A beginner's guide to project management

Project management is one of the most important and durable job disciplines in any industry. To understand why, it is helpful to review the definition of a project – a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result. Project management is the discipline of orchestrating change. The project management then is the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to fulfill the project requirements. Driving change is even more important today than it has ever been with the pace of technological, business and environmental changes accelerating at a seemingly endless rate. 

If you want to know-how project management can help you collaborate better and ultimately help your business you are in the right place. This page is going to answer the following question

an image of a green tshirt project manager managing her projects through freshrelease

Project management methodologies

Traditional project management technique

Most companies still stick to the classic approach to project management. Here, the manager decides on the task that each team member needs to complete for an agreed outcome. He provides them with training and coaching for the same before their performance is assessed. This kind of simple project management strategy works best with small groups when members do not necessarily need to wait on each other’s completed tasks to move forward.

Agile Project management technique

Most companies are moving more and more toward agile project management reason being it is a set of principles based on values. The approach in itself propagates dividing large chunk of work into small workable items or tasks and work on them with sprints. This approach has increased collaboration, continuous improvement to produce maximum value. Agile frameworks include such techniques as Scrum, Kanban.

Agile methodology is used by fast and nimble teams who aim to function like a startup.

Waterfall technique

The waterfall technique is slightly different from the traditional project management, a modified variant of it, each individual team member have a dependency on the other and relied on processes to complete tasks. These are most likely sequential in most cases.  They encourage team members to take on bigger tasks as the goals become massive.

Many waterfall-style projects use Gantt charts to track the progress that symbolizes project timelines and dependencies.

Critical-path-technique

Project management is the orchestration of project resources and project activities. One of the key activities of the project planning process is developing a critical path for the project that outlines the key sequence of activities that must be performed to reach the project’s stated objective. Where the product-breakdown structure depicts the end deliverable, the work breakdown structure, activity map, and critical path depict the activities that must be resourced and completed.

Together, these planning artifacts provide the project team with a clear picture of where they are headed and how they will reach the endpoint. The critical-path analysis is not just a best practice, it is an essential project-planning activity. A well-articulated critical path will help the project team:

The critical-path analysis is often performed as a part of a project’s planning stage. It is not uncommon, however, for the critical path to change as the project proceeds. Best practices suggest the critical path be reviewed as a part of reviewing each change request and project milestone to understand if a change to the critical path has occurred and if changes must be made to the project plan.

Project management standards

Project management isn’t a one-size-fits-all discipline, even within a single company. Projects have differing needs, constraints, and contexts, which must be considered when selecting a project-management approach. There are many methodologies project managers can choose (waterfall, agile, rolling wave, big bang, phased delivery, etc.). Selecting the most appropriate approach is the first step to achieving project success.

Some companies have defined project-management standards, which may constrain the project manager’s options; however, even within the context of these organizations, project managers often have some level of flexibility to make adaptations within a standard to address the project’s unique needs. A seasoned project manager will consider many factors when selecting a methodology for a project. Some of the most important factors include:

Project scale

Large projects often require greater project management rigor and formality to separate and manage project complexity than small, simple projects. A common project management software often proves to be a solution here. 

Scope ambiguity

Projects with a clearly defined scope are often better suited for waterfall-type methodologies. Projects with large degrees of scope ambiguity are often more easily managed with agile and rolling-wave approaches, which defer many decisions until later during the project lifecycle when greater scope clarity can be achieved.

Risk tolerance

The impact of project failure on an organization is probably the most important consideration when choosing a project management methodology. If a company’s viability or reputation is at risk or if the product could put lives at risk, then project managers should select project management methodologies that focus on rigor, quality, and structured-risk management.

Compliance and documentation requirements

Some projects have regulatory-compliance requirements that mandate a certain level of project formality, documentation and decision governance. Agile methodologies that empower individual team members to move quickly and encourage risk-taking may not be appropriate for such projects.

Culture and experience of the project team

The dynamics of the project team itself may also be a factor in the approach selection. Project teams that have been working together and have established work methods may be more successful continuing to use existing working methods rather than introducing a new project management methodology.

Project management lifecycle

There is a famous saying, po-tay-to or po-tah-to, meaning it does not matter how you say it, the outcome is the same. Similarly, irrespective of the project you’re planning, the stages that it goes through remains the same.  

No two projects are the same, different projects require different skills and processes including varied tasks but the basic structure remains the same. 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. 

Initiating phase

As the literal meaning, the initiation phase is the beginning phase of the project management cycle. This phase includes bringing an identity to the project, developing a business process to it and get some approvals if needed. Project managers usually lookout for the feasibility of the project, the scope of it.

There are multiple people involved in a project, once the key stakeholders give a nod or a go-ahead, a project charter is prepared. This helps in setting the purpose and expectations from the project right along with the requirements and risks. This is the time when a manager decides to select project management tools as well. 

Planning phase

Once we have a solid foundation of a project post the initiation phase, next comes the planning phase. This is extremely important and it paves the way for your project to grow. Most teams come up with a roadmap that would act as a single source of truth for all team members to refer to. Goals are established, deadlines are set. This way each team member knows what they are to do in order to successfully complete the project.  

Most teams also come with a project workflow that works best for their teams to work as efficiently as possible. This was there is a set process for the work to be completed instead of chaos. 

Effective project management workflow systems should help you to organize and record the stages of the workflow. A good workflow process will create a series of steps directing you and your team towards a final destination. 

Executing phase

The execution phase of a project and the planning phase of the project go hand in hand. The planning of the project should be rock solid in order for it to be executed. This phase is usually done with kick-off huddle of the team members where the deliverables are assigned and completed, status updates are given, the meeting happens now and then to check on the progress. This phase the most things going on as each member is catering to the responsibilities given to them. 

The project managers are mostly focussed on keeping all the team members engaged in their tasks in order for a deliverable to get completed successfully. 

Monitoring & controlling phase

This phase in most teams happens parallelly with the execution phase. The major chunk of this phase is spent on tracking the progress of the team, against the goals that are set during the planning phase. 

There are a couple of parameters like project performance, objectives, time taken to finish a task, cost tracking and other key areas that a manager can use to understand where a project stands. Although it is possible to measure progress manually, it is easier to track it better with a project management software in place, as it helps in producing metrics and gives you data at any given point of time. To guarantee delivery of what was promised, teams must monitor tasks to prevent scope creep, calculate key performance indicators and track variations from allotted cost and time. This constant vigilance helps keep the project moving ahead smoothly.

Closing phase

The most delightful phase of a project when it gets completed successfully. All the hard work done by the team members are recognized here, project managers try and understand what went right and what could have been done better in a project. 

Valuable members are shifted to other projects based on needs with a lot of key takeaways and learnings from this project. All the reports and deliverables are stored in a single tool in case they need to look back at it at any point in time. 

Project management workflows

Most teams also come with a project workflow that works best for their teams to work as efficiently as possible. This here is a set process for the work to be completed instead of chaos. Effective project management workflow systems should help you to organize and record the stages of the workflow. A good workflow process will create a series of steps directing you and your team towards a final destination. 

 

an image of a custom workflow of a project

Project management best practices strive to execute these processes effectively and efficiently to achieve any project’s objectives. In addition to the process areas, PMI defines 10 project management knowledge areas, which provide further clarity about how to execute and apply the project management processes within the context of a project.

project management knowledge areas

Benefits of project management 

Establish well-defined goals 

Keep your team aligned and focussed on goals easily. Bring about clarity on the purpose of their work and what is expected out of them.

Save time and resources

By outlining a clear plan with all of your project's tasks, adding deadlines to them, assigning owners to them, you’ll turn what would have otherwise been a chaotic process into an efficient one. 

Increase work efficiency

Adopt a tool that is flexible, customizable and easy to use to avoid confusion and wastage of time. Pick a tool where every team member is on board at one central place for easy collaboration.

How to choose the right project management software?

Assessment of needs

Selecting the right project management software starts with a clear, honest assessment of what you need. First things first, make sure that your team is ready to embrace new software which is most easy on them without any complexity. 

Flexibility

Software with intuitive and approachable UI means your team members can start working immediately without needing special training. Higher prices do not automatically mean better software and a complicated UI does not necessarily mean it is feature-rich.

Price

Shop around, compare features, read up reviews and then decide which project management software fits your business better. Paying a higher price does not necessarily mean it's of quality and if you are just starting out, even a free project management software can be more useful than just using regular spreadsheets.

a venn diagram representing the factors that go into making of an ideal project management software

Best practices for project charters

The project charter is arguably the single, most important project-management artifact – yet most projects proceed without a clearly defined charter, leading to a host of problems later during delivery. As one might imagine from the name, the primary stated goal of the project charter is to grant authority to the project and project manager to drive change on behalf of the organization. This is important because it establishes the legitimacy of the project effort and serves as a foundation for developing support for the project across an organization.

The value of the project charter does not end with establishing the authority of the project manager and project team. A clear project charter provides clarity of the project scope, timelines, and constraints, which can serve as the basis for project planning and to avoid potential confusion about what changes the project is expected to influence.

Avoiding conflict

Having the project scope clearly defined in the project charter helps avoid conflict amongst project team members and stakeholders. Ambiguity breeds discontent; and even well-meaning stakeholders are likely to develop opinions contrary to the intent of the project.

The first line of defense against scope creep

In addition to defining what the project is intended to deliver, the project charter also provides clarity to the scope boundaries of the project – what it is NOT intended to deliver. This is helpful as future scope interpretations are made and change requests are evaluated.

Cross-functional relationships

Many projects require the involvement of multiple teams or functions – each potentially having their own priorities and directions from management. The project charter articulates a “common goal” to which the entire project team can align.

Directing project resources

Project managers must often direct resources from other parts of the organization. This includes financial, intellectual property, technology, and human resources. The project charter provides the project manager with the authority to direct and consume resources on behalf of the organization.

Establishing success criteria

The project charter begins the process of describing success for the project. Defining the finish line for project activities and the desired outcomes are essential to ensure projects are executed both effectively and efficiently.

Project management best practices suggest every project should have a clearly defined charter at the onset and this document be reviewed periodically when either significant changes are considered or at key project milestones. The project charter is the “North Star” project managers, project teams and stakeholders can use to guide their evaluation of the project’s course and whether it is progressing towards the intended project goals.

 

Best practices for project-change management 

Most projects don’t have the luxury of occurring in a static environment – the organizational needs, business environment, technology landscape, and resource profile are constantly changing. One project manager described this as “trying to change a tire on a bus as it is driving on a road.” Although not all changes can be anticipated, project-management best practices suggest there are 4 key factors that can help a project manager anticipate how much their project may change.

Length of the project

Shorter projects tend to be more stable while longer projects have a higher likelihood of significant changes occurring that must be managed.

Stability of the environment

Some business environments are more stable than others. In highly dynamic organizations and industries, the project environment is likely to be more volatile.

Easy-to-use software promotes adoption

People will naturally try and do their jobs in the easiest way possible. Since most project-management activities can be done manually, the software must be simple and effective and achieve the specific results the user is seeking.

Versatility of resources

Human, technical and financial resources that are highly versatile can insulate the project from many changes and avoid disruption. Projects staffed with specialists are prone to change related disruption.

Not all project-management methodologies address changes the same way. Agile and rolling-wave methods excel at managing change and, in some cases, are optimized to anticipate and embrace change. Waterfall methodologies and projects with rigorous compliance requirements often struggle to adapt to changes and, in some cases, even a small change can cause significant rework and/or project abandonment.

Project-management best practices suggest the best method to approach changes in a project environment is to apply continuous-improvement approaches. Instead of assuming the project team is all-knowing and every facet of the project plan has been determined in advance, project managers should plan to learn as they proceed by continuously surveying the environment both inside and outside the project for opportunities and threats. When they are identified, the project manager should carefully consider the impact of the change, leveraging risk-management techniques and the triple constraint when formulating a response. Many changes lead to requirements refinement, adjustments to project plans and/or identification of potential defects to the product being developed. By being adaptable and refining the project based on changes, opportunities and threats, project teams will not only be able to achieve the objectives stated at the start of the project but also, more importantly, deliver the outcomes at the end of the project the organization actually needs.

 

The triple constraint of project management

No discussion of project-management best practices would be complete without a mention of the triple constraint. The triple constraint is a best-practice construct that depicts the relationship of scope/quality, resources and time within the context of the project. One or more factors, often two, constrain all projects and project success and can only be achieved by balancing these 3 factors. For example, if the project is given a fixed timeline and a limited set of resources, then the only factor that can be adjusted is the scope and quality of what is delivered. If a project receives a scope-change request, then it can only be accommodated with a change to resourcing (adding more people), a change to scope (removing another element) or a change to time (extending the delivery date).

Each project is different, and the triple constraint often weighs heavily on a project manager’s selection of a project management approach. Timelines that highly constrain projects, but with scope flexibility, are often well-suited for Agile methods. Projects with constrained scope/quality are often better suited for waterfall-type project-management approaches.

The triple constraint also impacts decisions about project deliverables. Resource and timeline constraints can lead project teams to de-scope key features, accept defects, forego non-functional requirements and scale back supplementary deliverables, such as product documentation. As one might expect, the project’s risk tolerance and the risk-management approach also influence these kinds of trade-off decisions. Project managers often struggle with explaining the impact of trade-off decisions to project sponsors and other stakeholders. A triple constraint is a tool most stakeholders can intuitively comprehend, so its use has developed as a key project-management best practice.

Best practices for managing project resources

Resource planning is one of the most time-intensive project-management activities. Project managers are responsible for directing financial resources, intellectual-property resources, technology resources as well as the human resources assigned to the project. Much of this is basic scheduling, budgeting and administrative work that is not very complex or difficult. Human-resource management (coordinating people’s activities) is where nuances and challenges often occur. Project-management best practices suggest 5 areas where project managers should pay careful attention when managing project resources.

Estimating overhead activities

Most project managers underestimate the percentage of each team member’s time that overhead activities consume, either directly connected to the project (status reports, project meetings, documentation, etc.) or related to their day job (staff meetings, performance reviews, etc.). During a typical project, overhead activities consume 30–45% of a resource’s time before he or she begins to work on project deliverables.

Managing turnover

During projects lasting more than 3 months, project managers should expect at least some resource turnover due to natural attrition and people changing job roles. Best practices suggest turnover should not be avoided (e.g., contractually locking resources into their role on the project), but rather mitigated through cross-training and maintaining enough schedule reserve to accommodate resource changes.

Understanding skills and capabilities

Many project managers overestimate the skills and capabilities of project team members and underestimate the learning curve for achieving peak project productivity. This can lead to unrealistic expectations and project team members working overtime to achieve project expectations.

Planning for disruption

A big mistake inexperienced project managers make is developing resource plans based on best-case scenarios and failing to plan for an expected level of project disruption. Risk-management processes provide a structure for evaluating both known-unknowns and unknown-unknowns in a project. Unknown-unknowns are where the biggest issues occur.

Managing competing priorities

It is very rare that a project is staffed with a team of people allocated 100% to project activities. More often, resources must balance project activities with other projects and/or operational activities outside the project manager’s control. Understanding competing priorities and capacity limitations will help improve the quality of resources estimation for the project.