Project Management Insights: The Difference Between Success and Failure for SMEs

If you’re running your own business, the chances are that you work in a high-pressure environment – particularly when it’s your own money at stake. Entrepreneurs and small to medium-sized enterprise (SME) owners are increasingly managing their own projects (at times alone, or with a small team) in an attempt to meet clients’ business objectives. Often without any knowledge of project-management principles, they try to quickly adapt to the demands expected of them – with no guaranteed success.

There is a lot at stake for SMEs in the GCC as many attribute the region’s potential growth to budding entrepreneurs. Whilst governments across the GCC have various policies and structures in place for nurturing start-ups, some of the member nations only offer limited support or simply don’t do enough to promote their entrepreneurial opportunities. For example, a study conducted by the National Poll Centre found that awareness of organisations or programmes available in Oman to support SMEs is really low, some only showing 2% and others hovering around 20%.

The GCC’s challenging entrepreneurial ecosystem may be further influenced by factors such as bureaucracy, licensing, location and rent, and cultural and religious nuances associated with gender, women’s rights, and their role in business ownership and society. Even countries that have organisations dedicated to nurturing start-ups (like the U.S.) still show only about half surviving the first five years and only one-third reaching their tenth anniversary. Resources are important, but entrepreneurs must have the tenacity to overcome many barriers to succeed. Imagine the growth potential of start-ups if entrepreneurs had proven skills to help them meet expectations on time and to standard.

The difference between success and failure

The demands expected of start-up enterprises are inextricably aligned with those of project management. However, while professional project managers are trained to oversee projects, owner-managers often supervise their own projects on an ad-hoc basis, tackling them without the necessary skills to initiate them efficiently and follow them through. Over time, projects can change and expand beyond the remit of planned objectives, in a pattern known as scope creep, leading to an uncontrolled business trajectory.

This frequent and significant cause of failure is particularly troublesome for owners when projects become detached from corporate objectives. Project-management skills such as agility and being able to tailor and apply project-management methodologies, tools and techniques to unique business, managerial or entrepreneurial contexts are critical for successful enterprises. Not all start-ups can afford to hire professionally trained project managers immediately, but entrepreneurs can gain the necessary project-management skills that, when applied diligently, can help avoid potential financial loss resulting from the derailment of projects.

Escaping scope creep through skills development

Budding and start-up entrepreneurs seeking out a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree should look for programmes that include project management and are structured to enable students to grow, develop and sustain SMEs. In order for students to be truly effective in the long term, there should be opportunities to learn from each other as well as explore the link between the key fundamentals of entrepreneurship – creativity, innovation and ownership – and the full project-management life cycle, from scope-setting, initiating and planning to implementation of controls, execution and closing projects. Learning new ways of identifying, assessing and controlling uncertainty enables greater satisfaction and project success.

The project-management modules in the University of Roehampton, London Online’s MBA programme, for example, are underpinned by an intricate blend of theory and practice, enabling students to unearth entrepreneurial values that lead to the achievement of goals. Instead of a chalk-and-talk approach, students in the online programme are encouraged to share their knowledge and experiences of project-management failure and success. This exchange of ideas and best practices between students and faculty members located around the world is fundamental to students’ growth and development, providing invaluable insight and enabling them to understand, identify and develop a structure of accountability and responsibility for their unique projects and endeavours.

By gaining professional project-management skills, entrepreneurs and SME owner-managers are better equipped to determine whether their ideas or projects are desirable, feasible and achievable, and assess whether they should be initiated or pursued. Online MBA students are able to instantly apply change-management concepts, theories and techniques learned in class, as well as directly embed quality principles into their projects. Students are also better attuned to the importance of risk management, and build a range of risk-management skills that are immediately relevant in the real world.

Real-world application results long-term success

Experimenting in the context of concepts, theories and models from academic sources and discussing learning experiences can lead to very powerful developments. As a result of their endeavours, many Roehampton Online MBA students have gone on to higher-level entrepreneurial and enterprise project-management roles, including overseeing projects that address financial and operational challenges in Kazakhstan banks, SME micro-financing in Ghana, and healthcare projects in the UK healthcare system. A recent MBA graduate has been tasked with setting up a travel-clinic service in Qatar for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. This will be the first time such a clinic has been set up in a hospital in Qatar, and is a result of the student’s innovative and creative approach to problem-solving during his MBA journey and subsequent dissertation. In Canada, a current student is in the process of developing a self-care-management mobile application for SMEs as a direct result of his dissertation into patient-led networks.

Whether managing projects for your own company or overseeing projects for your employer, project-management skills are vital to move a business closer to its goals more quickly and efficiently. With a new-found ability to seek opportunities to stand out from the crowd, the global economy is witnessing how innovation through project management can help the entrepreneur or SME owner-manager capitalise on every opportunity and bring new ideas to fruition.

Dr Kieran Mervyn currently teaches courses including project management and research methods in the online MBA programme at the University of Roehampton, London. He is also the leader for the Learning and Leading in a Dynamic Era module, where Roehampton Online students examine skills and best practices relating to leadership in contemporary organisations. He is also co-director of AM2 Partners Ltd, a focused team of management and research consultants in the UK.