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5 Tips For Managing Projects in a Small Business
By Jeff Kear

When it comes to project management, small businesses are often at a disadvantage. You usually don’t have a large staff to assist you (and often you may be flying solo). You may not have the latest software or hardware that allows you to easily automate processes. And, because you probably don’t have tens of thousands of customers, you have less margin for error if a project goes awry with one of your precious few customers.

In addition, small businesses usually have very few employees, all of whom wear multiple hats, and often they all share in the project management process. Needless to say, project management is just one of the several duties on their plates, making it difficult to spend lots of time and effort drawing up extensive project plans.

There are several obvious things a small business owner can do to streamline the project management process, including using technology to your advantage, being accurate in your bidding/scheduling and instituting automated feedback channels to monitor progress. However, what I would like to share are a few less obvious, more tactical and very practical tricks I have used in my 20 years owning small businesses and running projects that have helped me deliver on time and with a minimum of aggravation.

  1. Establish expectations early – This goes beyond timelines, Gantt charts and project specs/requirements and speaks more toward communicating to the client how you work and how you will manage the project. If you don’t have lots of time to provide constant updates, they need to know this. If you prefer communicating via email (which I recommend, as it allows you to correspond on your terms), they should know this. This way, if a client is not comfortable with how you collaborate and correspond, you can address this early on and build any additional requirements (and the time it takes to accomplish them) into the schedule.
  2. Establish a single point of contact on both ends – There’s nothing worse than getting client feedback or requests from 3 or 8 or 25 different people and then having to cobble together a coherent way to integrate all these divergent responses. Just as bad is having multiple people on your staff communicating with the client, which can duplicate efforts and potentially open the door for confusion.

    By having information funnel through one person on your side and one person on the client’s side, it compels each party to arrive at definitive decisions or responses and reduces the chances for miscommunication or result in a game of “telephone.”

  3. Lean on your vendors and contractors – Very few great products or services are created by one person, but a large majority of small businesses in the U.S. only have one or two employees, which means that they often rely on vendors and contractors to help them serve their clients.

    Part of running a successful business is identifying such partners who can reliably deliver on their promises, and when you find them, you should not just delegate responsibilities to them but also integrate them into the project oversight process, making them responsible for managing their portion of the larger project. Remember, it’s as much in their best interest to hit deadlines and milestones as it is yours.

  4. Set your major due dates for Mondays (and never Fridays) – Nobody likes to work weekends. But small businesses are often feast-or-famine propositions, and there are sometimes weeks when everything hits at once. When those weeks hit, the last thing you want to be doing is scrambling to hit a Friday deliverable deadline. By scheduling Monday deadlines, you may be condemning yourself to a very long weekend every once in a while, but at least you won’t be miss the deadline.

  5. Always finish a day or two before deadline (but never deliver early) – Many studies show that students who cram for exams at the last minute underperform those students who studied throughout the semester (and the crammers retain less information in the long term, too).

A similar principle applies here. As a small business owner, you don’t have a large staff or a wealth of resources to bail you out if you wait until the last moment to finish a project and something catastrophic occurs. Just like you often build a buffer into timelines for staff, vendors and clients, you should also build a buffer into the timeline for yourself, too. But don’t deliver early, because remember that you are always establishing expectations with clients, and if you start delivering early now, the client may expect you to do this on every occasion (and you may not be able to always live up to this expectation).

Jeff Kear has served as a project manager and principal at creative services firms for the last 20 years and is currently owner of Planning Pod, a Web-based business and management application for small businesses. He has started three successful small businesses (and one unsuccessful one) in the last decade and writes frequently on small business marketing and organization.

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