Project Management

Startups and Project Management: They Aren’t Opposites

From the Voices on Project Management Blog
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By Wanda Curlee

Project management is partly about establishing and documenting processes and procedures, and maintaining configuration control. Startup companies, on the other hand, often pride themselves on entrepreneurialism, a lack of required processes/procedures and flexibility.

But processes and procedures are not the antithesis of entrepreneurship and flexibility. In fact, project, program and portfolio management can help a startup manage growth.

When a startup’s leadership allows change to happen without any processes, strategy or structure, the organization will struggle. Project managers can help provide structure, while also demonstrating how to adapt to change.

For example, if the organization has 20 employees today but expects to add 180 in the next two years, how exactly will this growth occur? Will all new employees be hired in month 24? Do all resources need the same skills? Does training need to be done? This is where project managers can help.

Later in the organization’s growth, executives, with the help of project managers, can put together a roadmap to deal with issues like sales, IT and system needs, and travel policies. At this point, it may be time to turn to a program manager responsible for the overall strategic view of the program, rather than individual projects.

The program manager may work directly with leadership or report to a portfolio manager. The program may be to deliver organizational change, including IT, processes/procedures, staffing, etc. When I was a program manager, I focused on realizing benefits and the roadmap.

For example, when a small company becomes medium-sized, the number one issue might be staffing to meet sales needs. Let’s say the program manager’s roadmap showed that the second quarter of the program was when benefits would be realized from sales and increased staffing would occur.

If the program manager realizes that sales are occurring much faster than predicted, he or she would discuss alternatives with leadership. One option might be to slow sales; another might be to slow down the development of processes and procedures, and focus more resources on hiring the correct individuals to continue to drive sales.

Finally, the portfolio manager can drive strategic change in a startup growing into an established organization. The portfolio manager listens to leadership’s strategic goals. With a small company that is transitioning fast, the strategic goals should not change often, but can be fluid.

The portfolio manager assists the C-suite with governance and understanding how to select projects/programs to drive to the final result—checked growth without going bankrupt. She will also put governance in place to report to the investors, leadership and stakeholders. With a portfolio manager bridging strategy and execution, the fledgling organization can increase its chances of growing rapidly—and successfully.  

Posted by Wanda Curlee on: April 23, 2015 07:16 AM | Permalink

Comments (10)

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Michael Bahr Project Manager| Lufthansa Cargo Frankfurt, Germany
so right - it is as if any established company will implement it's strategy without any project <-> no chance..
All processes from PM just offer structures - and as within any project you need to pick the most helpful components - and probably skip others..

Wanda Curlee Dr. Wanda Curlee| PM POWERED Exton, Pa, USA
Michael - Thank you for your post. I agree that nothing even project management processes and components should be adapted for the environment.

Salam Kalandos Chief, Healthcare Technology Management - Clinical Engineering | US Department of Veterans Affairs Chandler, Az, USA
by need, complex projects need more components to be used than the less complex ones.

Wanda Curlee Dr. Wanda Curlee| PM POWERED Exton, Pa, USA
Salam - Thank you for your post. I would totally agree that more components are needed the more complex the program and/or project.

Paul Benn IT Business Analyst| OMIGSA Cape Town, South Africa, South Africa
One of the important tasks of a project manager is to ensure that the objectives outlined in the business case and ultimately expanded in the project plan are aligned to the strategic objectives of the organisation. It ensures the ultimate success of the project in that the project delivers on the requirement of the client/executives. In order to do this we work our way through the various knowledge areas and process groups to achieve that success. As Michael said these give us structure, they guide us forward in the project to achieving the stated objectives. They are the tools in the toolbox, but we need to choose the right tool, for the right moment, to achieve the right outcome.

Wanda Curlee Dr. Wanda Curlee| PM POWERED Exton, Pa, USA
Paul - Thank you for your post. Over the years, the objectives of project management have shifted. When I first started project management, there was nothing strategic, unless it was deemed strategic by the "powers to be". Those that were deemed strategic were normally very large or were truly a program. As the discipline is maturing, there is definitely a step to tie strategy to all levels of project management. This is the way we need to progress in order to mature project management.

Aaron Brune Project Manager| Fort Wayne Metals Fort Wayne, In, USA
Paul - Thanks for the information! I agree that any company wishing to grow needs some sort of management to ensure there is planned growth - vice anarchy. I am helping a smaller company do this very thing - and the rewards in job satisfaction and accomplishment are fantastic!

Sujith Kattathara Founder, CEO| FreelanceTeams Private Limited Ernakulam, Kerala, India
Wanda - Thanks for the great article - I also support your line of thought a 100%.
I am a Project Manager at heart, and have been doing this for the past 18 years. At this point in time, I am setting up a Start-up firm, and I am realizing that being an Entrepreneur also requires strong PM skills. There are so many things to be done (like yesterday !), and many of them have dependencies on each other. I quickly realized that I had to go back to my PM background and develop a Plan, so that I could understand the dependencies as well as the critical path. This artifact is now helping me to prioritize and attack the various activities one by one, while understanding the downstream impacts of potential delays on the various threads.
Bottomline: The Entrepreneur does not have to wait till the Start-up dust starts to settle down to bring out his/ her PM skills, it may actually be needed on Day 1.
BTW, I used a Mindmap to develop my Start-up activities prioritization plan - This gave me a one-page view of the entire exercise at a depth that was still comfortable to me.

Wanda Curlee Dr. Wanda Curlee| PM POWERED Exton, Pa, USA
Hello Sujith - Thank you for the comments. I am amazed at how many things in our lives depends on project management. I agree with everything you said and Mindmaps are great!

Erico Sabino Director of Project and Product Management| Toptal Oakville, Canada
This is such a great article. I work as project manager in a tech startup in Brazil and it''''s great how the pm techniques helps to increase productivity and achieve better results.

But, there is not a global method to use in all organisations in the world and that is exactly the hardest challenge for startup project managers: find the best way to deliver results with the appropriate methods at the time the project/program is starting. I created a LinkedIn group for startup and technology project managers connect and help each other and It would be great if you all could join it. Wanda, than you very much for your article

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