Making change happen in SMEs: the problems and opportunities of size


The ability to respond to the need for change is critical to the success of small and medium enterprises (SMEs). However, despite the fact that their size sometimes makes change easier, SMEs often find it problematic because of the joint demands of needing to keep the business running at the same time and having to tightly control staffing costs.

There are a number of ways that SMEs can work within these constraints, turn size to their advantage and become better at ‘change’ – according to change management professional, Steve Wade. 

SMEs can benefit from some of the key change management learnings from the corporate world over the last twenty years – but without facing the same difficulties and potential pitfalls that come with size and complexity.

Unlike larger organisations (particularly major corporates and big public sector employers) who both need, and can afford, dedicated ‘change management’ or ‘transformation’ teams, SMEs usually have to try and manage change more creatively with teams and individuals that have less expertise in this area – and have other key roles.  The following are typical scenarios that can arise as a result:

  • Busy technical specialists or operational managers being asked to do a project management role on top of their ‘day jobs’ – often with little time being allocated or recognition of the different skills required – and struggling as a result, particularly on more demanding projects.  (Often, the more demanding projects are the ones where the potential benefit is greatest!)
  • The paradox of teams not having the time to devote to making positive change happen because they are too busy managing the very problems that this would help address.  Or, equally, there is not the ‘bandwidth’ in a team to pursue new business opportunities.
  • A business having a basic level of project management awareness and expertise which is based on delivery of tasks.  This can lead to a skewed and premature emphasis on ‘getting on with it’ – rather than first translating strategy into the right set of projects.  This common error typically gives a (false) sense of early momentum but, ultimately, results in wasted effort and benefits not being realised.
  • When it comes to recognising and responding to the need to change, there is a disconnect between company owners and the wider team which inhibits the effectiveness of the exercise.

These problems can usually be tackled by a combination of:

  • Incorporating appropriate change related activities into all or most company job descriptions and supporting this with appropriate and tailored staff development.
  • Targeted use of external resource to inject specialist expertise at specific times of the change ‘lifecycle’, eg in helping setting up the right ‘portfolio’ of projects, establishing effective reporting mechanisms for tracking progress and managing issues, and doing reviews and troubleshooting.
  • The development and use of strategic level plans such as roadmaps and transition plans before producing schedules of tasks.  This not only provides a ‘stepping stone’ for more safely moving from strategy into action but is also a more powerful way of engaging teams in the need for change and getting their input and buy-in.  Such plans also provide a basis for gauging ‘success’ downstream.
  • Integrating planned change activity into the business’s overall day-to-day management processes.

By focusing on these areas and adopting the right approaches, successful change management can be brought within the reach of many more organisations at a reasonable cost that will be more than offset by the potential financial and non-financial benefits.

Please contact Steve on 07931 373132 or email for more information and advice on how to put these ideas into practice.

Steve Wade is a Cambridge-based freelance project and programme manager with over 25 years’ experience of helping make change happen in a wide range of public and private sector organisations.  For more detail and to read previous articles related to change management please refer to Steve’s directory entry on the Cambridge Network website.


Steve Wade is a freelance Programme & Project Manager

Wade Management Services Ltd directory information