Small-Project Management: Handling Shallow Bench Issues

Small projects are sometimes considered to be less challenging in terms of project planning and management than large, complex undertakings. For example, some types of project risk may be limited or even eliminated on small projects. Shorter timelines reduce exposure to uncertainty. Narrow scope, fewer team members, and less attention and pressure from senior management may also be features of small projects.

But small projects are also known for presenting their own peculiar sets of challenges. One that is easy to overlook is the need to put together an effective small-project team. Teams working on small projects can enjoy a number of benefits including more team cohesion and unity, a smaller, tighter communication network, greater agility. And of course, small-project teams also face their own downsides and difficulties. One of most obvious vulnerabilities is variation on what is referred to in sports as the “shallow bench” problem, meaning there are no extra team members to call on when the situation requires it.

Skill Shortages

Members of small teams usually need to play multiple roles. The project manager may be required to take on roles usually filled by various team members, and every member of the team is likely to be working outside their normal field of expertise at times. Addressing the skills gap issue can be tricky. Putting together a highly specialized team to take on projects that call for specialized skillsets inevitably results in skill shortages cropping up for items or situations that were overlooked or arise unexpectedly. The best option might be to put together a team with broad and overlapping skillsets, get permission and budgeting during planning to allow for specialists to be called in as needed, then apply careful project monitoring procedures to forecast any skill shortage and address it before it results in delay.


A related small-team problem is the potential damage that can be caused by the loss of a team member. With each individual taking on a range of tasks and responsibilities, absenteeism whether temporary or permanent can convey considerable project risk. Even a team with solid skill overlap may find it difficult to adequately cover absences and bringing in new team members always involves disruption and delay. Irreplaceability is another issue that must be addressed during early planning stages. When working with a small team, it is a good idea to include some slack in the project timeline to allow for slower progress when a key member is absent, or for the time needed to replace a team member. The potential for absenteeism should be dealt with as a risk factor, with various scenarios gamed out and appropriate contingency plans emplaced.

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