The ins and outs of great project management
What are projects?
According to the Project Management Institute, a project is a temporary endeavour with a defined beginning and end. Think of the development of a new website, for example, or the construction of a new house from scratch.
Any project contains a series of tasks that ultimately amount to one singular goal. They have boundaries, such as the time, people and resources you need to complete the project. Projects can be managed manually or using project planning software.
Typically, a project consists of five phases: Initiation, Planning, Execution, Monitoring and Closure. Each phase contains specific tasks that will help you reach your project goals.
The basics of project management
Here are six terms every project manager should be familiar with:
- Stakeholders: stakeholders are individuals, groups or organisations who may affect, be affected by or perceive themselves to be affected by a decision, activity or outcome of a project. In other words: stakeholders are those with an interest in your project’s outcome.
- Resources: resources are required to carry out the project tasks. They can be either intangible (people and time) or tangible (equipment, materials and finances). Resources are most often defined during the project planning phase.
- Deliverables: deliverables are tangible or intangible goods or services produced as a result of a project. Defining, tracking and managing project deliverables is critical for the success of your project.
- Dependencies: dependencies are the relationships among tasks which determine the order in which they need to be performed. There are four types of task dependencies: Finish to Start, Start to Start, Finish to Finish and Start to Finish.
- Timesheets: timesheets are an effective method for recording and tracking time spent working on a specific task or activity within the project. Timesheets can then be used for payroll, invoicing or optimisation purposes.
- The Iron Triangle (or ‘Triple Constraint’): the Iron Triangle of project management is the combination of the three most significant restrictions on projects: scope, time and cost. The three constraints are interdependent: none can be altered without affecting one (or both) of
What is project management?
Simply put, project management is the art of managing one or multiple projects. Macmillan’s dictionary puts it this way: project management involves the planning and organisation of the work a project involves, including deciding how much money and time and how many people are needed.
All this is usually done by a project manager. Broadly speaking, this person’s responsibility is to combine strategy (planning) with operations (execution) to bring the project to a proper conclusion. First, you’ll need to plan a project’s progress, and decide on strategic goals with stakeholders. Then you execute the plan, managing resources (materials, people, …) and restrictions (scope, time and cost) along the way.
Important to note: effective project management requires effective task management. Projects are often broken down in smaller, more manageable pieces (tasks, activities or milestones). As the success of your project depends largely on tasks being completed in a timely manner, tasks are often prioritised and scheduled across a timeline. It’s important that you stay on track and get tasks done in function of dependencies and priorities to ensure the project proceeds according to schedule.
Naturally, being more effective at managing projects comes with its share of advantages:
- Meet the expectations of all stakeholders
- Bring order and clarity
- Maintain clear focus & objectives
- Maximise resources
- Set realistic project planning
- Assure quality control
- Manage risks
- Maintain continuous oversight
- Reduce the likelihood of failure
- Manage success and failure (and learn!)
And in turn, achieving all this will greatly help motivate your team. Which, needless to say, again leads to better projects altogether. Everybody wins, really.
The history of project management
While it’s easy to think of project management as a modern concept, it actually dates back to the Great Pyramid of Giza (2580-2560 B.C.) or even Stonehenge (3100 B.C.). You could even argue that mammoth hunting was a form of project management - at least if it involved careful and deliberate planning, scheduling and execution.
Fast forward to the start of the 20th century, and we see the first real methodologies emerge. Think of Henry Gantt’s Gantt Charts in 1917 - used for major infrastructure projects such as the Hoover Dam and the Interstate Highway System in the United States. Up until today, Gantt charts remain an important project management tool for many small businesses.
But, according to general understanding, it wasn’t until the 1950s that the history of modern project management started, with the introduction of the Critical Path Method in 1957, and the Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT) in 1958. The latter was used by the US Department of Defense to manage the Polaris project.
In the second half of the 20th century, people would go on to manage projects by using custom methods and self-made processes. That changed when The Project Management Institute’s PMBOK guide (Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge) was accredited as ANSI-standard in 1998. Recent years have also been marked by some big changes in project management practice - the introduction of the ISO Standard for Project Management (IS21500) being just one example.
But the most notable of all changes, of course, was the rise of the personal computer. Computers brought productivity and communication to the forefront - and as technology grew in the 90s, the Internet became widely available as well. The growth of the internet then led to the development of web-based project management applications, allowing us to manage a project online.
Today, these can be seen on mobile devices and computers alike. And as computer-controlled options and complex algorithms were developed, project managers began to complete more work in less time, making fewer errors than ever before.
Professional project management requires a disciplined approach. And while every project is different, there are a number of universal project management fundamentals and principles you can apply to drastically increase your chances of success.
According to the Project Management Institute’s 2018 report, 9.9% of every dollar is wasted on poor project performance.
Before and throughout a project, ask yourself these questions:
- What has to be done?
- When should it be done, and in which order?
- Where does the project stand?
5 project management phases
In the first phase of a project, the project manager evaluates the project idea: is it part of your company’s core business? Is it feasible? Will it benefit the organisation? If the answer is a triple yes, you can start defining the scope or desired outcomes of the project and identifying potential partners or stakeholders. Should your project require a feasibility study, this is the time to start.
At the end of the project initiation phase, you should have a clear project plan, which needs to be approved by all parties. Doing this prevents misunderstandings and enables you to manage expectations throughout the project.
2. Project planning
The project planning phase is where you lay out the roadmap for the entire project. This includes:
Setting SMART goals and objectives
Defining the scope and key deliverables
Your project plan (from phase 1) contains information about the procurement of resources as well as how to:
produce quality output
handle risks and unforeseen circumstances
communicate within your team and external stakeholders.
3. Project execution
The project execution phase is where the project becomes visible to the outside world. It starts with a team kick-off meeting, in which everyone is informed of their tasks and relevant project details. This phase is about creating quality deliverables. As a project manager, your duty is to allocate resources, keep your team focused on their assignments, and ensure everything goes according to the plan you set out.
4. Project monitoring and control
The fourth phase of a project often overlaps with the execution phase. Throughout your project, you’ll keep a close eye on the status of all deliverables, and schedule regular team meetings to ensure you remain on track. This is also where you need to be vigilant for ‘scope creep’.
Don’t feel like wasting time in countless status update meetings? Cloud-based project management software allows your team to update the status of their tasks in real time.
5. Project closure
Projects are closed when the last deliverable has been formally handed over, and all stakeholders have been informed the project is concluded. Before that happens, it’s wise to sit down with the team and evaluate:
What went well?
What could have gone better?
What actions will you take to ensure future projects go better?
This not only helps you avoid making the same mistakes twice, but allows you to build stronger processes and create a more efficient project team.
Roles within project management
Project management is rarely a one-man-show. Here’s a list of the main roles you’ll need:
1. Project manager: the person who leads the team and organises the work. He or she leads the project through each phase, and is responsible for selling the project to stakeholders, defining the scope of the project and ultimately planning the project.
2. Project sponsor: a project sponsor is an individual (often a manager) with overall accountability for the project. The sponsor is the one who started the project or first thought of it, and is primarily concerned with ensuring the project delivers the agreed benefits and results.
3. External advisor: it’s never a bad idea to involve outsiders in your project. They offer a fresh perspective, and can introduce new approach when you get stuck.
4. Team member: specialists and experts in their field, the team members are the driving force behind a project’s success. Each team member will be in charge of completing a part of the project.
5. Stakeholder: a person or group who has a vested interest or ‘stake’ in the project. This could be an internal group or agency within the organisation, or the public at large for a public works project. The project manager usually communicates to the stakeholders throughout the project and actively seeks feedback on project deliverables and performance, while continuing to manage their expectations.
6. Client: more often than not, a client is not part of the organisation that executes a project, but does pay for the end result. The client defines the value of a project, so whether this role is taken up by an individual, a team or a third party, it is not to be taken lightly. The goals of each project should be in line with the expectations and wishes of the client before you get started.
What is a project manager?
As stated above, the project manager leads a project through each and every phase. They are responsible for selling the product to stakeholders, defining the scope of a project, and ultimately planning and seeing the project through.
A project manager determines which tasks are needed to achieve the project goals. This person assembles a team, gets the tools needed, and sequences the tasks into a clear schedule.
He or she is also in charge of creating the project budget, managing risk and monitoring project progress to ensure people work unobstructed and within schedule.
Important to note, is that a project manager may lead the team and serve as a leader of a project, yet is not the boss. The project manager sold the idea of a project to a sponsor or stakeholder, and reports to them on the project’s progress.
In general, project managers are well-organised, goal-oriented and passionate people. They work well under pressure, provide leadership and know how to motivate people. Aside from people skills, communication is another crucial prerequisite. In fact, this takes us right to our next point:
Why do projects fail?
By now, it should be clear that project management is often quite the challenge, especially if you’re juggling multiple projects at the same time. There are many reasons why projects could go so south:
1. Bad communication
Poor communication is the number one reason why projects don’t have the desired outcome or simply fail. This can have many causes:
- Language barriers
- Non-complementary personality traits
- Workplace factors
- Failing channels
The consequences of poor communication are manifold as well:
- Different expectations (and disappointment)
- Bruised egos
- Lack of overview
- Last-minute requests
- Rushed work
2. Failing to plan (is planning to fail)
Planning is sometimes seen as a second-rate activity, something that needs to be done but doesn’t add direct value. But if you fail to accurately define the scope, responsibilities and timeline of your project, you’ll get into serious trouble later on. Without a good plan, you risk:
- Lacking business support
- Lacking resources and time
- Missing deadlines
- Angry team members or clients
3. Losing track of the details
How much of your budget do you have left? Who is responsible for what? Are you still on track to meet your deadlines?
We all dread awkward silences in status meetings, or - god forbid - talking about the wrong project to the wrong client. At the very least, not knowing the details doesn’t inspire confidence. At worst, it might sink your entire project.
4. Using the wrong tools
Project managers often find themselves using multiple tools to keep track of assignments, team members, deliverables and statuses. In many cases though:
- Your software isn’t flexible enough for the project you deal with
- Slows you down due to its complexity
The result can feel like eating soup with a fork.
5. Lack of monitoring and controlling
Suppose you’ve started working on a project and created a waterproof schedule, but then you never update your planning. It won’t take long before you lose overview because:
- Deadlines have shifted
- Activities switched places
- Resources were reallocated
To ensure everything goes according to plan, you should perform regular checkups and make changes where needed. This also means checking in with your team on frequent occasions to see how you can prevent the project from slowing down.
6. No risk management
As every project is unique, unpredictability should always be taken into account as an inherent factor. Qualifying and quantifying that factor and proactively anticipating what could go wrong, and how you’ll react when that happens, is called ‘risk management’. And yes, it’s also part of the job as a project manager.
7. Changes in scope (or ‘scope creep’)
Classic scenario: a project stakeholder asks for a ‘small change’ or a ‘minor addition’ to the scope. So small, in fact, that you don’t expect budget or timing to be affected. Right? Wrong!
Each project is a careful balancing act of the ‘triple constraint’: scope, time and cost. Know that changing any one of these factors is bound to affect one (or both) of the others as well: if the scope changes, deadlines will need to be postponed or the cost of your project will increase.
7 steps to create the perfect project plan
Here’s a checklist of fundamental steps you should consider when initiating your next project:
1. Document the scope of your project
This is where the fun begins. Your first step should be to meet up with all stakeholders to discuss needs, expectations and baselines for the project. These include:
- The scope
- The budget
- The timeline
Document this information in your project plan to get everyone on the same page and reduce the chance of costly miscommunication.
TIP: Make sure you underpromise and overdeliver. Look beyond what the stakeholders state they need, and try to identify the underlying benefit they’re looking for. These are the objectives your project should deliver.
2. Break down your project into phases, milestones and tasks
You then need to determine the timeline of your project. What are the first crucial tasks you’ll tackle, and what is the absolute last one on your plate? Multiple related, smaller tasks can be grouped into larger milestones. Breaking down projects this way into actionable, bitesize bits prevents your team from feeling overwhelmed, and makes the execution go smoothly.
3. Estimate the resources you need
How many people do you need for your project, and what resources do you require? Make sure you list this as realistically as possible: you don’t want to splurge, nor underestimate. Both will jeopardise the timing and budget of your project.
4. Collect your resources
Now that you know which resources you need, it’s time to get the right people on board. Make sure everyone has the right tools for the job. Properly grouping and organising the various parts of the project starts here.
5. Link tasks to each other
Before you start making your project schedule, you first need to define which tasks rely on each other. In other words: which tasks need to be completed before a next one can start? There are four types of dependencies:
- Finish to start: task A must be completed before task B can start.
Example: Before you start building a road (task B), you first need to purchase land (task A).
- Start to start: task A must be started before task B can start.
Example: Before you start laying the asphalt (task B), you first need to start excavating the road (task A).
- Finish to finish: task A must be completed before task B can be completed.
Example: Before you can paint road signs (task B), you first need to lay the asphalt (task A).
- Start to finish: task A must be started before task B can be completed.
Example: Before you can paint road signs (task B), you first need to start excavating the road ( task A).
6. Make a schedule
Collect all the information you’ve gathered in steps 2 and 5, and start grouping activities on a timeline. Use all tasks and milestones for each project phase and line them up in a clear planning. Be sure to set firm deadlines for essential milestones and deliverables.
TIP: If everything’s important, nothing is. Prioritisation is the key to success in this phase of your project. If you’re having trouble doing so, start by ranking activities based on their urgency and importance using the Eisenhower matrix.
7. Log absolutely everything
The importance of documenting all details cannot be overstated. Each member of the project team should be able to check the status of each task, milestone or deliverable they’re responsible for at all times. Don’t forget to track time, either. This way, you’ll have a better estimate of deadlines and budgets when you deal with similar projects in the future.
Create your own project plan
Don’t underestimate project planning, but don’t fear it either: it’s a matter of collecting the nuts and bolts and putting them on a realistic timeline. Whether you’re an avid project manager or just became one by accident: the framework below works for all types of project managers or verticals.
Project management methodologies
Over the years, people have come up with various tried-and-tested ways to get project work done. Here are the most common ones, in order of appearance:
The Waterfall methodology is a sequential one. That means: each phase or task of a project seamlessly follows the previous one. First, you come up with the requirements for a project, then you put the design together, you build the solution, you test and implement it and then move to a maintenance stage. There are no overlaps.
Good for: projects with clear requirements or little expected change (scope creep)
Should be avoided if: you don’t really know where the project will take you, and if requirements aren’t very clear upfront.
The Agile methodology helps you stay flexible and adapt to changing requirements. It involves iterative working in short, sustainable bursts of activity, referred to as ‘sprints’. The work is time-boxed and the team gets as much done as possible in a fixed amount of time, before moving on to the next part of the project.
Good for: projects in which you want to incorporate quick wins and build iteratively
Should be avoided if: you work in a traditional environment, or you generally work on large projects (as it becomes harder to estimate the time you’ll need using the Agile approach)
The Scrum methodology is based on the Agile approach, but involves taking the complexity out of project management. Tasks can overlap, and you’ll be expected to make changes during the process. The Scrum method is basically a sequence of sprints. Before each sprint, you’ll check for changing stakeholder requirements.
Good for: iterative improvement projects, e.g. product development
Should be avoided if: requirements are not allowed to change, or if your organisation is unwilling to adapt and commit to this methodology fully.
Of course, these three project management methodologies are just the tip of the iceberg. There are many more options to explore. You could start here:
Project management software
Luckily, we’ve long since moved on from the world of ad-hoc planning or even meticulous, handmade project schedules. The birth of the internet leading to the development of various helpful resources, we’re now faced with a wide range of project software to support us in our efforts.
But why are these tools so useful? What advantages do they offer over more traditional ways of managing projects?
The benefits of project management software
The main benefits of using project management software include:
- A standardised approach to project management
- More informed decisions
- Optimal resource allocation
- Improved task management and visibility
- Better risk management, forecasting and budgeting
- Saves time and money
- Efficient team collaboration
- Improved customer satisfaction
Project management tools help you centralise information, keep track of planned tasks, gain insight into the workload and adapt without losing focus. But of all the features they offer, which ones do you really need?
8 Essential features of project management software
The planning feature is the very heart of your project management software. Your software needs to help keep track of scheduled tasks and deadlines. A shared team calendar can prove to be a great asset too - much like automatic notifications when deadlines are approaching.
More sophisticated tools allow you to distribute tasks and responsibilities to specific team members, while also taking workload distribution and timing into account.
Task management is a basic feature of most project management tools. A good task manager allows you to divide projects into milestones and tasks, which you can link to deadlines and budgets. More advanced tools even include the ‘Critical Path’: the order in which tasks need to be completed to keep the project moving forward.
Collaboration and communication
The key to successful projects is swift communication. Well-designed project tools serve as central hubs for basic data and detailed project information.
Some also facilitate sharing information with customers. This can be an easy way to offer your client transparency on the progress of your project, without spending time planning recurring meetings.
Reports and statistics are a great way to gain insight into previous or ongoing projects. Why did you exceed the budget? Why did you miss a deadline? This information will help you learn and improve your ways of working.
Budget and resource management
The finest tools offer specific resource management features. By giving you an overview of meeting rooms booked, planned and used resources and what it all cost you, the software allows you to stay within budget, avoid double bookings and resource shortages.
Time tracking features tell you which tasks took longest to complete throughout the project, improving your future cost and time estimates. Many tools offer basic time tracking - but the option to set different hourly rates or automatically add invoiceable hours to your invoice can save you hours of work.
Often lightweight versions of online project management tools, a mobile app offers remote access to travelling team members or people in the field. This way, you’ll be able to update tasks or milestones on the fly, track and create invoices based on hours worked and keep your team updated regardless of where you are.
You and your team use other tools aside from project management software, from personal email and calendars to CRM applications. Being able to connect these with your project management software offers more transparency, making information readily available and avoiding data silos.