Growth hungry small businesses today in the UK and indeed throughout the world face the challenge of balancing two competing objectives. Firstly, businesses must maintain and standardise current business processes in order to give your business the chance to get really good at what it does through experience curve effects. Greater business efficiency normally translates into a better customer experience and higher profits. Secondly, businesses must transform business operations in order to survive and compete in the future. How well we are able to achieve the right balance for our business will ultimately determine if we survive and go on to thrive or go the way of so many small businesses into market irrelevancy and insolvency.
You may well be thinking right now what has this got to do with project management? To understand that we first need to understand the fundamental differences between projects and day to day business operations. Whilst many of the skills required to manage your “business as usual” activities are the same as those needed to manage projects, there are some crucial differences. Amongst the most significant differences are that project work tends to be at least cross functional and often cross organisational and every project will be unique in some way rather than following the predictable pattern of business as usual. These characteristics of projects introduce opportunities and risks over and above those encountered in business as usual. In short, projects are riskier than day to day business, and therefore need a different management approach.
Projects are the means by which we introduce change in organisations. All businesses that are making any attempt to adapt to face future challenges have projects. Common examples of projects in small businesses may include setting up a company website, establishing the office in a new location, or implementing a new product but it can be any temporary activity or set of activities that have a specific output associated with it. Businesses increase their productive capacity one project at a time. Indeed, for ambitious small companies looking to grow and expand, the need to initiate the right projects and achieve the desired results is even more vital l than it is for huge national and multi-national businesses
Despite the obvious need for a project management (PM) approach, most small businesses don’t bother. This constitutes a huge missed opportunity as effective project management impacts the bottom line. For example, research by the CBP shows that project management improvement initiatives improve project performance by up to 50% for the first project and can continue for each new project if the business offers ongoing project management tools and support. We could emphasise this point further by citing the Standish Group, who in their CHAOS Report conservatively estimates that 20% of money spent on projects is wasted because companies don’t have a consistent approach to project management.
Let’s take a look at six reasons I often hear from small business owners that choose not to bother with project management and then critically address the misconceptions behind these reasons.
1. Project management practices take more time
Having a process to follow may add time to the duration of an activity. Doing something properly will almost always take a little bit more time than adopting a slapdash approach. However, if you where building a house, would you rather have a quality end result that took a little longer, or would you prefer to have it done quickly but with lots of problems? Given that poorly executed projects can be completely de-rail a small business if they go badly, doing it well is essential, and PM processes help ensure things are done well.
2. Project management eats into the cash that I need to grow my business
A common misconception is that it is hugely expensive to implement PM process. The reality is that there are many free or low-cost sources of advice, techniques, tools, templates and project management services readily available and accessible through the Internet. If done correctly, any small business can implement PM processes, techniques and tools with very little cost. The likelihood is that small business owners are already using software and other tools that can be used for project management. For example, certain email software, spreadsheets, and other common software applications offer good templates for project management, especially if used in collaboration with some of the low cost project management services available for small businesses
3. Project management requires skills that I don’t have and cannot afford to hire
Although it does require specialised skills and experience to be an accomplished project manager, these are skills that can be learned over time. To move further up the learning curve faster, it is possible to take a PM course in as little as four or five days. Most small business owners tend to possess the knowledge needed for project management, and courses such as the Prince 2 Practitioner course would build on these skills while introducing the specific theories, tools, and processes essential for project management. Whilst business owners might not emerge from a course as a project expert, they would certainly learn valuable skills to apply to their small business.
4. I don’t need the hassle or paperwork of project management.
Every entrepreneur that starts their own business will, at some point, need to do a risk assessment, a marketing campaign or apply for finance. Being knowledgeable in project management and applying associated tools such as stakeholder analysis, communication planning and risk management will not only assist in many of these tasks, but will provide your small business with a competitive edge over competitors who do not approach.
5. Project management will slow me down and I need to stay agile.
Modern PM methodologies all acknowledge the importance of a tailored approach to project management. If your project requires speed, the right methodology can enable you to move quickly. Just as important, however, it will provide you with techniques to understand whether some proposed projects are worth pursuing at all. Rushing into situations without thoroughly understanding your environment is hazardous to the health of any project and potentially to the health of the business as a whole
6. I am an expert in my industry, I don’t need project management.
Most small businesses are started by a person who already has some expertise in their industry. This is unquestionably an advantage; however, project management should still be used to convert plans into reality. The main reasons for project failure tends to be poor planning, lack of capital, and lack of management. Project management, while not a cast-iron guarantee of success, will assist the small business in mitigating some of the common risks that so often cause project failure amongst small businesses.
Even a brief look at the reasons often posited by small business owners for failing to approach projects in a systematic and different way that recognises their inherent riskiness and addresses some of the more challenging aspects of project work shows them to be of dubious merit. Without question, the quality of project outputs would be greatly enhanced and the cost of and time taken in delivering project benefits using a project methodology appropriate to the scale of the project.