Many small businesses like to chase grand ambitions despite tight budgets. In practice, this small business big-think often tasks lighter, less equipped teams with the responsibility of rolling up their sleeves, getting scrappy, and finding ways around resource restraints to bring aspirational projects to life.
While each individual project demands its own unique approach to solving the resource puzzle, small business owners and managers can get their teams develop good habits for taking on big projects. With a little planning and forethought, small teams—more agile and adaptable by nature—can rise to the challenge, take on big projects, and run rings around rivals along the way.
Improve Project Management: Begin With the End in Mind
Successful project management starts with careful planning. That means defining a clear end-goal, budget and deadline, then working backwards to break the workload up into a series of smaller, more easily-managed milestones. Each of these goalposts—which should be laid out in an initial step-by-step project roadmap document—won’t just help you chart ongoing progress as you reach them, they’ll also help provide a sense of ongoing momentum and motivation. However, when plotting these milestones, be sure to factor an extra 20-30% time buffer into your plans and deadlines to account for possible unforeseen delays or unexpected hiccups.
When dealing with larger projects, these milestones should also be used as helpful checkpoints to stop and reflect on current progress. After all, as you go about performing tasks, it’s important to stay laser-focused on objectives, so as not to let “feature creep” (the temptation to add features or expand your focus) derail your advancement. You’ll also want to be aware of any new developments that might impact your project, as well as any fresh ideas or insights that surface as a result of your work.
This feedback, which should be actively solicited from staff at all turns, should be shared in a central repository (e.g. an online forum or project tracking tool) with every team member. Before moving to the next milestone, make a point to hold an all-hands-on-deck meeting to review and discuss any updates or pivots that may be needed. If changes are needed, be sure to separate out and prioritize mission-critical revisions to your project from those that simply stand to enhance it. Optional improvements can be moved to a separate list for tackling later, if time permits.
By concentrating on building a minimum viable product and getting the essentials done first, you can better ensure that you remain on schedule and on budget. In short, the more well-defined and narrow your project focus, the more effective you can be.
Getting Tactical: How to Map Out a Winning Strategy
Once you have a series of objectives in place, you can work backwards to define specific tactics and implement tools and strategies for accomplishing your goals. When weighing your options, remember that opportunity costs are associated with every decision you make, not just financial expenses. That means that it often pays to say no to choices that may seem compelling in the moment, but don’t necessarily best support your end goals, like trendy but unproven technology solutions. Likewise, it’s often crucial to plan for growth long before it occurs and invest in more flexible and scalable solutions up front, so you don’t have to return to the project and rework it later.
As a team leader, this means not only having to forecast the time and expenses associated with working on larger projects, it also means having to decide which services are essential and which can be easily automated or outsourced to others. To determine where it makes sense to bring in outside help, calculate what each team member’s time is worth, and what the highest-value activities are to the business that they perform. Doing so lets you know where their attention should be focused, and after comparing these costs to outsourced solutions, where it makes sense to offload less-important work.
Large projects seldom go as planned, often changing and evolving over time. Successful project managers change their strategies as well.
Likewise, you’ll also want to research and review if any preexisting tools, services or solutions can help give your team a head start on accomplishing its goals. It may seem costly to invest in these resources (which can include everything from high-speed manufacturing equipment to high-tech virtual reality or 3D graphics engineering solutions). But when you factor in the benefits of being able to get running start by implementing them, and the opportunity cost of time sinks and distractions that they prevent, savings can be substantial. Remember: If an external service, online tool or freelance hire can help you greatly accelerate progress or free up crucial contributors from wasting time on busywork, it’s often money well spent.
Communicate and Stay in Contact to Make Projects Manageable
Once you’ve charted a course for your project and assigned team members to each task, make a point to keep them up to date on project assignments, status updates, scheduling and background information. Likewise, staffers should be informed where specific roles, responsibilities and decision-making authorities lie, and each worker should know whom to call on when questions arise. Using free or cost-affordable online apps and software tools for real-time collaboration can assist with project coordination. The more that you keep team members up to speed and on the same page when working on larger, more complex projects, the more you’ll minimize bottlenecks, confusion and task duplication. Bearing this in mind, weekly check-ins with staffers are advised, each of whom should be invited to share suggestions or concerns.
Likewise, it’s also important to work with project contributors to engage in strategic planning and risk management. Asking staffers a simple series of what if questions can help you anticipate and offset many challenges before they arise. In addition, as larger projects are often spread out over extended lengths of time, you’ll also want to make succession planning and knowledge transfer a priority in case key team members depart. You can retain team knowledge by arranging for team members to provide regular training to their peers, assigning workers to tasks that require joint collaboration or building skill redundancy into your staffing model. As your project proceeds, you’ll also want to keep a watchful eye on how much each employee has on their plate at any given time, and delegate or shift responsibilities to maximize efficiency as needed.
In addition, don’t forget how important it is to listen to your workers. Individuals closest to frontline operations and customers are often the most informed audience inside your business. Regularly polling, surveying and soliciting team feedback can quickly help you surface opportunities and concerns, and know where to best focus your efforts. Large projects seldom go as planned, often changing and evolving over time. Successful project managers change their strategies as well.
Once Done, Perform a Final Project Review
Finally, upon finishing up any given assignment, don’t forget to perform a post-mortem, or post-review assessment, of your completed project. Reviewing end results with colleagues offers an opportunity to consider how successful you were in your efforts, how well things went according to plan and where room for improvement exists. Look for where processes and procedures can be streamlined, costs can be cut and scheduling solutions can be enhanced. Performing an end-of-project review will help you get a better sense of the factors that contributed to your performance, or worked to hinder it, and how you can improve your approach to project management going forward.
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