The Difference between Managing Small vs. Large Projects

by Jennifer Bridges, PMP (formerly, Jennifer Whitt)

Believe it or not, I’ve seen discussions of this topic, how to manage small versus large projects, cause near bar room brawls in organizations. The argument is never won by anyone, and deals in an area project managers and project management organizations get into trouble and sully their reputation because they inflict more pain than is required to manage a project. Sometimes, projects don’t require as much rigor as others, so we are going to look at six principles that I think guide managing the small versus large projects.

#1 – A Project is a Project

First, a project is a project whether it’s small or large. It’s has a start and an end date. It’s going to yield a unique deliverable, and your delivery is a solution to a problem. From that starting point, it’s critical that the organization define criteria for what constitutes a small versus large project, because who’s to say what projects will be compared to? It depends. If you define small versus large by scope, it is dependent upon how long it will last; will the project take a couple of weeks, months, or be multi-year?  If defined by cost, is it dependent on budget or who funds the project? If defined by resources, some projects could have one person, a few people, or hundreds. It’s relative to the organization, because you can’t really compare yourself to others.

#2 – The Project Flow Remains the Same

Once you categorize the criteria, the life cycle is the same. The life cycle is how the project flows from beginning to end and what happens in between. We’re not creating anything new there. Some life cycles have very specific planning, analysis, executing, monitoring and controlling, and closing phases, but whether the project is small or large, it still goes through a flow.

#3 – More Intensity May be Involved

Whereas the life cycle can be the same for both the small versus large, the rigor is different. Here’s where people run into trouble, especially organizations implementing process, because people don’t agree on the rigor being different. Maybe there is a process patrol or group defining the process, and the one group who’s actually using the process. Depending on the criteria, i.e. size of the project, there may be more rigor.

#4 – More Intensity May be Involved

Then, look at the systems and processes. It’s important for small and large projects to have systems and processes in place because they provide the how-to. Categorization of a project influences how you go about doing things, how many people are involved and how many steps or details you are going to go into. Remember, if something is small we don’t want to make the pain or process more than what is required. The idea is to get things done and get results quickly.

#5 – Monitor Complexity

Finally, look at the project’s complexity. The complexity between small and large varies, and sometimes we are of the mindset that small is simple and large is complex, but that’s not really true based on my experience. Sometimes small projects are more complex; it depends upon what you’re doing. You could be implementing something that’s never been implemented before: maybe a new type of landscaping, a new technique for building a pond, or using new building materials. Maybe the solution is for a different country where the basis of the project is different than you’ve never dealt with before. On the other hand, a large project could be large but simple. It could have a really huge budget with a lot of resources, but if it is repeatable, something that you’ve done many times before so you have a sound, mature process, tools and templates already in place and people who are really good about executing then it may not be so complex.

#6 – Focus on Deliverables, Not Tasks

As a bonus, remember that at the end of a project, whether large or small, you are producing deliverables, not task. So many times we get bogged down in the task that we don’t bring our heads up long enough to remember we are actually providing a solution. So if you find yourself in a squabble with your project team or organization over the meaning of small versus large and the rigor or complexity of projects, then maybe using some of these guiding principles may help you out.

If you found these tips from Jennifer Bridges, PMP (formerly, Jennifer Whitt) of value and are a PMP looking to earn PMI PDUs, you might be interested in her self-paced, downloadable courses at

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