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A clear understanding of the basic principles of project management will pay dividends for any SMB looking to harness IT for...

A clear understanding of the basic principles of project management will pay dividends for any SMB looking to harness IT for business success

Effective project management can provide the same major benefits for small and medium-sized enterprises as it does for larger organisations. Well-managed projects should result in required deliverables to the quality expected. These should be produced to planned timescale, resource and, of course, cost.

Successful projects can significantly help the organisation achieve its business objectives, making effective use of IT and business processes to enhance performance, productivity or competitive advantage.

Yet many SMBs suffer badly from "failed" projects which do not meet business expectations. Their senior executives and other users may feel that project management is an unnecessary overhead - a black art which delivers unpredictable or unsatisfactory results at high cost.

This may be because in many SMBs with limited resources and budgets, dedicated project management is not seen as an essential specialist skill. For example, business analysts or technical specialists may be asked to multi-task by handling projects in addition to their other roles. Such multi-tasking or change of role could dilute their focus and effectiveness, and make it difficult for them to keep their eye on the ball across their various roles.

A cost-effective solution could be provided by engaging a specialist project management consultancy - for example, on a fixed-cost or fixed-time basis - to manage a project or portfolio of projects, while also advising in-house staff on project management principles, processes and techniques for specific needs of the organisation.

Most of the basic principles of project management apply to SMBs just as they do to larger organisations. But it is by no means one size fits all, as most of these businesses do not have project management offices or internal project auditors, or make full use of a heavyweight project management methodology.

Nevertheless, clear identification of business needs and their effective delivery via projects is often essential for the commercial success of an SMB. Key factors to address include project framework, responsibility, process and results.

An SMB can gain significant benefit from its executives clearly knowing what they want from their projects. Initially, they should understand the big picture, or framework, of where they want to go and some alternative approaches (eg business changes, processes, IT) for how to get there.

An evaluation should be done to assess the comparative business benefits and risks of each approach. In this way it should be possible to clarify which approach is best aligned to the organisation's business objectives.

For each project, the SMB chief executive should appoint an executive (the more senior the better) as sponsor, with top-level commitment for ensuring project success and overall responsibility for all aspects of the project including resources, budget and business benefits. Project success can be helped by good use of process, techniques and tools based on best practice guidelines and selected aspects of a widely used standard methodology such as Prince 2.

Key aspects to address include clear definition and documentation of project requirements and deliverables. Also important is test planning from an early stage, leading to as much system and user testing as possible, and fast turnaround of test results and issues.

These and other aspects can be optimised to fit the organisation's needs, resources and budgets, using:

  • "Light" project planning and control using only selected key documents/outputs;
  • "Light" processes for project governance, reporting and other communications;
  • "Light" configuration, quality and risk management;
  • Off-the-shelf, re-usable templates and tools where possible.
  • Project results should be easy to monitor against plan, easy to communicate and easy to compare with project requirements and success criteria.
  • Business benefits delivered can therefore be measured.

How can a busy SMB CEO or senior executive start the process of improved project management? This could be effected by an initial assesSMBnt of business needs, plans and current project status by an external project management specialist. Such an objective health check can help to identify and clarify project needs, areas of concern and aspects needing particular focus.

Dalim Basu is founder and managing director of specialist project management consultancy Dalim Services

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