Six Common Challenges in Managing Small Projects (and how to overcome them)


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Whilst not as complex and high profile, small projects can be just as challenging to manage than very large projects because, requiring project managers and their teams to scale down their methods without losing control over quality and other deliverables. Some project management methodologies, notably the PRINCE2 methodology, encourage scalability and adaptability but some give no clue as to how a project manager can adapt to running a project without the resources or project control team that a larger project can afford.

I want to take a look at six common challenges that often beset smaller projects and how they can be overcome.

1. Failure to scale down the project method

In some businesses, the approach to a smaller project is to simply remove most of the project control. This has the inevitable consequence that the project soon comes off the rails. Project managers with a thorough knowledge of a relevant project methodology are much better at scaling down the project controls so that they are appropriate for the size of the project.

For example, a project risk log needs to exist. But on a smaller project it will inevitably be shorter. Smaller projects involve less cost and resources and fewer variables. They may, therefore as a result, have lower risks. However, this isn’t necessarily the case, as some small projects can involve major risks to the organisation, which aren’t apparent at first.

There are risks to small projects succeeding and they need managing just as the risks of a large project do. An agreed corporate project approach to risk is a great help in ensuring that all projects are assessed in a comparable way.

2. Lack of sponsorship from senior management

Although a small project may not require a great deal of senior management time or a substantial budget, its output may be a key precursor to another larger project or may be critical to the business in some way. If the project is seen as too trivial for senior managers to bother with, it will soon get derailed. Resources will not be available when needed and the project manager may not be able to get key pieces of work done if there is competition for specialists, for example if the IT department is overstretched.

The project sponsor must explain what the project is doing to their senior colleagues and must make it clear why the business case has been approved.

3. Scope creep

The problem with smaller projects is that it’s tempting for the organisation to add bits and pieces into the project because it is seen as operating “under the radar “. So although the original scope was limited, organisations sometimes find to their horror that a small project has taken on a life of its own and without being at any point formally agreed, has turned into a long-running saga that has spent considerable amounts.

Use of a formal project methodology, no matter how small the project, will prevent this happening because scope is formally agreed at the start of the project and is controlled by a change log. It’s remarkable how business managers who are very keen to extend the scope of a project become markedly less so when they have to put their name to a formal change log and find that the project manager has assessed the budgetary impact of their request.

4. Small teams can be vulnerable to change

A small project team tends to be more vulnerable to staff changes and even to welfare issues such as stress that may lead to a key member of the team departing. These risks should be addressed in the risk log and mitigation put in place.

Multi-skilling can be one answer to small project team syndrome. It’s also essential that on smaller projects, some slack is included in the project plan because with a much smaller team it is more difficult to cover absences and it may be necessary to get a new team member. This always has a time lag associated with it. Strong leadership is also essential if morale and commitment on smaller project teams is to be maintained.

5. Difficulties in accessing specialised skills

It’s difficult for small teams to access specialists because they probably don’t have enough work to take on a full-time consultant or contractor, or to ask for someone to be seconded from the main organisation. The way to mitigate this is to ensure that during project initiation, the project gains permission to pay for specialist resources if needed. Expert contractors are ideal in this situation because they can be brought in for a few weeks at a time.

6. “Softer ” areas may be neglected

When resources are short and budgets small, it’s easy to neglect stakeholder engagement, communication with users and other “soft areas ” and to concentrate instead on products and deliverables.

However, this is a major mistake because a small project may find that it has completed its work on time and to budget but that the work is not accepted by the senior users in the business. Scaling down a project means scaling it down in every sense. You may not be able to run a full-scale communications strategy but some communication and stakeholder activities must form part of the plan.

Read More: What is Project Management? Definition, Types & Examples

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