Project management essentials: a quick guide to project management for small business owners

While project management might sound like something only large corporations need to worry about, the basics of project management have important applications within businesses of any size, in any industry.

SMEs can use project management techniques to streamline their business practices and complete tasks in a more timely and efficient fashion. Ensuring that you and your staff have a basic knowledge of established project management techniques can result in a more agile, successful organisation.

What is a project?

In the first instance, it is useful to understand what counts as a project. The term is being used to cover an increasingly broad range of company activities, but it is important to distinguish between projects and processes.

A project has a start and end date, and a specific goal that will produce some benefit for the business. So projects might include the development of a new website, for example.

In contrast, a process is a repetitive task that performs a function within the business. It’s something you have to do every day, week, moth or year as part of the business. Say you sell food – checking that your fridges and freezers are the correct temperature every day is one of your processes.

What is project management?

At its core, project management is about providing a framework that will allow the project to be completed successfully without exceeding the resources available. These resources might include people, money and time.

Project management frameworks

There is a vast range of project management frameworks, with new approaches being designed all the time. Many of these frameworks are designed for specific business requirements, so you need to find one that works for your business.

This article will concentrate on a ‘traditional’ framework that can be adapted for virtually any use.

Traditional project management phases

A traditional project management approach divides every project into five distinct phases:

  1. Initiation
  2. Planning or design
  3. Execution
  4. Monitoring
  5. Completion

This framework isn’t necessarily linear – in fact, it’s probably better if it isn’t. For example, you might find that your observations in phase four may lead you to return to phase two in order to make corrections or adjustments.

That being said, it’s generally not enough to rely on these five phases. Keep these as a guideline, but read on for the other things you should consider.

Project definition

First things first – know exactly what you want to achieve with your project. Once you have that, it can act as a ‘baseline’ so you can judge the progress of the project.

Your project definition should give a clear explanation of the goals and objectives of the project, and the benefits to your business that will result from its completion. It should also highlight any potential risks associated with the project.

These will differ depending on the nature of your business and the project itself, but they may include, for example, financial risks to your organisation or health and safety risks. You should consider ways in which you can mitigate or eliminate these risks, and develop policies to deal with those that remain.

Once you have an understanding of your particular project, you may want to create subdivisions within some or all of the five phases. These subdivisions can break up larger tasks into manageable chunks.

If you’re running the project yourself, you might want to assign these tasks to different time periods – you could either do them one at a time, or, if they need to be completed at a similar time, block out parts of your day to work on each.

On the other hand, if you have a team at your disposal, it’s a good idea to give each member of the team a distinct role. Everyone in the team should understand their own role, everyone else’s role and who they need to report back to.

Project monitoring

When you create your project definition, part of it should include criteria for success, and you can then refer back to them throughout the whole project.

The criteria for success become particularly important, though, when you move into the monitoring phase. By the beginning of this phase you will have a ‘prototype’ of whatever it is that you have been designing. During the monitoring phase, you’ll start testing your creation in the kinds of scenarios where you’ll ultimately want it to exist.

Throughout this phase you should constantly refer back to your project definition so you can work out whether or not the aims have been met. You may also wish to perform usability testing, which is where you get other members of your business who haven’t been involved in the project to try it out and give feedback. If it is found to come up short, you will need to return to the planning and design phase.

The planning/execution/monitoring cycle can continue for some time. While it is important that you meet your project goals, in many ways it’s more important to stick to the resource constraints. If you’re spending too much time on this particular project, it could harm the overall functioning of your business.

It’s a good idea to put contingencies in your project definition in case the project goes on longer than expected. If you don’t have those in place, you may need to abandon the project.

There are loads of more detailed versions of the five phase framework out there, adapted for all sorts of different business models and industries. You may wish to investigate some of these to find a method that suits your specific project. However, this ‘bare bones’ approach is highly flexible and, with sufficient planning, can ensure that your next project is completed on time and within budget.

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