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Tips For Managing Small Projects
By Jake Alexander

Finishing projects successfully is always a challenge. Projects without good management have almost no chance of succeeding because the odds are greater that something will go wrong than that everything will go right. The Project Manager’s job is to guide the project to a successful conclusion by closely monitoring activities and events and making adjustments as necessary to keep the project on track.

Here are some tips that can be useful in steering your project to a successful conclusion.

1. Make sure that the project has been clearly defined.

It’s difficult to hit a target if you don’t know where or what it is. When you get the project management assignment there should have been a project charter that defines the goals and objectives of the project. If you don’t have that, then your first step should be to work with the project sponsor or your client to create one.

As a project manager your job will be to finish the project on time, within budget, and with the desired results. Without a clear understanding of all three of these, you’re in trouble the moment you start. You have to know in which direction to steer the project before you begin. This is no time to be timid. It’s up to you to insist on having all the information you need.

2. Plan for problems.

All projects are subject to certain levels of risk. You should try to identify the risks associated with your project and develop plans for handling them if they arise. Look for areas where things are apt to go wrong, where resources might become unavailable, and where information might have been inaccurate or inadequate. When you schedule the tasks and develop the cost estimates, try to build in enough slack time and budget surplus to handle the risks you’ve identified. You may not always be successful in building yourself a comfortable margin, but at least try to include some time and money for general contingencies. If nothing else, your contingency plan can serve as a reduction buffer if you are required to reduce the cost or schedule of the project later on.

3. Use tools you understand.

Use good project management tools to keep the client and team members updated on project status. You can use software tools to do much of the tracking and reporting, and almost any project management software package will do the job. Project management software is usually complex and feature rich, with more reports and functions than you will ever use. But the choice of software is not as important as the fact that you and others are properly trained in its use. Without training on the software package, you are better off managing the project with spreadsheets or paper forms.

4. Get to know your team.

Project management skills are largely communication, planning and people skills. You must work through others to get the job done. It is your leadership that will have the other team members following you on the narrow path to success through all the obstacles and things that can go wrong. Building rapport with the team members with the client and others is an important part of getting the job done. Approach them with respect and dignity and expect them to do the same and they will be more likely to respond if the time comes for heroic effort.

5. Stay out of the workload.

Many project managers wind up in trouble because they try to provide some of the labor needed to finish the project. An active project is no place for a working manager. Experience has shown that when a choice must be made between doing the work and managing the project, doing the work always wins. It natural to think that maybe you as a project manager can help with some of the work in order to catch up on tasks that are at risk. But your job as project manager is not to do the work yourself, but to inform the project sponsor and client that the task is delayed and what the impact will be if you are unable to get additional funds or resource to do the job. Of course, there is always the possibility that they will tell you to do the work yourself — but then nobody said that a project manager’s job was easy.

Jake Alexander is a former Information Technology professional with experience in managing multi-million dollar projects involving mainframe computer installations and, more recently, software development projects. He owns and operates a web site that provides resources and information to the new, drafted, or reluctant project manager.

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