Project Management in the SME Environment

Cutting your Cloth – Project Management in the SME Environment

It is not easy to believe in the relevance of Project Management methodology as an HR, Finance or HR systems professional within a Small or Medium Enterprise (SME). In my days within the Further Education sector, my College had the vision to send me on a PRINCE2 course and I recall spending the first morning sitting on an itch that began with “This is all very well but….” and ended with “How is all this stuff relevant?”

I will accelerate you to the point where I sat up and listened properly, when we came to “tailoring”, which is one of seven principles of the PRINCE2 method. These principles are intended to be guiding concepts which are universal to all projects, proven to work and empowering – enabling the project manager to approach their work with greater confidence. The idea of tailoring is that a method even apparently so formal as this can be applied in any project context. You can “tailor” the method accordingly.

I find this sound both in theory and in practice. The moral of my story here is that cut your cloth accordingly with project management (PM) and expect to gain really differentiating value from it – momentum, enablement and control.

I began to formulate a light-touch approach to PM. I explain and use these simple tools to suggest everyday ways in which professionals for whom project management is not their core business can keep HR or HR systems projects on track, to time, under budget and achieving their committed aims.

What is PRINCE2?

PRINCE2 is a UK-developed method for running a project and perhaps the best-known “methodology” here. The acronym stands for PRojects In a Controlled Environment – and, yes, this technique specifically is very much about control at every stage. The elements of cost, time, scope, quality, risk and benefits are combined within a process-driven structure to offer a way in which this control can be achieved. In the smaller context, the apparent formality can be a barrier. For example, a project is itself defined as an “organisation” and documents or stages are “products” and in my HR world I found that not desperately easy to engage with. Good luck working out what a “configuration item” is! But don’t be put off.

Word of the day: Project Management Methodology – an approach to managing a project, with a “project” being typically defined as any change process, which has a start and an end and a defined goal. Your methodology could be one of those well-recognised. PRINCE2 is one, but PMBOK is arguably more robust as a process method – and there are “agile” ideas about how to run projects too. Methodologies out there serve to provide models for managing change that focus more or less on process or fluidity and responsiveness. Your own method might be a recognised one, or belong to your organisation, or be your own creation.

Why you might not want to read this….

It is easy to feel a resistance to exploring how to apply PM in what may feel to be the “wrong” environment. Read on if you:

  • Assume PM is going to add a time constraint you don’t have – just another thing to do
  • Suspect that this is really just for bigger organisations, those with fewer “people issues” and/or politics, or for IT projects only
  • Fear that perhaps it needs a skill that you don’t have and might not be desperately good at (or a dedicated Project Manager?)

I agree that to follow slavishly a prescribed method might not be right for you. However, you can and should consider adapting these formal methods to your own plans, change projects and organisational scale. The even better news is that you can do so alone!
I suggest, if you are in HR, that a process-oriented method is a good idea, because we tend not to work that way naturally. A criticism of such methods is that they fail to pay due attention to the softer skills, but you are probably good on that front anyway, so I think you are probably covered.
So what can you do?

My focus is on achieving and maintaining control, over those things not so naturally controlled in HR and in change projects. Examples are the implementation and development of HRIS, or re-structuring, process re-design, or indeed something much “woollier” such as getting together a new benefits package or seeking cultural change. In the absence of a big organisation structure, with a natural-born Project Board, in-house methodology of preference that everyone is signed up to, change control process and so on, here are 10 ideas as to how to use simple concepts in project management that just might work for you:

10 Suggestions for Managing an HR Project

  1. Define Roles – work out, even if just to yourself, some of the key stake-holders. Who is the decision-maker? Who represents the user or employee interest? Who pays the bills? This person could be the same as the decision-maker (very likely) but perhaps there is a distinction. If you have a supplier, who do you regard to be your representative there? This little team might comprise your project Board. As the project manager, if you are fortunate enough, you’ll also wish to define areas of work responsibility below you and, ideally, a project support member.
  2. Structure Time – make time to save time! If you have a team, then the very least you need to do is to fix regular project team meetings. And if that team is just you, then I suggest setting aside just half an hour a week in the diary which is your PM time. Your job here is to check in with yourself that the ideas you’ve decided to adopt here are all in place. Even if you are just taking stock. Note, if you have devised a formal Board, make sure you manage those regular meetings too. The agreement that you make with yourself about reporting will also need a small amount of structured time allocation too.
  3. Remember the Project Elements – above I note, from my PRINCE2 training, the 6 elements of cost, time, scope, quality, risk and benefit. Here are 6 ways in which to go wrong within a project, and 6 ways to get it right! Keep these concepts in mind if you are grappling with what might be going awry and focus on the need to maintain the balance of these elements in your decision-making. It’s not a great deal of use to come in under a shoe-string budget if your organisation doesn’t achieve the benefits of bothering (To cut costs? To buy a system? To change a process or structure? To introduce a strategy? To outsource or change a supplier?). And:
  4. Manage Risk – risk can be an intimidating prospect to address head-on for all but the skilled PM professional. But I suggest making it easy for yourself to do so, bravely, by devising a really easy way to assess project risk. Often this is done by scoring and weighting probability and impact. If nothing else, you could use a scale of 1, 2 and 3 for each, multiplied together for an overall score of 1-9. It takes no time at all and it may give you an exceptional clarity. The next step here is to think through the ways in which you can mitigate that risk – trying to avoid it, or to prepare for it if likelihood is high, or to limit the damage if the risk materialises. Highlight any risks that score high and those risks which are changing during the course of the project.
  5. Control Change – to the less technical mind, again here is a difficult concept, but it is worth translating into a way in which you can make sure you don’t go wrong where so many do. It can be tempting to give up when change threatens to become out of control, so get ahead with this. How are you going to know about change? How are you going to deal with it? For example, you could set a “tolerance” level with each piece of work assigned to a team member, so that they own progress as long as it remains within your defined parameters (for example, spend, deadline or the precision of outcomes). You could keep in one place all of the agreed changes and decisions, with naming conventions, dates and version numbering for saved forms, files and documents.Word of the day: Change Control – is a structured way in which to make sure (inevitable!) change is effectively managed. The point of having such a method is not to prevent change, but to make sure that how it is dealt with is agreed, unnecessary change does not happen, change is documented and understood, and change coordinated to make the best use of resources. Typically a change control method involves reporting, impact analysis, decision-making and documenting/referencing activities, for example. Often the phrase “change control” is used interchangeably with “configuration control/management”. To be pure about these terms, “change control” relates to project, whereas “configuration” relates to product.


  6. Report – it is up to you how much reporting you want to do, but do some. At one stage in HRIS implementation I reported to myself! Documenting takes very little time in this kind of style and it can accelerate your thought processes dramatically, allowing you and the decision-makers and influencers you have identified, to see the next decision or priority much more strikingly. My favourite idea is that of the regular highlight report, including:Key things that have happened – good and bad
    What needs to happen next – include the decisions that need to be taken
    Issues and risks that you are alerting about
    Whether the elements (particularly time and cost) are under control

    This report must be regular – it is using calendar time as a tool with which to maintain that elusive project control.

  7. Keep a Log – I recommend writing a diary or a daily log. This isn’t arduous. Choose your most accessible note-taking space, whether it is a running document on your desktop, voice-recorded messages on your smartphone, or an old-fashioned notebook. Perhaps keep your reflections and moods to the home journal, but if your stress levels are rising due to a horrible combination of (a) complexity and (b) lone responsibility then your log can provide a good deal of reassurance that you are on top of events, as well as a second memory to fall back on. Note dates, decisions, events, deliveries, milestones, communications and to the degree of detail that you feel comfortable to maintain but sufficient to form a decent record.
  8. Document the Business Case – rarely will this not be appropriate for a project in HR! The up-front purpose is of course to help to persuade decision-makers into initiating a project or taking a decision as to the approach, securing budget and resources. Also remember that this document serves later as your guide as to how you are doing and whether benefits are due to be realised. The benefits are one of the elements of the project, without which you don’t have the success you’d like. Perhaps I should make this my number 1 “how to” tip, but I choose not to because my suggestion is that it’s a mistake to consider the Business Case as a one-off-and-now-it’s-forgotten task.
  9. Word of the day: Baselined – in projects, agreed versions are often described as “baselined” or “baseline”. The Business Case is one such baseline and you will find the term used about project plans or versions of product descriptions, for example. The baseline document or plan is the starting point that has been agreed, typically by the project decision-makers. It is kept as a reference point, after which variation is managed using change and configuration controlled processes. 
  10. Start and End your Project – and the Business Case is a part of the successful start. You may also need to start with definition of roles, making the project plan, assessing the risks and setting up the systems you need to project manage in the ways you have determined you’ll do. In formal PM structures, we might refer to this collection of documents as the “PID” (Project Initiation Documentation).The start is rather more obvious than the end. I hope it’s going to prove satisfactory to say “phew”, but what else to do? Please recognise the scope we all have at this point for learning for the next time. What lessons did you learn? Are there other relevant organisational projects who could learn from you? Get feedback from your team. Give feedback. Document. If you have ever suffered from turnover, then you’ll appreciate why this is worth the bother of it. I recommend marking in the diary when you are going to revisit the benefits. There will be a handover to the “business as usual” (BAU) team – perhaps HR Operations – but training should be part of your project plan, rather than something considered post-project. You may wish to reflect on whether good relationships or services developed have created opportunities and ideas for the future that you’d like to keep warm.
  11. Manage in Stages – this concept is a really great one for making sure that your organisation doesn’t rush headlong down a track unwisely. Managing a project by stages means identified the extent to which you are prepared to make a detailed plan and commitment, marking that milestone and, as it arrives, taking the decisions necessary for the next stage. A stage or phase provides a sensible planning horizon, a focus point for revisiting the Business Case, releasing budget or reviewing approaches – and if confidence in the project itself is not 100%, then a way to mitigate the risk of getting started in the first place. So define each all of the stages in outline in your plan, detail the first one only, get sign-off until the next one and go for it!

Cutting your PM-cloth is about using simple stuff in smaller and “softer” environments to take charge of project-work and enjoy momentum, enablement and control without a dilution of what you do otherwise and best.

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Written by : Laura Lee

Laura’s role as Head of Marketing sees her continually looking for new opportunities to tell the world how great Phase 3 is.

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