SME Project Managers – The Next Generation

Traditional Project Managers

Larger organisations (businesses and public sector organisations) usually have lots of projects and plenty of project management expertise in-house. Typically they will have a community of project managers looking after a mix of:

  • product development
  • internal change or transformation, and
  • delivery of client projects.

Very often these are supported by some flavour of PMO (project, programme or portfolio), methodologies, competence models and development programmes. They will likely have adopted sophisticated EPM or PPM tools to support the community and the organisation, and likely to have a senior executive responsible for the PM function. For decades this has been the basis for most project management, and for the purposes of this discussion, we will describe project professionals working in this environment as “traditional project managers”.

It is estimated that there are 5.9m businesses in the UK, of which 5.85m are SMEs with less than 250 employees.

SME Project Manager

Next Generation Project Managers

Over the last 5 years, or so, we have seen a significant shift. With the “projectification of society“, there are now many more project managers working in smaller organisations (SMEs) than traditional project managers.

APM’s Golden Thread research reports that there are 2.13m FTE project professionals working in the UK, and that 1.3m (some 60%) of these work in SMEs, suggesting that 40% work in larger businesses and public sector organisations.

We see that there are increasing expectations on these SME project managers.

They not only act as project manager, but they also need to behave as sub-enterprise CEOs or “mini-MDs”. This adds an entrepreneurial level of competence expectation.

Innovation, often heavily dependent on collaboration is often a core demand.

Other Responsibilities. As you shift closer to the “smaller enterprise” side of the SME continuum, very often these PMs also have other day-to-day responsibilities (a day job), in addition to managing the project(s). In many cases the individuals don’t see themselves as project managers, just that project management is part of their role.

Greater Sensitivity to Failure. The next generation PMs are managing a relatively small number of projects, but their individual projects are proportionally much more critical to the success of their organisation than individual projects in much larger organisations.

As organisation size grows, project management capability grows, but reliance on the success of individual projects reduces.

Over-riding Challenges for SMEs. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, SMEs reported their top 5 challenges as:
1. Attracting customers (79%),
2. Increasing revenues (59%),
3. Maintaining profitability (51%),
4. Uncertainty over economic conditions (27%), and
5. Developing new products/innovation (19%).
Digging below the surface here and it is clear that 4 of these 5 can be dramatically and positively improved by improving project success rates.

The Challenge

It is essential to support these entrepreneurial project managers and their organisations to deliver demonstrable value, as they seek ever greater agility and efficiency. Very often the next generation project managers and their leaders:

  • don’t know what they don’t know, meaning that they don’t know what help to ask for, let alone where to get it from,
  • get by on unconscious competence, or
  • rely on using one of the many, many SaaS “PM Tools” to guide them through the basics, and
  • have little or no budget for overheads like PMOs.

Through resilience and hard work they usually get through. In the 2020’s, and with all of the turbulence that we’re seeing, we all need them to prosper.

Sources of Support

So how do next Generation project managers get the help they need?

In House Colleagues

In many SMEs there is a much smaller PM community, and consequently less in-house access to the much needed expertise & support.

Professional Bodies

The professional bodies (IPMA, APM, PMI) have rightly focused on traditional project managers. They have product offerings (qualifications aimed at traditional project managers, corporate memberships aimed at bigger organisations, CPD, and publications) that understandably meet the needs of their traditional market. They don’t have specific solutions which meet all of the needs of next generation project managers and their employers.

Next generation project managers can however, and sometimes do, join the professional bodies as individual members and make good use of the networking and CPD opportunities offered.

The professional bodies do have communities of eager, well-intentioned volunteer traditional project managers who can generously talk to the next generation project managers about how they do (or did) manage their traditional projects. They can of course ably signpost to the body’s products. However, in many cases they don’t:

  • speak the same language as SMEs,
  • fully appreciate the challenges faced by SMEs,
  • understand the SME challenges sufficiently well to ask the right questions, or
  • have all of the necessary competences or toolkits needed by next generation project managers.

It is however concerning that the bodies tend to focus attention on techniques, and unsurprisingly project objective failure rates of around 80% remains stubbornly consistent. I believe that this results from the focus on techniques alone and neglecting the necessary link with human factors – behaviours and attitudes. The bodies are also largely ill-equipped to help SMEs understand where to focus their efforts for maximum benefit.

Bounce Back Advisors

Traditional public sector funded, small business advisors are usually under very tight support time constraints. They are likely to have had very limited exposure to project management. This is often something like having attended a PRINCE2™ training course, without subsequently using any of the acquired skills “in anger”.


Traditional business consultancies (especially the big 4) have focused their attention on the “low hanging fruit” of traditional project managers where the causes of pain of project failure is well understood.

Smaller specialist P3M consultancies, like ProjExc do have experience of managing projects in big organisations as well as the specific challenges faced by SMEs, after all we are SMEs.

What are ProjExc Doing?

At ProjExc we have learnt the importance of:

  • laser sharp focus on what is actually needed, and only as it is needed,
  • demystifying project management
  • listening, challenging and supporting, rather than assuming and ‘throwing the book at them’.

When engaging with us, we take our SME clients on a journey of discovery, with a blend of coaching and mentoring to suit individuals and their unique needs. We build relationships, create relevant PM Playbooks, grow competences and structure solid attitudes and behaviours to help our clients achieve consistent PM success.

We also have a separate website, PM Advisor, dedicated to supporting and providing free-to-use resources for next generation project managers and SME businesses.

If anything in this article has struck a chord, or stimulated your thinking, please comment below, or reach out to me on Twitter, Linked In or by email. I’m keen to take this conversation further.

John Williams, Founder at ProjExc

Published by PM Advisor

Project Management Consultants helping organisations to reach their desired outcomes, within budget and on time.

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