Is a small project more or less likely to be successful than a large one? Whilst there are many explanations as to why projects fail, these reports rarely distinguish between Enterprise and SMBs, or between a mega-project and a pilot. Surely there are some characteristics of a small project that give it more chance of success?

For example, one of the commonly cited reasons for failure is moving the goalposts. “By the time the project delivered, the business requirements had changed.” This issue is one of the justifications for the use of an Agile methodology. Communication too is often problematic on a large project, with head office and regional hubs failing to connect.

A small project won’t run for long enough for the goalposts to move, will it? Also, if all the stakeholders are in the same building, communication will be automatic. Well…. hopefully.

Finally, as it’s only a small project, there’s no need for methodology or formal planning, right? 

Here’s the crux of the issue. While small projects may not suffer from some of the common causes of failure, they tend to run under the radar. An inexperienced project manager, juggling other work and lacking a mentor may allow a project to drift off course. With no management oversight, the project can still fail. Less spectacularly than a major project perhaps, but still damaging to the business.

Here we examine some of the common causes of failure in small projects and the faulty thinking that led to those failures.

1. “It’s only a small project; throw them in at the deep end”

“What if they can’t swim?” The sink or swim approach works in some circumstances. The intensity and life-threatening pressure releases adrenaline and the fight or flight response. That’s perfect for someone in physical danger. For a project manager, however, adrenalin is probably the last thing they need.

Running a project, even a small one, needs a calm head. This is especially so for a novice who may need to refer back to their training notes and discuss with a mentor before making a key decision. 

A project manager needs training. Learning on the job, or hashing together bits of methodology recalled from previous projects is not acceptable. With the backing of a recognisable qualification like the PRINCE2 certification, a novice can run a successful project. 

2. “I’ve told you what the goals are, just get on with it”

One of the project manager’s tasks, at the start of the project, is to discover, clarify and achieve consensus on the goals or objectives. Failing to do this thoroughly means the project will be built on insecure foundations:

  • If goals are not clearly defined, how will the team know what they are expected to achieve?
  • If the goals reflect only one viewpoint, other stakeholders will not support the project 
  • If there is scope creep due to stakeholder demands, how can this be reconciled?
  • Is there a plan to prepare end-users for major change in their working environment. Who is responsible for managing change?

3. “This task should take about a month”

There’s no such thing as a one-month task. Using coarse estimates encourages a tendency to under-estimate the complexity of a task. It’s also difficult to check on progress; as there are no sub-tasks to tick off, the project manager has to wait until the whole task is completed.

4. “I’m too busy to check progress; the team know what they are doing anyway”

It’s essential that the project manager carries out regular progress reviews; how else will anyone know if the project is on target? Checking progress need not be onerous; using a robust project management tool like Teamwork, Trello or Basecamp, the team can mark sub-tasks as completed, leaving the project manager to roll up progress at a higher level. 

This gives the project manager the opportunity to reshape the plan in response to problems and to feed back progress to management and stakeholders. 

5. “It’s a small project, what risks can there be?”

A high risk for any project, but especially a small project, is resources. If the team is dependent on one person for a particular role, it is highly susceptible to delay due to illness or competing work. If that person is fully scheduled and their work overruns, there is no natural fall back position. 

Risk assessment is an essential part of project management, at the start of the project but also at regular intervals. Dependency on one team member needs to be mitigated at an early stage.

6. “We’re all in the same building, communication will just happen”

The project manager must ensure that the team is communicating amongst themselves and must involve stakeholders and management in progress and decision-making. There should be regular meetings to demonstrate progress to keep stakeholder buy-in, to raise issues and to maintain team morale.

Methodology rules

A small project has an excellent chance of being successful if the project manager follows good practice. All of the causes mentioned here can be avoided by following a reputable project management methodology such as PRINCE2.