Project management plays a role in almost every aspect of our lives. It’s the process that builds our bridges, creates our favorite websites, and plans our weddings. We all have something that comes to mind when we hear the question “what is project management?”
But what does it actually mean?
Well, it all starts with a project.
According to the Project Management Institute, a project is a temporary endeavor with the goal of creating a unique product.
Unlike routine business operations that happen on a regular basis, a project has a clear start and end date. There is one unique item that will come out of it that can’t be easily replicated.
Project management is the process of guiding a group to achieve their project goals within their constraints. These include:
Cost – How much can you spend to achieve your goal?
Time – When does the project have to be completed?
Scope – What are the particular deliverables that will be provided at the end of the project?
Quality – What are the key characteristics of the deliverable(s)? Is there any flexibility in how that can be delivered?
Benefit – What is the measurable impact this project will have on the client/customer?
Risk – What is the risk tolerance of the key stakeholders in the project?
Every project requires the careful balancing of these constraints and finding opportunities to work more efficiently at every stage of the process. In this post, we’ll answer the question “what is project management” by exploring different areas of project management. From key terms to common methodologies, this post will teach you all the essential facts to understanding what is truly meant by the term project management.
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Brief History: What is Project Management?
People have worked together to achieve shared goals since the dawn of human civilization. The ancient Egyptian pyramids and the Roman aqueducts could not have been built without some management.
But the modern conception of project management did not exist until the early 20th century. Frederick Winslow Taylor, a mechanical engineer in the steel industry, is credited with first introducing modern management techniques through his influential book The Principles of Scientific Management.
Another important figure is Henry Gantt, a mechanical engineer influenced by Taylor. In 1917, he created a visual timeline that illustrates a project’s schedule. Still used frequently to this day, this timeline became known as the Gantt chart and revolutionized the way projects were planned and organized.
From there, these ideas began to spread across the government and business sectors. New methodologies, such as Critical Path, Time Constraints philosophy, SCRUM, and Agile, arrived and gained popularity. By mid-century, organizations emerged that were responsible for setting standards for the profession such as the Project Management Institute. And as the internet rose to prominence, new tools and techniques were introduced to bring project management into the digital space.
While there are many terms and phrases that get used in the project management process, here are a few that are absolutely essential:
Client / Customer – The person or persons who will directly benefit from the project. The project team should always keep a customer’s needs in mind when carrying out a project.
Constraints – These are limitations on the project team. They have minimal control over these limits and have to work around them. One example is how much time they have to complete the project, which is usually set by the client/customer. A project team needs to be aware of these limitations so they can effectively execute the project.
Deliverable – The final product that is produced by the project team and provided to the client. This can include a report, a bridge, a computer program, a marketing plan, among many others.
Lifecycle – The entire process used to create the final deliverables from start to finish. It is typically divided into various phases.
Milestone – An event marked in a project schedule that typically indicates a key deliverable or an important component of a deliverable has been completed. It is often used as a checkpoint that the team uses to make sure the project is on track.
Phase – The grouping of certain tasks and activities related to a project. It typically represents a stage in the project lifecycle.
Project Manager – The person responsible for leading the project from start to finish. They create the project plan, set out roles and responsibilities of the project team, and monitor progress.
Project Team – All the people assigned to work on some portion of the project. Each member is responsible for delivering their assignment on time, on budget, and within quality requirements while informing the project manager if issues arise.
Requirements – It is a description of the characteristics of project deliverables. For example, in a software development project, it could include a list of the specific features you want the program to have.
Stakeholder – Someone who has an interest in the outcome of a project. This includes but is not limited to the client/customer.
Task – It is a unit of work that needs to be completed to reach project goals. It usually needs to be completed by a set deadline.
What’s a Project Manager?
Project managers are the guides of the project. They gather everyone together and make sure they achieve their goals. Their key responsibilities can include:
- Define the project goals
- Assess project feasibility
- Help define project scope and deliverables
- Define tasks and required resources
- Assemble and manage project team
- Estimate and manage budget
- Allocate project resources
- Help to identify and resolve and issues that arise
- Create and manage project schedule
- Support team and answer questions
- Direct quality assurance
- Monitor and report on project progress to stakeholders
- Evaluate and assess result of project
Project managers can come from a variety of backgrounds. So there is no one path to becoming a project manager. However, there are several certifications in project management that are well regarded and can help you get jobs in the field. These include the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification, Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM), and the Program Management Professional (PgMP).
But what type of person thrives in this role? According to the Project Management Institute:
Project managers are change agents: they make project goals their own and use their skills and expertise to inspire a sense of shared purpose within the project team. They enjoy the organized adrenaline of new challenges and the responsibility of driving business results. They work well under pressure and are comfortable with change and complexity in dynamic environments. They can shift readily between the “big picture” and the small-but-crucial details, knowing when to concentrate on each.
Every project goes through a series of steps from start to finish. While these different stages can be defined in many different ways, they generally fall into one of five groups.
The project idea is conceived during this phase. First, you identify the problem you want to solve and the objective you want to achieve. It’s important to choose an objective that is specific and measurable. So instead of choosing “decrease call times” as your goal, you would say “decrease call times by one minute at the New York center.” When your goal is specific, it’s easier to identify the path to that goal.
Then you assess the feasibility of that goal. You consider the potential cost, the resources you have available, and how long you think it will take to complete. You weigh these estimates against other initiatives and priorities in your company. Many projects fail because they either take on more than they can handle or way over-estimate the cost and/or time by overlooking some part of the work. To clarify the scope, it’s sometimes worth creating Work Breakdown Structure, a visual layout where you take every aspect of a project down to its smallest units.
If after this evaluation process the project still seems worthwhile, you then may put together a project brief. It’s usually a one-page document that summarizes key objectives, rough timeline estimate, budget, and other relevant details. It can be useful to share this document with all key stakeholders to get buy-in and align expectations.
Once you get the go-ahead to start the project, it’s time to come up with a detailed plan. Working back from your deadline, lay out all the tasks that need to be completed and when they need to be done. A Gantt chart can be a great way to do this as shown below. This will likely change over time so if you can leave some flexibility in your schedule. Also, it’s important to schedule check-ins and status updates throughout to keep everyone accountable.
You then need to bring together the right people to help you with the project. If you need outside contractors, make sure you consider that in your budget calculations. You also need to factor in the time it will take to get them up to speed. Then you assign the tasks to the right people and make sure everyone has the resources they need to get started.
Don’t forget about the budget! Think about the various costs and break them down into categories such as salaries, travel, training, supplies, business meals, and overhead. Ask an experienced colleague to look over the figures and see if there is anything you are missing.
Then you set up a project kick-off meeting. The purpose is to go over the project objectives and clearly define everyone’s roles and responsibilities. It is also a good time to sense check the schedule with your team. If a specialist thinks that their work will take longer then your estimates, it’s important to listen to those concerns and make adjustments accordingly.
It’s also important to define a communication plan. Questions to consider:
- How often will you have check-ins to discuss project progress?
- How many milestones will you have?
- How will you keep external stakeholders updated?
- How should team members make the team aware of issues?
Bad communication can easily derail a project. So get ahead of the problem and put a framework in place.
Now, it’s time to make it happen! This when your team takes the plan you put together and start running with it. They execute their responsibilities and the project manager is responsible for guiding the team through the process. Basically, they do everything they can to reduce the friction between every step and optimize the flow. These duties can include:
- Updating the budget to reflect actual spending
- Adjusting the schedule as needed
- Ensuring the quality of the deliverables
- Facilitating communication with all key stakeholders
- Planning and managing meetings with the project team
Now, this is the phase where unanticipated problems occur. The project manager is responsible for paying attention to when these problems emerge and facing them head on before they derail the project.
- Monitoring and Controlling
As the team executes, you also have to monitor the project to make sure everything is running smoothly. This could include status update meetings with each of the team members to check in. It could also mean just monitoring your project management tool to see what people have completed or not. How you do this depends on the size of your project and how your company organizes work.
You also need to carefully monitor changes in the budget and be proactive about notifying key stakeholders if you anticipate going over. One practice that could be useful is sending regular progress reports to the stakeholders. Depending on the client’s preferences, this could be as simple as an email with a few bullet points or a detailed powerpoint presentation.
You did it! Now, it’s time to finish those final tasks, prepare the deliverables for hand-off, and celebrate with the team. It’s always a good idea to have a project debrief to discuss with the team what you did well and where you had trouble. This is critical if you want to improve going forward. Beyond that, all you need to do is take a well-deserved break after completing a successful project.
There are several methodologies that a team can use to manage their project. They often vary by industry, company size, and function. Here are some to consider:
Waterfall – Originally developed in the software industry, Waterfall is a sequential process where the work moves through several stages without overlap. This method requires significant planning upfront because there are no iterations built into the process. On the other hand, it is much easier to understand and implement than many other methods.
Agile – Created in response to some of the flaws seen in the Waterfall methodology, Agile favors a fast and flexible model. Instead of getting all the product requirements upfront, Agile prefers a flexible and iterative process that moves in short increments. This allows the team to adapt more easily, but requires well-coordinated collaboration to prevent problems.
Critical Path Method – First, project tasks are broken down as far as possible in the Critical Path Method. Then these activities are mapped into a timeline that shows the dependencies between them. This method is well suited to projects with a lot of complex and interdependent activities that overlap in time.
Scrum – Also originated in software development industry, Scrum is a framework where cross-functional teams organize their work into “sprints.” From a backlog of tasks they want to complete, they commit to doing a specific number of these in a short time period (usually 1-4 weeks).
PRiSM – Developed by the Green Project Management, this method focuses on minimizing the environmental impact of your projects. Unlike other methodologies, it extends after the project is over by including considerations of long-term sustainability. It’s best for projects where reducing energy consumption and minimizing waste is an important concern.
PRINCE2 – It’s the official methodology of the UK government. It is guided by 7 principles: continued business justification, learn from experience, defined roles, and responsibilities, manage by stages, manage by exception, focus on products, and tailor to suit the project environment. It requires a lot of documentation and is best suited to large, complex projects.
These are just a few of the many methodologies out there you can consider. Some others that are popular include Kanban, Adaptive Framework, Critical Chain, and Integrated Project management.
Want to learn more? Here are some additional resources to get you started: