Let's consider a few areas where project managers can run into trouble when managing smaller projects – areas that may not be as critical or troublesome on higher profile, higher dollar projects.
Cutting corners. With smaller projects can often come a tendency to want to cut corners. After all, there's a small budget. And when the budget is very small, any deviation can cause a more drastic “miss” in terms of profitability versus the original plan. Leaving out some of those “perceived” non-essentials from the planning sessions can be very tempting. Early planning documents? Why do we need them? Well, you may not, but is that a chance you really think you should be taking? Spend less time on some early planning efforts, if it makes sense, but don't skip them all together. No project ever failed because the project manager, team and customer took time to plan. Many have failed because it was skipped.
Lax budget management. With the small budget comes less need to watch over it...right? Wrong. The margin for error actually becomes greater, not smaller. If something happens and you get hit with a $5,000 consulting fee on a $50,000 project, that's a much bigger deal than if you get hit with a $10,000 consulting fee on a $1,000,000 project. The smaller budget may have just lost half of its planned profit margin in that one consultant charge. The bigger project budget just experienced an annoying charge...not a showstopper.
Failing to simplify the processes. Not all projects are created equal, of course. And there definitely can be a case made – often should be a case made – for simplifying the process for projects that are considerably shorter and with smaller budgets (have a look at this process in The Six-Step Guide to Practical Project Management). In fact, some organizations have scalable methodologies calling for some planning processes and documents to be trimmed down or omitted based on the budget size, etc. That said, there are project managers who – when making judgement calls on such scaling – feel it is necessary to include all formal processes...even for the smallest of projects. When that happens, they can run the risk of going over budget and over time, but not being flexible based on the project size.
Letting resources get away from you. Resources that are assigned to the project manager as his project team members are often working several projects at once. When they are assigned to a small project, that project often is seen as less critical than higher value and higher visibility projects. And if there are any gaps between resource assignments on the project, a resource can easily be lost from the project if he or she leaves to work on a higher priority project during those gaps, and that higher priority project experiences some issues. It happens all the time. The best thing the project manager can do is minimize any resource task gaps or down time...keeping the resource as engaged as possible for as long as he has him assigned to the project. Because the flip side to that may be losing the resource for good and needing to go through the costly process of onboarding a replacement.
Small projects happen all the time. They are important, but will usually have to bow to the needs of the higher-profile big projects. You can cut some corners, but you need to do it carefully, and you should think about adopting a simpler process (like this one). And budget management almost becomes a bigger issue than it is on large dollar projects due to the potential to lose all profitability trying to fix one issue.
What are your tips for managing smaller projects? What do you consider some problem areas that project managers can run into when managing projects that are smaller in size and value?