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What small businesses can learn from project managers

You could argue that every small business owner is a project manager. As the owner of a business, you’re responsible for delivering products and services that meet client’s expectations on time and without breaking the budget. On a larger scale, it’s your job to make sure the business can continue to operate as a viable entity in the mid- to long-term future.

But there are a number of luxuries available to business owners that aren’t to project managers. The owner of a small business has no deadlines other than those allotted by their whip-cracking superiors (ie themselves). As they have the final say on finances, liberties can be taken and corners cut when it comes to budgets. Business systems are often created on an ad hoc basis, and things like project timelines are obscured in favour of more satisfying activities like marveling at profit and loss statements, or micro-managing office supplies.

As such, business owners stand to learn a thing or two from the discipline of project management.

Time management

By default, project managers are masters of business discipline. When a project manager starts a small business, they come from an environment in which structure, process and planning are all tightly constrained by deadlines and limited resources.

“Project management is a job that was created because people don’t do their own jobs,” says Debbie Marks, director of The Edge Consulting. “It was a job created to make sure that things get done. It’s the role of a project manager to co-ordinate all aspects of the project, and be the interaction between the people doing the project and the client.”

In a business setting, the ‘client’ is none other than the business owner themselves. The fact that they’re accountable to no-one else means that success entails a considerable degree of self-discipline.

“Sometimes, with small businesses, you can be easygoing about when you get things done,” says Rachel Bandara, owner of Dilani Image and Fashion. “But as a project manager, you’re given tasks to do by a certain date. You’re given milestones, and if you don’t achieve them, there are consequences. If you switch into that mentality, then you get a hell of a lot more done.”

Motivation

One of the biggest challenges in small business is motivation. Project managers are motivated by tight deadlines, budgets, and looming client expectations. As their operations typically have no set end-date, small business owners have to rely more heavily on their own initiative to get things done. Edge Consulting’s Marx claims that this is one of the most valuable things she’s taken from her project management experience into her role as a business owner.

“As a project manager you have to be able to look at what needs doing, and then just get on with it,” she says. “I think having been a project manager, my ability to not go off on tangents is quite strong. Having that ability to sit back and look at the bigger picture: What is the aim of my business or the activity that I’m doing today?”

She notes that it’s important to strive for objectivity when running a small business. Indulging tangents or focusing too closely on unattainable goals will eventually become counter-productive. Dilani Image and Fashion’s Bandara says that her experience in project management has helped her become more disciplined with how she approaches her business and strives for its goals.

“You definitely take the emotional approach away from it when you look at your business,” she says. “You treat the money and the budget as if it was someone else’s. You know you can’t play with it responsibly.”

Planning

It’s common for a business owner to focus on a single aspect of their business (usually something directly related to cash flow or sales) to the detriment of everything else that’s crucial to keeping it afloat. (for more on this, read Top 5 financial mistakes startups make) This is why Edge Consulting’s Marks claims that the process of creating a project plan is valuable for small businesses. Quite apart from providing a template for tracking the business’s health, it can also help to prepare for unforeseen challenges.

“It’s great, as a small business owner, to be able to step away from the computer, and actually write or draw where you want to be going, and why you’re doing the actions that you’re doing sometimes,” she says.” “It’s good to put down a plan, instead of just reacting all the time.”

Elisa Limburg, managing director of Elevents and Marketing, says project planning is the most useful process she’s garnered from her time in events management. She outlines four parts in the process.

“First, you’d start with an overview of the project: what your objectives are, who’s involved, what your target market might be if it’s a promotional project, who you’re trying to reach and how,” she says.

Having established goals, the next step is to outline the practical steps involved in achieving each one, and then to project the likely resource costs. Finally, in order to keep yourself accountable to the plan, all objectives, actions, and budgeting requirements should be planned out on a timeline.

“It’s important to have things documented,” says Greg Soster, manager of landscaping business Outside Space. “Even as far as normal, day-to-day tasks – whether they’re menial or not, they can be systemised or procedurised to break down any error. If there’s any error, or if you create error, you stand to lose quite a lot.”

Soster uses Microsoft Projects to keep the scope of his client’s projects on track, but other services like the cloud-based Basecamp HQ are also useful for keeping teams of people up-to-date with a project’s progress and ongoing cost.

Creating and observing a timeline is a sound practice for keeping individual projects on track, but is also useful in the broader operation of a business.

Irena Bukhshtaber, director of iB Strategic, says her experiences as a project manager have helped her to stay on top of things she previously found challenging.

“The main thing is being really rigorous about timelines. It’s important to document everything, and keep a paper trail, but to do it in a way that’s quite systematic.” she says. “Once a month, I would put a meeting with myself in my calendar with the words ‘invoice client’. Before I started, I set up templates that were really clear about how many hours, what I did, and what rate I’m charging at.”

By plotting all of this information out on a timeline, allotting job numbers and separate colours for different clients, Bukshtaber has a much stronger idea of where her business stands with respect to its invoicing and accounts.

Communication and relationships

Outside Space’s Soster believes the most important role of any project manager is to remain empathetic with everyone involved in a project.

“You need to have a good relationship with everyone, whether they’re a supplier, staff, or clients – it could be anyone within that framework,” he says. “Having the key relationships will make things run smoother.”

The reason he cites relationships and communication as paramount to ensuring the success of a project is that things don’t always go according to plan.

“Things can change along the way. The project can move. It doesn’t actually stick to the guidelines most of the time,” he says. “A good project manager needs to communicate well and have those relationships to call upon when things happen.”

Image credit: Thinkstock

Learn from a wealth of practical and helpful advice on small business management, sure to help take the stress out of the day-to-day management of your business. This helpful section is crammed with features and articles to assist you in managing staff, accounts and much more. NETT is the one-stop shop offering better business advice on all your small business management needs.