PM 101 or project management for the small business


The project management discipline is extensive. It includes elaborate technical tools such as Gantt charts, earned value analysis, critical path diagrams and seemingly endless best practices for completing projects successfully. The small business may not typically have dedicated technical project management expertise, but successfully managing projects is still essential to thriving in response to changes and opportunities in the business environment.

Without dedicated project managers, the responsibility falls on the owners, functional managers or even frontline employees. Here are simple but effective recommendations for successfully managing project in the time-starved small business setting. Several of these suggestions are drawn from the recommendations of Manager-Tools or David Allen’s Getting Things Done.

What is a project?

A project is a unique occurrence the drives change and has a start date and end date. This could be launching a new product line, instituting a CRM, implementing a new on-boarding process, or throwing a retirement party. The following examples pertain to a project covering opening a new retail business location.

Who does what by when?

At the heart of project management is a simple question: who does what by when? Your project will be set for success if your team maintains a clear understanding of what needs to happen, who is responsible for doing it and when it needs to happen. It’s that simple.

Know your scope

Why are you doing this project? What does success look like? Document the answers to those questions and keep them in mind for decision making throughout the project. Are you opening a new business location because you want to increase revenue by 20 percent, establish a presence in a new market, or shorten your commute? Each of those goals may take the project in a different direction.

Identify milestones

Brainstorm what the major components are that need to come together to complete the project. This creates the umbrella for the remainder of your planning. For your new business location you may identify the following:

  • Determine and secure location
  • Complete legal requirements
  • Launch marketing campaign
  • Complete employee recruitment and training
  • Complete equipment and product procurement
  • Host opening day event

Place milestones on a timeline

Identify a target completion date for each milestone. I like to start at the project completion date and work backward. If we want our location open on May 8, then when do we need to launch the marketing campaign? If legal requirements need to be completed by March 1, then when do we need to have a location secured?

Decompose milestones into actions

Brainstorm all of the actions that will need to happen to complete each milestone. This is where the rubber meets the road for project completion. The “secure location” milestone, for example, could include dozens or hundreds of actions such as identify short list of location options, perform market research, review market research, identify facility requirements, contact real estate firm, etc.

Manager-Tools recommends classifying each action as a “now task” or “later task”. Now tasks are, not surprisingly, things that you have the ability to complete right now. Later actions are things that should be on your radar, but cannot (or should not) happen until a later date.

Assign responsibility

Look at each of your “now” actions and determine who is responsible for completing the action and by when it needs to be completed. You obviously don’t need to assign responsibility if you are the only person on the project, but you still should identify completion dates for the actions.

Launching the project

I suggest brainstorming the details outlined so far at a “Project Launch Meeting” that includes anyone that will be involved in working on the project. The agenda could look like this:

  • Project goals (why are we doing it?)
  • Identify milestones and timeline
  • Brainstorm actions
  • Assign actions to team members

You should walk out of that meeting with a team that is clearly aligned on the purpose of the project and how to accomplish it.

Your task management system

The task management system is how you track all these newly identified details and prioritize your actions throughout the life of the project. I appreciate the sage advice of Manager-Tools: it doesn’t matter what your task management system is, but just that you have one and that it is used consistently. There are a lot of easy to use tools out there such as Asana, Basecamp and Trello, or you could simply use an Excel spreadsheet or pen and paper. What’s important is that you are using something. I also suggest keeping your system as simple as the project allows. You want to be spending your time completing actions that drive project outcomes, not fiddling with your tools.

Track lessons learned

The single easiest thing that I do to create the most amount of value is track lessons learned throughout a project. Keep a running list in a notebook or computer file that lists any encounters with areas of potential improvement. Review this information at the end of the project along with any other relevant feedback information (such as customer surveys, project team debriefings, stakeholder meetings, etc.), and set next actions for any high-value areas. The cumulative effect of addressing lessons learned project after project is profound and the investment is minimal.

The weekly review

Launching a project is easy, but maintaining momentum requires week-to-week persistence. A cornerstone of David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology is the weekly review. Set aside 1-3 hours once a week to empty your head and get current on all of your projects and priorities. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Are all next actions captured in the task management system? Are the deadlines still relevant?
  • Are we on track for meeting milestones? Do we need corrective action?
  • What is the status of project inputs that we are waiting on, such as contracted work, necessary information, approvals, etc.?
  • Am I prepared for everything that is on my calendar for the next two-weeks?
  • Are there any lessons learned that should be recorded?

Completing a weekly review on all your projects ensures that items are not falling through cracks and keeps you in a proactive stance on your work. I find it also provides a greater amount of focus and enjoyment in the work throughout the week.

PM 201

These recommendations will jumpstart your abilities as an effective project manager. There are plenty of great resources out there that provide more depth. I am a fan the free podcast content of Manager-Tools and the methodology of Getting Things Done. Take a look at the Project Management Institute (PMI) and the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification for more information on technical project management and global standards for the discipline.

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Joshua D. Marko is the special projects coordinator at the Michigan Small Business Development Center, which is based in Grand Rapids at GVSU. Marko has a decade of experience planning and leading projects that consistently surpass stakeholder expectations in fields that include motorsports, higher education, business support services and nonprofit development. This includes improvement projects in functional areas such as marketing, technology, operations, finance, staff development and company culture. Marko has worked extensively with event-based projects and has experience planning hundreds of events ranging from award galas to festivals. He also supports the planning of the American Model United Nations International Conference, serves as the president of the Aquinas College Alumni Leadership Council and led the endowment of a scholarship in the name of his undergraduate mentor. He holds a B.A. in history and Spanish from Aquinas College and an M.B.A. from Davenport University. Contact Josh at 616.331.7373 or markojos at gvsu dot edu.