Project Management Evolution: Startup vs Enterprise

Many believe that project management has its origin in engineering, with Henri Fayol and Henry Gantt, forefathers of project management, setting the foundation from which modern theories evolved.

Generally, project managers would, arguably, possess similar skills regardless of where they would apply them — startups or enterprises. However, these two environments host totally different ball games. Everything is done differently in startup companies and enterprises, from sales, customer development, and business plans to project management.

Startups operate on probabilities as opposed to a more calculated and strategic approach in enterprises. In startup project management, you’d have to make a lot of decisions based on speculations as there are no company-specific data to fall on. This means that even the best project managers can sometimes fail. Whereas enterprises are always in the know, their project management system is more strategic, taking on fewer risks.

The Grey Line

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of this article, there’s an important caveat we must point out. What, exactly, is a startup? Is it a company with about 100 employees? What if it grows to over 200 employees? Would you still call it a startup?

Why are we asking these questions?

Startups include myriad variations, as evident in the fact that some parts of the media still refer to companies like Uber as Startups, not minding that Uber, for example, now have over 22000 employees.

Another distinction is, would you equally rate a startup started by inexperienced undergraduates and one run by inexperienced serial entrepreneurs who may just be leaving an enterprise?

However, there are extreme cases of a co-owned startup with just over six employees and a very large enterprise with offices in different countries of the world. This article will focus on these variations, you can use the takeaways as a guide, but they must apply to your specific environment.

Startups vs Enterprises

With the grey line visible for all to see, let’s define the two variations. Our startup for this article will have the following characteristics:

  • A team with a scalable business plan and not more than 50 employees.
  • Inexplicitly defined roles (co-founders may hold major operational positions).
  • Co-founders are 100% involved in every decision-making.
  • The company’s main challenge is survival.

On the other hand, enterprises would exhibit the following characteristics:

  • Business structure is divided into multiple departments and locations
  • Clearly defined roles, responsibilities, and hierarchies
  • The main focus is on long-term profitability and survival

Startup Project Management

In startups, a project manager is equivalent to a product manager. I’ll explain.

As you probably already know, project and product managers have distinct responsibilities, albeit with a few similarities. However, because of the small number of employees with loosely defined roles, startup project managers will most likely take on more duties outside the scope of traditional or enterprise project management.

Advantages Of Working as a Project Manager in a Startup.

Fast Decision-making Process

In startups, the chain of hierarchies or bodies involved in a decision-making process is short. In many cases, significant decisions such as hiring a new developer, changing the company website user interface, etc., may involve only two persons — one with the idea and the other to give the go-ahead. This can empower any project manager as it’s easy to boost self-confidence and build trust.

A startup gives you the freedom to express yourself in line with business growth and ultimately maximize your potential. You can calculatingly experiment with different ideas to know what works and grow professionally. The process may be slower in an enterprise with many dependencies, such as other teams and various departments.

Easy and Quick Adaptation to Market Change

The same absence of dependencies makes it easy for startups to adopt new solutions and change course if necessary quickly. A company that leveraged this startup opportunity is PayPal. Due to lack of growth, PayPal pivoted not once but five times before becoming what we know today.

Roadblocks for Project Managers In Startups

Loosely Defined Responsibilities

Usually, there are no definite processes for the execution of some operations in a startup. The absence of these rigorous processes may quicken decision-making if everything goes well. However, when there’s incompetence, and certain mishaps occur, those processes are necessary for success.

For example, a new release makes a client’s business processes difficult. Everyone in the startup knew about the upcoming release, but no one did the due diligence of a background check on its effect on the client’s activities. Should the project/product manager have been in contact with the client’s development team? Should the CTO have done this or that? After a heated finger-pointing session, they allocate more defined roles to different individuals to avoid a repeat.

As the need for more improved structure arises in a startup, changes are made, and daily operations become streamlined. But until that stage is attained, mistakes are inevitable.

Enterprise Project Management

Unlike a startup, roles and responsibilities are strictly defined in an enterprise. Although there may be cases where the roles of a project manager and product manager may still overlap, in this case, the project manager’s focus is operational, while the product managers are on the execution aspect.

Advantages of Working as a Project Manager in an Enterprise

Better Chances for Strong Client Relationships

An enterprise is a stable ship with years of planning as its anchors. This portrays, to prospective clients and partners, your credibility. Most clients would prefer to do business with an enterprise because they have a track record of experience in the field.

Also, the trust in your track record will enable you to build strong relationships with your clients. Getting new clients and building relationships with them is one of the biggest advantages enterprises have over startups. The volatility and absence of a track record make it challenging to build client trust.

Other advantages include:

  • Different growth avenues, for example, mergers and acquisitions
  • Access to big-name contacts that can influence stakeholders.

Roadblocks for Project Managers in Enterprises

Major Decision-making Involve Longer Processes

The bigger the company, the longer the chain of hierarchy. Major decisions often involve multiple departments. Sometimes numerous meetings are held before a final decision is made.

For project managers, this means there’s a need to layout plans in advance and be more diligent in following up to ensure the execution of such plans. However, there are always some situations where final decisions must be made as fast as possible. In these cases, building healthy relationships with other departments will come in handy.

Other challenges enterprise project managers may face include:

  • Lack of effective communication within and outside projects


This article discusses the underlying mechanics of startups and enterprises and how they create advantages and roadblocks for project managers. While the role of a project manager may intertwine with that of a product manager, in startups, the absence of a long chain of hierarchy and multiple departments creates some unique opportunities and challenges for project managers.

Conversely, in enterprises, the presence of structured processes, strictly defined roles, and multiple departments, amongst others, also affects the workings of a project manager. Think critically about the topics discussed, and whether they apply to your environment. You may require a different project management approach.

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Originally published at on Nov 10, 2021, by Derek Johnson.



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