September 15, 2023

How Not to Fail Your Small Projects

Projects fail. Small projects fail twice that much. The overrun in budget and schedule may go beyond multiple times. And time after time, managers make the same mistakes.

There is a misunderstanding in the way we manage small projects. Once that is fixed, you will handle them with ease.

3 Small Projects Misconceptions

There are three major problems that we need to fix in our mindset:

#1: Small Projects are Not Important

You can manage such projects with your sleeves down. Nobody cares, it is a tiny part of a massive treadmill machine.

Your attitude towards the project’s value will influence your team. If they are not interested in your project, they will surely find something else to do.

The same goes for stakeholders. If you don’t show that you care and focus on results, their engagement will drift away.

Therefore, the very first thing you must do on all levels is to take your stand. Find the reason this project is important for your organization, stakeholders, and the project team.

#2: You Can Lead Several Projects Easily

I was there as well. At some point, I was managing seven small projects in parallel.

Here is what your management does not understand:

Four small projects are not equal to one project with the same team size and complexity.

Know why?

Communications overhead.

There will be much more stakeholders, and they will be less engaged, each problem will require much more attention from your side.

#3: You Can Manage all of Them Using the Same Approach

Even if projects share the same nature, they are unique. You will have the urge to standardize the approach to make it fit for all of them.

That is a pitfall.

  • They will be in different stages.
  • There will be different stakeholders.
  • Teams will have different experience levels. They will have different approaches to work.
  • The goals of the projects will be different.
  • Sources of risks will be different.

The only common trait is you.

Tunnel vision is the cause of many failed projects. A small project does not mean it is simple and standard. It still requires the same level of analysis from the perspective of project management.

Here is what you need to Manage a Small Project

You cannot allow yourself to go through a full project management cycle. You don’t have time for that.

Nevertheless, it doesn’t mean that you can skip on a project management plan. You do need to think through all the aspects of the project. However, tools and techniques will not be the same.

While analyzing the needs of the current project for processes and tools, you need to focus on the following areas:

1. Select Right Tools and Processes

Most of the tools and processes from the PMBOK® Guide don’t work as is from the box. The main reason is that they are universal fit-all-industries-and-sizes solutions. Most likely they will not be efficient.

While managing a small project, you need to focus on visualizing the work for the team. Working towards tangible results is the only way to finish the project successfully.

I find lists and whiteboards the most efficient tools here.

They should clearly communicate:

  • The next task for each team member
  • Upcoming risks
  • Deadlines
  • Impediments

Should you go for something more robust? Unless it is a flexible integrated project management system – no. Keep to the lists and whiteboards.

2. Plan ahead. It is Crucial!

Planning for a small project is more important than for a large one.


The margin for failure is much smaller.

Did not identify a part of the project scope! Bam. 25% over budget and 50% behind schedule.

A key team member got sick for two weeks. The project cannot be completed! The learning curve for a substitute is the same two weeks.

While in absolute values, the overruns are not that scary, it is a failed project in the long run.

What are the most critical areas to plan?

  1. Scope Management
  2. Risk Management
  3. Change Management

3. Scope Creep is Devastating

There is not enough space for Rolling Wave Planning when you manage a small project.

You must know the scope before you start it.

Creating a quality Work Breakdown Structure is crucial. But again, go for a list representation.

I’ll repeat it again. Working towards identified deliverables is the only way to finish a small project successfully.

4. Risk Management is of Utter Importance

Risk Management on a small project is different.

For example, you have a team of 6 people. Two of them got sick for two weeks.

Can you develop an effective risk response to mitigate that?

You can have substitutes. But they should be familiar with your project and the tasks at hand. Otherwise, it may take quite a lot of time to start delivering any value.

In some cases, the only efficient way is to accept such risks passively. However, you must communicate such possibilities to stakeholders beforehand.

Risks hit hard on small projects. Therefore, you must proactively identify them. Focus most of your efforts to avoid or mitigate the risks.

5. Any Change Warrants Project Plan Update

It is a rule I keep to on small projects. There is no such thing as a small change.

Every change request impacts the project.

That is why it is vital to devote enough effort for Scope and Risk Management. Variances in those areas will warrant changes to the project plan.

With that said, it is also important to have a change management process in place. First of all, it should focus on analyzing the impact on a project as a whole.

Communication Is Crucial

With the three areas I mentioned above, it goes without saying that communications with stakeholders should be on a high end.

It means you either need to make your emails really efficient or you have to find a better way to communication.

Here, you can use something like Asana. It shines with small projects. And quite in line with what I talk about here.

Managing Multiple Small Projects

What can you do when you have three, seven, or eleven small projects at once? I can say for sure it will be challenging.

The best visualization of the reality is the number of communication channels versus the number of people you have to manage.

Screen Shot 2017 06 06 at 100721

Don’t take these numbers as abstract communication channels. The same diagram depicts a number of serious decisions you need to make, conflicts you have to resolve, stakeholders you must engage, and emails you need to write.

So, here are some practical tips.

Combine Project Teams

If you are using shared resources, it is better to share their time among your projects only. So, you need to try to create one team that is 100% dedicated to your projects.

On one side, it removes the necessity to communicate with other managers about time allocation of resources.

Moreover, it gives you the ability to level resources workload. And, if needed, boost the lagging with relatively free resources from other projects.

That is not all.

Build up Leadership Within Teams

Within one team, you can build up a better hierarchy of the team’s responsibilities.

From a long-term perspective, it is the best investment of your efforts. By developing strong leaders for subteams, you will free up yourself from the daily routine.

Your ultimate goal as a project manager is the same. You need to build a system where you can manage a project at the highest level.

Track all Projects as a Whole

Taking into account the level of decomposition of the project scope, several small teams should start and finish dozens of tasks per day.

You don’t want to control them on a level that low.

Set up milestones for each project. Let your team leaders take ownership of monitoring and controlling daily work.

Let them do the reports for you as well.

Manage it as One Project

In most cases, no one cares how you allocate resources among the projects. People are properly billed. If you deliver results on time – everyone will be happy.

Therefore, use the benefit of a combined team to cover up risky projects.

With that said, you do need to ensure that each project is adequately staffed. You need enough resources to handle all projects.


It is a common case when a junior project manager gets a small project first. If he or she shows good results, new projects will come and stack up.

In the end, less experienced PMs manage several projects at once. Which is, in fact, requires lots of skills and experience.

Unfortunately, you can’t do anything about it.