aren't small projects as difficult, if not more difficult, than big ones?

If the saying “small is beautiful” is true then why is success so difficult to reach on small projects?

In fact there are a number of specificities of small projects that makes them even more difficult to achieve than larger ones.

Let’s have a look at 5 of these:

1. lack of a formal and experienced projet manager

Quite often small projects do not have a dedicated PM, not even a part-time one. The “PM” might as well be a team member, a developer, a finance guy, a HR professional… So he or she has two roles, a task-oriented role and a management one. Whenever there is a glitch on the operational side, this is very likely to cannibalize his/her time and attention.

what to do?

If you happen to be in this situation, take a step back. Look at the overall project scope and timeline, look at the critical path (the task that you perceive as critical might not be so critical in the big scheme of things for the project), assess the options and their impacts and make the decision as the PM.

2. lower priority

This small project is likely to generate less revenue (or less cost savings) and have a lesser impact than bigger ones. The ROI might be excellent but it could be that it will not make a significant impact on the company’s bottom line. Inevitably, the attention of sponsors and senior execs will be less focused on you. You may not get the premium expertise that will be routed to bigger undertakings, probably with less budget, less people, less attention from management to the changes they need to drive for the small project to succeed.

what to do?

Be even more visible to the sponsor, communicate, and manage to get his commitments. Explicitly expose the link between your project and a higher level company strategy or mandate. Also, try to protect your “small” budget, separate it from bigger projects, engage required spend upfront (where it makes sense) to avoid later cuts.

3. planning is not optional

Even more so on small projects, planning is crucial. You may not need the full blown version or the same extent as would be needed on a huge project but still there is a minimum level of planning you cannot avoid.

what to do?

Focus on key areas: Project charter, Critical Success Factors (CSFs) and how success will be measured, risks management plan, rough estimates, schedule and dependencies between major tasks.

4. control is key

You will not be expected nor need to implement earned value analysis or complex schedule/cost variance calculations on small projects.

what to do?

If the project is say 2 to 3 months long, schedule quick checkpoints twice a week with all team members, break down your deliverables to position milestones with significant achievements every other week, and check-in with the sponsor once a month. Keep in mind, if you use Agile, if you have no process, you are not Agile!

5. a team is required

You may have team members part time or for short durations on small projects. You may not even be their top priority while they work on your project. They may have hidden agendas, little respect for your project and other team members’ time and effort.

what to do?

On the latter two, poor respect for others or poor performers, you do not have a choice. Get rid of him or her. One bad fruit can spoil the entire basket and bad attitude spread in the team. For the others, focus on clarity of purpose. Explain why you are doing this project, why their skills are required and valued, how they can best work together (for example in terms of vacations planning or training periods), what they can expect from you in return.

These are only a few of the things you can consider and take action upon when you are assigned project management responsibility on a small project...

...and they are not so insignificant for larger projects as well…


Michel Operto

I've been leading IT projects for more than 20 years at telecom and computer manufacturers: Thomson Sintra, Digital Equipment, NCR, Nortel Networks, Orange Business. My passion is Project Management and leadership and I run a blog on the PM best practices at