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Small Projects Management: 7 Tactics That Pay-Off Big!

Executive Brief

From budget constraints to unrealistic expectations, small to mid-size projects can be difficult to manage. Guarantee the success of your next small project using the sure-fire strategies found here.

Challenging projects and difficult clients can make a software project manager's job quite stressful. Addressing key problem issues faced by many project managers responsible for smaller projects can provide a workable framework for planning and monitoring. Project managers hired by small business clients may find they have been unsuccessful for three main reasons.

  1. They run over budget.
  2. They do not meet their schedules.
  3. They do not fulfill their customer's requirements.

With over 28 years of technical experience encompassing virtually all areas of information technology, Mark Levy, co-owner of Enterprise Technology Associates (ETA), a consulting company in Glenview, Illinois is sharing seven tactics for working with small to mid-size businesses.

  1. Conduct a Requirement Analysis
  2. The Specifications
  3. The Design Phase
  4. Testing
  5. Points to Include in the Agreement
  6. Being the General Contractor
  7. When the Client Changes the Scope of the Project

1. Conduct a Requirement Analysis
To assure the requirements of the client are recorded accurately conduce a requirement analysis. Determine the features of the software and what the software is expected to do. "This is extremely important in the process because you don't want a back and fourth situation of 'Is this what you wanted?' 'No, it's not what I wanted.' This situation becomes a terrible loop that causes problems for the client and the project manager," Levy says.

Before beginning any project write down and give the objectives of what is expected to be accomplish to the client. This ensures you understand the client correctly. In this document re-describe what the client wants. Have the client sign off on the project.

Complex projects may require more than one meeting. Be explicit when talking to the client. Here is what can be accomplished for this cost. Here are the optional features that can be added, but each one will cost X number of dollars. Project managers can prioritize a list of tasks. Tell the client "This is something we can do" or "This is something you may have to give up considering the budget restraints."

2. The Specifications
After the meetings, the project manager should have a clear understanding of what the client expects. According to Levy, it is like constructing a building. The client wants the building to be 25 floors with these features. The project manager has to take the information from the client along with the restrictions and capabilities of the implementation. It is important to design a guide, decide what programs are involved and how they will operate. "Most often this is beyond the client's ability to understand what the project entails," Levy says. "It's the software project manager's blue print, and he gives the client a copy of this blue print."

The project manager will find that a customer requests impractical things. It is then necessary to talk to the customer with revised specifications. If the customer still requests a specific feature, the project may have to be re-examined to see if that objective can be met.

3. The Design Phase
There must be a blue print of how the data base will look and how the systems will interact. It is important to lay out what information will be in the data base, the size of the data base, how the data base is to be keyed in and how the fields are interrelated to each other. For example, there may be a customer information table with a customer number. But-- that customer number also feeds into accounts receivable. It is crucial to determine how the linkages will take place so the coding will be correct.

"Projects can go terribly wrong if they are not designed properly," points out Levy. Years ago, Denver was scheduled to open a brand new airport. The airport was delayed almost a year because the sophisticated baggage handling system wasn't sending baggage to the right place. In fact, most of the luggage was going to the wrong place on the conveyer belt. "This is an example of a project gone terribly wrong," he says. "Just as mistakes happen on larger projects crucial mistakes can happen on smaller projects as well."

4. Testing
It is very important that the software is designed and written correctly as well as the data bases are set up properly. "The purpose for testing is two fold," says Levy. "The first is to ensure the finished product complies with the design specification and to ensure that the software is in compliance with the customer's request." For example, if a contractor was asked to build a five-story building, the customer wouldn't expect to see a three-story building.

Testing should determine all the bugs have been removed and the software won't crash. "Continue testing for as many bugs as you can locate until they are gone. In addition, continue testing all the items in the design specification," he says. Frequently, Levy has found problems resulting in changes that need to be made in the design as well as the implementation.

Levy believes that it's the project manager's job to anticipate the growth of the company. For instance, the client asks for a data base for 50,000 customers. It is important that it will work for 100,000 customers as the company grows.

5. Points to Include in the Agreement
Many times, the project manager discovers problems in the testing phase. Make sure the agreement provides enough of a time element to account for problems that may occur. Another important feature to include in the agreement is training time for the employees. It is always wise to allow more time than you think you will need to work with the company's employees or to train the client as well.

6. Being the General Contractor
When working on smaller projects, the project manager may wear many hats and sometimes is the designer. Even if the project manager is not working on all these phases of the project, he is still the general contractor. Just like on a construction project, it is his responsibility to make sure people work and do their jobs. "The overall goal of the project manager is to make sure tests are being conducted, the project is done properly and the project is being completed on time."

Levy suggests creating a time line to know when milestones are being met. If they are not being met, it is his job to find out why and what needs to be done.

7. When the Client Changes the Scope of the Project
Even though a client has signed off at the start of the project and the project manager believes the client understands what the project will entail, a problem can still occur. The project manager tells the client the project is completed, and the client may say that's not exactly what he wanted-even though the client agreed to it in the original meetings. "This can happen because many clients are not computer people. They truly don't understand the facets of the project they've signed off on," Levy points out.

It is very important, Levy emphasizes, that project managers keep this thought in mind. Some clients truly don't understand what the capabilities of the software may be. "Always listen to what the client wants to do and not necessarily what the client is saying. Learn to read between the lines and try to determine what the client's goal is." It may be that the goal isn't reasonable. It may be that the goal is reasonable, but not within the budget the client is allowing. As a project manager it is your responsibility to let the client know-right from the start- that the project can't be done that way.

So, the next time you are hired as a software project manager for a small firm trying to upgrade or implement a new software product, remember the client you are working with has limited knowledge of what this project could involve. If you speak clearly to the client in a language he or she will understand, and client is confident you are open and honest about the project, you will be successful.

About the Author
ExecutiveBrief, the technology management resource for business leaders, offers articles loaded with proven tips, techniques, and action plans that companies can use to better manage people, processes and tools - the keys to improving their business performance.

© Copyright 2009 ExecutiveBrief. Used by permission.

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