The fundamentals of project management
The phrase “project management” appears everywhere in business. You know it involves managing projects, but it can be difficult to define or distinguish this process from all your other business practices. From the sound of it, managing projects could include just about anything.
If you’re wondering whether your company needs dedicated project managers, what the role of a project manager might entail, or other ways to implement project management, start here. We’ll outline the basics of project management, why it appears in many different areas, and the common steps it involves.
In this article, you’ll learn about:
- Defining project management
- Defining a project
- Understanding project management
- The benefits of project management
- The project management process
- Getting to work on project management
Defining project management
Project management can be defined as the science and practice of planning, guiding, and monitoring tasks. These tasks often need to be completed by multiple people to achieve a business goal within a finite time frame and budget. Formalized methods, tools, skills, and knowledge are all important parts of the process.
Project management can happen outside of business too. Anytime you’re directing multiple people in a complex series of tasks to achieve a goal with a deadline and a budget, you’re practicing project management. In business, however, the process has been studied, refined, and formalized. There is an international journal, a nonprofit institute, and a certification body dedicated to project management. The practice appears widely in transportation, infrastructure, construction, product development, finance, law, IT, marketing, and healthcare.
At home, a project could be building a shed, planning a birthday party, or knitting a sweater. However, a project has a more specific meaning for a business or any other kind of organization. To understand project management, it helps to define just what sort of project we’re talking about.
Defining a project
In business, a project is a series of activities that result in a new product or service, are limited by a certain budget and time frame, and require multiple people to complete. Examples of projects include events, publications, construction, and process development. Some organizations run entirely on projects, while for others, a project might happen on top of day-to-day operations.
A project needing management is a unique event that leads to change, involves risk, and is inherently limited by time. Whether it takes a month or five years to complete, the project has a beginning, a middle, and an end. That means time management and goal setting are important aspects of running a project — and that it can’t be called a project if it’s not tied to a deadline or the achievement of unique and measurable business objectives. The more complex the project is, the more useful a formalized management process will be.
Understanding project management
Over the course of the 20th century, various factors led to the formalization of project management as a distinct body of knowledge and expertise. From World War I to the Moon landing, this period saw advances in communication, engineering, and transportation. Just think of railways, air travel, and the eventual development of mobile phones. Information and resources could suddenly travel much faster, and people needed new ways to keep track of so many expensive, high-stakes moving parts.
Early on, individuals like Henry Gantt and Frederick Taylor developed theories and methods for visualizing work processes to improve efficiency and planning. The Gantt chart that maps tasks on the vertical axis and times on the horizontal axis is still one of the most common methods for managing projects. Taylor contributed ideas about increasing efficiency and motivation. By the 1960s, a group of administrators formed the Project Management Institute (PMI) to share knowledge and standardize tools and processes. Project management took hold in engineering, construction, and defense.
It’s now used almost everywhere people do business or plan group efforts that need controls on time, quality, and cost. Whether in healthcare, IT, marketing, finance, or law, organizations need professionals to coordinate project details and link them to larger goals. Service-oriented industries are often organized completely around a series of projects. Other companies might initiate projects outside of normal sales or iterative service activities.
Benefits of project management
You might be wondering why we use project management or exactly how it can benefit your organization. The benefits of project management include:
- Keeping everyone accountable. Assigning and documenting task completion means everyone knows what to do and when. Workers are motivated by reporting their work, but they can also see why their work matters because it’s clear how it relates to other tasks and the larger goal.
- Identifying and resolving problems quickly. Risk analysis and management are important aspects of project management. When the project is mapped out in detail, it’s easier to anticipate where challenges might arise and rearrange steps as needed.
- Keeping things moving in the right direction. When many groups or stakeholders are involved, it can be easy for a project to get held up in discussion, stall when resources are unavailable, or veer in a new direction that no one anticipated. Project management ensures that work connects to a clear goal, and it can identify where obstacles are blocking the path.
- Ensuring efficient use of resources. No organization wants to spend time and money on activities that aren’t helping them achieve their goals. Project management ensures that these and other resources support a clear goal.
- Improving communication. Project management can provide a single source of truth and documentation. It keeps team members on the same page to know where the project is and where it’s headed.
- Enabling quality control. Because it oversees the process from beginning to end, project management can identify and correct weaknesses or missed steps and confirm that the final product matches the objectives articulated in the planning stages.
- Keeping stakeholders happy. Tracking the completion of a project makes it possible to communicate clearly with stakeholders to assure them that progress is being made.
- Leading to higher chances of success. Ultimately, all these factors combine to make difficult outcomes achievable. It’s not just that project management has perks — many projects would be impossible or ineffective without it. You risk wasting time and resources, losing relationships with disappointed or uninformed stakeholders, and even total failure of a given project.
The project management process
Although it takes different forms across industries, project management is universally understood to include certain tasks. The PMI identified five phases of project management:
- Initiating. This phase is about finding out what stakeholders want and articulating the vision of the outcome. It is deliberate, methodological goal setting. It might involve writing a project charter or business case to get approval, receive funding, or justify the effort. It also includes understanding the budget, scope, and schedule.
- Planning. This phase is about breaking the project into actionable pieces, preparing a system for making it happen, and communicating the plan with all team members and stakeholders. It lays out the “how” of the project so that everyone knows what they need to do. The project manager should consider budget and infrastructure while creating a work breakdown structure, anticipating risk, and planning how to handle it.
- Executing. In this phase, the project manager puts the plan into action. That means allocating resources and ensuring everyone has what they need to do their jobs. It includes documentation, team development, stakeholder engagement, quality assurance activities, status tracking, and forecasting. Essentially, the project manager actively coordinates and assesses how things are going.
- Monitoring and controlling. Assessment happens here too, but this phase is more responsive. At this point, it’s important to take action to correct or prevent problems. A change in scope could arise, and the entire project might need to be adjusted. This phase involves keeping things on track, communicating with stakeholders as needed, and performing quality control.
- Closing. Formally closing a project can include delivering final assets, holding a meeting to discuss how it went, archiving records, and celebrating completion.
Getting to work on project management
Hopefully, it’s now clear that project management isn’t just a vague way of talking about being in charge of things. It has developed from its roots in engineering, transportation, and communication to become a distinct business practice.
Project managers are passionate about organization, efficiency, and teamwork. Dedicating time and resources to skilled, deliberate project management can produce major benefits for any company that’s constrained by budget, scope, and time limitations. Project managers can begin by following the basic steps of planning, guiding, assessing, and keeping a unique project on track until it’s finished.
The next step is to learn more about the various project management methods — especially those developed recently with new technological advances and business practices in the last few decades. For example, the Agile movement has contributed many new ideas about the best way to work in industries where technology changes quickly and teams are up against tight production schedules. The best method for you will depend on your industry, scale, and goals.