Project Management Terms: A Quickstart Glossary for Newbies (Part 1)

Your boss just walked into your office and said: "We've overstretched our resources. I need you to check the Gantt chart and tell me if there is any free float for this task so we don't delay our critical path." Wait, what was that? Gantt chart? Critical path? Maybe I'm just not ready for this...

Whether you're an accidental project manager, or you're are just starting your professional journey into the PM space, it's easy to get overwhelmed by all of the new information the role entails. The last thing you need is linguistic headaches.

Don't worry, we've got you. We consulted with Project Management pros, researched the question, and created a list of terms every project manager should know on Day 1. Study these definitions so that the next time your boss rushes in you can calmly respond, "Got it."

Baseline — Our list starts with it, and so will every new project you'll undertake. Time is money, and the baseline is both. It is the original cost and schedule you set for your project. We'll tell you a secret: no project goes exactly as planned. The baseline will help you determine how far team has deviated from the original plan. Based on this knowledge, you'll be able to better estimate the time and resources your team needs to complete the next project.

Constraint  Project constraints are the limitations of your project. Like road signs, they tell you what you can and cannot do. Before you start a project, it's important to carefully evaluate all of your constraints. Don't miss any blind spots; make sure you assess cost, human resources, time limits, quality, and potential ROI.

Critical Path Method (CPM)  The critical path method is used to model projects. According to Professor Scott E. Page from the University of Michigan, thinking with models helps you outperform those who do not. Don't forget to include these factors in your model: all tasks necessary to complete the project, time estimations for each step, task dependencies, and final milestones or deliverables. By taking all of these factors into account, CPM helps you calculate your optimal timeline to intelligently plan every project.

Float  Sometimes referred to as "slack." It's the amount of time you can potentially burn on a task before affecting the project timeline. Float is the extra cushioning protecting your deadlines. Note that items on your Critical Path will have "zero free float" and if you want to maintain your schedule they cannot be delayed.

Gantt Chart  Meet your lifesaver. This horizontal bar chart was devised by Henry Gantt at the turn of the twentieth century and was used to visualize project schedules by project managers all over the world ever since. It includes start and end dates for a project, and illustrates task dependencies. We, at Wrike, are proud of our cool, interactive Gantt chart. It helps you update project schedules, due dates, and dependencies with a quick drag-and-drop!

Key Performance Indicator (KPI)  The measurable indicators of where your project stands, like timed laps around a track. When you set benchmarks for success in the beginning of a project, it's easier to check them off along the way. "Did we hit 10,000 page views today? Make 50 sales calls this week? And what about the revenue, has it doubled yet?" And while you obviously can't determine project success by numbers alone, it's helpful to use your KPIs to navigate the project path and, if needed, easily get back on course.

We hope these definitions will help steady your nerves in the PM world. Pin them to your wall and don't forget to drop in for our glossary for PM newbies part 2 where we'll introduce even more vocabulary every project manager should know.

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