One thing all small businesses have in common is their desire for growth. Every small business is hoping that one day, it will not be small. Dreams of what a small business will one day become are what keep owners up at night and help them get to it every day. But how do you achieve your dream? This pathway, usually isn’t that clear. In this blog, we’ll discuss how using a project-based approach to growth can rapidly deliver value to your small business.
When your small business is starting into its growth journey, it can be easy to get caught up in just achieving the day to day. It can also be easy to start too many projects that you are excited to realize. Neither of these situations will create sustainable growth.
Growing a business sustainably is like climbing a staircase. You have to move forward one intentional step at a time. Start by making a list of the different project options available. Next, carefully examine each project for three things:
- How important is this project to my business?
- How feasible is this project?
- If I don’t do this project, what are the consequences?
When you are done prioritizing the projects, at the top of your list should be the projects that are most feasible, most important, and have the greatest consequences if they are not done. Choose the project that is at the top of the list to focus on.
For a project to be meaningful, you need to understand how the project will deliver value to your organization. Set a business objective to which the project will align. Writing an objective can sometimes take several iterations. To find the right objective for your project try statements like:
- We are undertaking this project to achieve objective x and to avoid risk y.
- We are undertaking this project to deliver a value of x because this positions our organization for…
- We are undertaking this project because if we don’t, then this consequence will happen.
- We are undertaking this project to improve this part of our organization so that we can then undertake z.
Good business objectives that guide projects will help you to determine how to measure success. Think about what results can be measured to determine whether you have achieved the objective or not. Powerful projects are projects your team can feel invested in because they can see why their project is important and what will happen if it does not succeed. These projects are more likely to have a motivated team executing them and greater commitment toward project success.
It may be tempting to just jump in. Getting excited about a project and achieving the objective you’ve set for yourself is very easy, especially when you might just be executing the project yourself, or with a small team. It can seem like creating a plan will just waste time. This is a key mistake. It might be tempting to say – ‘we are small, we don’t need to document this project we can just get started.’ It might be tempting to say – ‘we are agile and we don’t need to create a plan for this project.’ The reality is, a plan gives you important data to later evaluate your project performance against. In a young organization, especially one without a lot of project experience, this is critical data that will help you continuously improve project delivery (and when projects are tied to value this will also mean you get better at realizing value). A plan is also important to evaluate whether a project is on track or whether you are experiencing risks that could impact whether the project can be delivered, and how successful it will be.
Key things you need to have in your project plan are:
- Budget – know what kind of investment your business can make in this project. Compare this investment to the expected returns of the project. Consider how long it will take, to recover this investment. That might influence how quickly you plan to realize this project.
- Timeline – examine key milestones that need to be achieved along the way to realize your project. Set goals for when these milestones will be achieved. Look at critical market or other business needs that dictate when the project might need to be complete to realize success. Examine whether the milestone schedule and this long-range need are aligned. Refine the timeline with these insights.
- Risk analysis – what could go wrong? How likely are these things to go wrong? How bad will the impact be if things did go wrong? Could you take steps to make these risks less likely? If so, what steps could be taken? Should you take any of these steps right now, to reduce the impact of critical risks? Meet with your project team to discuss this. Revisit this as the project progresses. If you document only one thing, this is it.
- Communication – who needs to know about this project? What information do they value? How often will they want this information? What’s the best method to deliver this information? How can we best support these communication needs?
- Scope – what is the minimum task list that is required to achieve the business objective? Think of the business objective as an orange and look for the thinnest slice possible that still delivers the intended value. Scope can be documented several ways. You might choose to just start with a scope statement. This brief paragraph describes the outcomes of the project that are in scope. It is most usefully followed by a brief bullet point list of things that are specifically not part of your scope. Scope can also be defined using a backlog (a prioritized list of all the tasks that need to be undertaken to complete the project) or a work-breakdown-structure (a sequential matrix of tasks that relate to each other in order of accomplishment).
Who will help with this project? What kinds of expertise are needed for the project to be successful? Create as diverse a team as possible. Diverse teams, with appropriate support, where openness allows for debate and discussion will become high-performing teams. Will the project resources be dedicated to this project? Or do they have other duties? If they have other duties, be sure your timeline includes contingencies. How often does the project team need to meet? Will you use technology to help you manage the work being done? How will you know work is getting done? Who will be accountable for the project?
Projects that deliver value also deliver learning. Make sure you conduct a project retrospective or post-mortem including a broad swath of project team members and stakeholders. Examine what went well, what could be improved, give kudos to the team where they are deserved and examine the project metrics. Write a report that summarizes your findings, and keep this report in a place that can be easily referred to for future projects. This is the most critical step to delivering value to your organization through projects. Continuous improvement from lessons learned on value delivery will accelerate the rate of return of your projects.