Let’s Start from the Beginning
Understanding the foundations of project management before starting a project helps expedite the process when the assignment hits your desk.
Here’s what you need to know.
Project Management Basics
The ability to deliver projects on schedule, on budget, and aligned with business goals is key to gaining an edge in today’s highly competitive global business environment. This is where project managers come in. Project managers have an incredibly complex assignment, one that blends organizational skills, an analytical mind, and adept interpersonal abilities.
In this section, we’ll walk you through the basics of project management and what it means to be a project manager.
How do you define a project?
Before we get into project management, we need to define what exactly a “project” is. Sure, you’ve probably been assigned countless “projects” in school or on the job, but what is the actual definition?
The Project Management Institute defines a “project” as “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result.”
There are a few key things to notice in this definition:
- The word “temporary” means projects must have a defined beginning and end.
This means every project must include a timeline, scope and resources. The fact that it is temporary with a beginning and an end also means that it is not part of ongoing operations. This brings us to the second point...
- The purpose of a project must be “to create a unique product, service, or result.”
This means a project will be started in order to accomplish a specific goal that is typically outside the realm of the typical day-to-day business operation. This means, the project team might include people who don’t usually work together, and require resources that are typically outside the scope of day-to-day operations.
However, dictionary.com defines a project in somewhat looser terms: “a large or major undertaking, especially one involving considerable money, personnel, and equipment.”
Regardless, every project must have the following components:
- Goal: What are you trying to achieve?
- Timeline: When are you trying to achieve it by?
- Budget: How much will it cost to achieve?
- Stakeholders: Who are the major players who have an interest in this project?
- Project manager: Who is going to make sure everything that needs to be completed gets completed?
A project is not something routine. Day-to-day operations or maintenance is not considered a project because it does not have a definitive start and end.
What is project management?
Project management is the practice of applying knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to complete a project according to specific requirements. It comes down to identifying the problem, creating a plan to solve the problem, and then executing on that plan until the problem has been solved. That may sound simple, but there is a lot that goes into it at every stage of the process.
The roots of project management can be traced as far back as the building of the Pyramids in Giza and the Great Wall of China. However, the modern development of project management began in the 19th century when railway companies purchased tons of raw material and employed thousands of people to work on the transcontinental railroad.
By the early 20th century, Frederick Taylor applied concepts of project management to the work day, developing strategies for working smarter and improving inefficiencies, rather than demanding laborers work harder and longer. Henry Gantt, an associate of Taylor’s, took those concepts and used bars and charts to graph when certain tasks, or a series of tasks were completed, creating a new way to visualize project management.
During World War II, military and industrial leaders were employing even more detailed management strategies, eventually leading to more standardized processes like the critical path method.
These practices grew in popularity across industries, and in 1965 and 1969, the International Project Management Association and Project Management Institute were founded, respectively. In 2001, Agile project management methodologies were codified by the creation of the Agile Manifesto.
The field of project management continues to shift as an increasingly competitive landscape, the need to deliver change fast, and new technologies (automation, AI, etc...) enter the marketplace.
What do project managers do?
In short, project managers are responsible for the planning, executing, monitoring, controlling, and completion of projects. However, that is just the tip of the project management iceberg. Here are a few of the main project manager responsibilities:
- Build the plan
Project managers are in charge of plotting out the most realistic course for the project. The plan must include the project scope, timeline, and budget. This can also include identifying the right tools for the job.
- Assemble the team
Identifying the proper team is critical to project success. Every project team will vary depending on the scope of the initiative and the functions needed to complete the project. Finding specialists and subject matter experts for each of the necessary tasks is ideal.
- Assign tasks
Project managers must provide their team with a clear definition of specific tasks and timeline for every part of the project. Although each team member will be responsible for their own assignments, many tasks will require collaboration from both internal and external team members.
- Leading the team
Now that the team has been assembled and their tasks have been assigned, the project manager must keep the machine well-oiled. This will include checking in on individuals for status updates, identifying and clearing roadblocks, negotiating disagreements, keeping team morale high, and providing training and mentoring.
- Managing budget
Most projects will require some expenses, which means understanding how to put together a project budget and managing cost is critical for success. This will involve comparing real-life expenditures to estimates, and adjusting the project plan if necessary.
- Managing timelines
As with the budget, project managers are tasked with keeping everything on schedule so the team is meeting their projected deadlines for completion. This will require setting realistic deadlines throughout the lifecycle of the project, communicating consistently with their team for status updates, and maintaining a detailed schedule.
- Engaging stakeholders
Stakeholders play a large role in your project. They are typically influential people who are affected by the project. Project managers need to maintain a good relationship and an open line of communication with stakeholders who can not only help clear roadblocks and empower your team, but also create unnecessary bottlenecks and derail a project if they become unhappy with the direction.
- Handover the project
Just because the project’s objectives have been delivered doesn’t mean a project manager’s job is over. The project manager must now deliver the project to the team who will be managing, maintaining, and operating it moving forward. At this point, the project manager will no longer be the “go to” person, and will be assigned to a new project.
- Document the process
Identifying and documenting “lessons learned” is not only a good practice for personal project manager growth, but also for relaying that experience to other teams around the organization for future use. This will help others avoid making the same mistakes, or taking advantage of shortcuts discovered.
Project Management Methodologies
“You mean there’s more than one project management methodology?” There are quite a lot of them actually, and some even combine to form new hybrid approaches. But what are they exactly? How do they help project teams work better? And what makes one methodology better than another?
Project management methodologies are essentially different ways to approach a project. Each one has its unique process and workflow.
For more information on each methodology, visit our page on Project Management Methodologies.
The Project Lifecycle
Regardless of what kind of project you’re planning, every project goes through the same stages, more or less. Although each project will require their own set of unique processes and tasks, they all follow a similar framework. There’s always a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is called the project lifecycle.
The project lifecycle helps provide some predictability, and gives the project manager a way to tackle tasks in distinct phases. In this section, we’ll explain what you need to know about each phase:
- The initiation phase
- The planning phase
- The execution phase
- The controlling & monitoring phase
- The closing phase
For more on what each phase of the project lifecycle involves, visit our page.
When you’re ready to start planning your project, read everything you need to know here, or take a look at some of our other project management resources.