Small Projects are a PITA
Sarah posted in our group chat “Ok, I have to admit, I underestimated the budget for this project. They didn’t have many funds and the scope was reasonable… but the admin! I’m spending almost as much time doing admin tasks as I am actually working on the project.”
Yes, my dear Sarah. This is why small projects are a PITA (one of the only acronyms you actually need to know).
I’m not saying you should never take a small project, so don’t hit reply and email me in all caps just yet.
Small projects are often the ones that steal your heart.
They’re that local non-profit that you’ve always loved. They’re the scrappy folks, just like you.
You’re in solidarity. So you say yes.
Then you engage in the same tasks you have to do for any project, no matter the size, aka, the administrivia.
Administrivia is all the little stuff that isn’t directly about providing the actual service.
Filling out the time sheet.
Sending updates each week.
Getting into the vendor system.
Scanning receipts for reimbursement.
I’m allergic to administrivia.
And the thing is – it’s essentially the same for all-sized projects. Which means when the project is small, you spend a ton of time, relatively speaking, on the administrivia.
That’s usually the stuff we don’t account for when we’re looking at our calendar and thinking “yeah, I can take on that small project.”
The extra bonus sucky part about administrivia is that it isn’t the stuff that lights us up. Our hearts glow when we’re actually working directly with the client, not when we’re chasing down payment on the overdue invoice.
When we spend hours each week on administrivia tasks that we don’t love, we feed the resentment monster and put out the welcome mat for burnout.
I got an email from someone in response to my 5 Projects advice, saying she is *happy* to have 15 small projects at once.
I’m definitely not trying to call anyone out, so I won’t share any further details. You’ll just have to trust me when I say that the tone of the email was like this:
Her burnout was evident. Even if she truly loved each of her 15 projects.
Let’s say you’ve got 15 small projects right now and you need to find a way to reduce the effort while still fulfilling your scope with the quality you’re known for. Here’s what you can do.
Cut down administrivia.
- Reduce paperwork, like charge a flat fee instead of getting reimbursed and having to scan and email receipts.
- Be honest “The size of the budget for this project doesn’t allow for x. If you need that level of administrative oversight, we’d need to find more funding.” And sometimes they will! But often they’ll say “Ok no prob.”
- Is there a way you could turn this into a group thing? Like if you have several small projects and they all need a meeting about why you collect survey data in a specific way, can you get them all on the phone at the same time? If they all need a monthly update, can you schedule one 1-hour Zoom and assign each person a 15-minute slot? Can you negotiate to ditch the monthly update altogether? (After all, it’s easy to argue that a monthly update is administrivia.)
- Use this as an opportunity to build some systems. Are you writing the same messages over and over? What can you begin to copy/paste? Are you going for a 45-minute walk to psych yourself up for writing those emails asking when to expect payment on the invoice? Batch invoicing – write those emails all in one sitting.
- Start talks about phase 2 or contract extensions right now. Maybe you can turn this into a bigger package.
- Seek out the funders, who can support your technical assistance for lots of their small grantees, but under one funding umbrella.
- Aim for 1-2 big projects to replace a few small projects. That way you aren’t completely ditching your tried-and-true bread-and-butter. But you’ll get a better balance. I promise, you’ll find heart-stealing projects that are bigger, too.
What else could you do to cut down on administrivia and make small projects more viable? Any ideas? What’s your least favorite administrivia task? Email me.
It can feel scary to level up your game and start going after bigger clients. Can seem like you’ll lose your soul if you do. In Boost & Bloom, I’ll teach you how to grow with your soul intact. Enrollment opens February 1. I’ll open the doors early for people on the VIP list – and give ya a discount. Get on the VIP list here.
When You’re a Threat
I’ve gotta tell you about the *funniest* thing that happened to me at work in 2021. I mean, in the whole entire year.
Let me set the stage:
My team was hired to help a group of scientists redesign their go-to graphs and, in fact, their entire PowerPoint template. Their main audience was other scientists so the bar isn’t usually very high in these cases but lemme tell ya, they needed help.
I wish I could show you what their slides looked like before, but I’ve gotta protect the innocent.
As we do in all design projects, we developed a handful of options for design directions and had a Zoom call to walk through and talk through the strengths and shortcomings of each possibility.
These folks were suuuuper drawn to the direction that included icons for each section of their talk.
Totally cool. Icons can be fun.
But then came the real work: Getting them to agree on each icon.
I say this with all the love and humor in my heart: Leave it to a group of scientists to totally overthink the meaning held in each icon choice.
Bless the hearts of all nerds, everywhere.
The Great Icon Debate led to a few more Zoom calls, where we’d decide on a finalist for some sections of the PowerPoint and, for others, they’d send me back to the icon ocean to fish for more options.
Third or fourth call that included icons on the agenda and lemme tell you what went down.
We’d been walking through some of the icon choices they needed to make for the first half of the call.
I wrapped up the deliberation by saying “ok why don’t we move on and you all can decide about these icons on your own and get back to me.”
And someone who had her camera off and thought she was muted yelled out “BECAUSE YOU’RE OBSESSED WITH FUCKING ICONS!”
On a work Zoom meeting. In front of 10 of her colleagues. Including her boss.
I couldn’t control my face.
Her colleague on the line said “What was that?”
And the sailor suddenly found the mute button. I can only imagine their sheer horror.
I AM STILL CHUCKLING ABOUT THIS. IT’S BEEN MONTHS.
Aside from being a hilariously human moment, there IS a business lesson in here.
It took me a second to see it because I had to catch WHO, exactly, had gaffed so well. It was the in-house graphic designer.
Now can you decipher what was going on?
I’ve witnessed this situation before (though this was the funniest instance, by far).
In the past, it ended up revealing that the unhappy staff person was not really frustrated with the topic at hand. More so, they were unsettled by the fact that they had the skills to do what I was doing and weren’t pleased that there was an outside consultant brought in.
Underneath that coulda been a turf / ego protection mechanism.
Or it coulda been that this person knows a lot more about managing an icon discussion than I do.
Or it’s possible the project made them feel like their skills aren’t where they should be and this, therefore, was a threat to their security.
It’s not really my place to find out what’s underneath. As the outsider, it’s my place to recognize that something deeper is going on and strategize on what to do about it.
I haven’t run into this situation that many times, but I can tell you that I tried:
- Partnering with the internal expert to come up with something even better
- Transitioning the project to the internal expert & staying on hand to be a resource
- Totally ignoring the problem
And I added a point to my Discovery Call Checklist to specifically ask about existing internal talent. Better to strategize how to handle them with my point of contact at the very beginning of the project instead of waiting until the Best Zoom Outburst of 2021 happens.
Ok, let’s trade. What’s the funniest business moment you had last year? I know you remember it. Write back and share. (It’ll stay between us.)