my other guides for small business owners here.

It's true that project management can be a lot of work, and there are many different approaches that you can take. Some aspects of what I've discussed here will work for project management in your small business, some of it might not.

The key to be a successful project manager is objectivity, planning, communicating and understanding what you want to achieve. If you can accomplish that, you're already on your way to delivering a successful project.

Have you delivered a project successfully? Have any hints and tips for project managers or small businesses? If so, please let us know in the comments.

Related small business articles


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      13 months ago

      Best free full featured project manager is Bitrix24 IMHO. Nobody else gives you free gantt charts or task dependencies or invoicing.


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