Project Management Basics: Key Principles Every Manager Should Know

Quim P.
Quim P.
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People love to tackle projects – from high school art clubs to major business initiatives. For any project to be successful, a system must be in place to coordinate the project from start to finish. Otherwise, chaos is likely to ensue. Of course, the size and scope of a project determine the type of management it requires, but all projects still need this one thing one way or another: Project Management (PM).

This guide is designed to provide a comprehensive overview of the fundamentals of project management in a business setting. It will cover topics such as understanding the different types of project management methodologies, the different phases of a project, and tips for succeeding as a project manager.

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What Is Project Management?

Project Management is the practice of overseeing a project from start to finish. A framework is established to organize the project and ensure it reaches its goals within the allotted time frame. Teams are to respect the framework and use it to measure progress, report issues, and make decisions.

PM also includes various tools, processes, and systems employed in a project. The end goal is to deliver a valuable product or service while staying within the budget and timeline. Keeping the stakeholders, or your customers, in mind is key, as their satisfaction is the ultimate measure of success.

According to the Project Management Institute, 11.4% of every dollar spent on projects was lost because of inefficient project management practices in 2020. This figure is a clear testament to the importance of PM and how it facilitates successful projects.

Areas of Project Management

When it comes to a large-scale project, remember that project management is an umbrella term encompassing different areas of expertise. As such, you must account for every area of the project. These may vary depending on the type of project, but they usually include the following:

  • Risk: Risk management identifies and mitigates any risks associated with the project. This includes financial, technical, legal, and personnel-related risks.
  • Cost: Cost control involves managing the budget of the project. It includes keeping track of expenses, negotiating with vendors and suppliers, and identifying areas where costs can be saved.
  • Scheduling: Some projects have more intricate timelines than others. Scheduling involves setting deadlines for each step of the project and managing resources, such as personnel and materials, to ensure that those deadlines are met.
  • Scope: What is the size and scope of the project? Is it achievable within the allocated time frame? Scope management involves setting realistic goals and expectations for the project while also understanding any potential changes in scope that might occur along the way.
  • Quality: Quality control is an integral part of any project. It involves ensuring the product or service meets the designated standards and expectations. This area can include conducting rigorous testing, evaluating customer feedback, and ensuring all deliverables meet the required specifications.
  • Stakeholders: Keeping stakeholders in the loop is vital to a successful project. You should provide regular updates and inform them of any changes or issues.
  • Resource: Resource management involves allocating the right resources (people, equipment, materials, etc.) to the right tasks at the right time. It's a crucial part of any project and requires careful planning.
  • Other: There are many more areas of project management, such as communication and procurement, but also areas that are specific to the nature and scope of the project, which need to be individually assessed.

Understanding the Role of a Project Manager

As you can see, there is much to consider regarding project management. It requires a keen eye, attention to detail, and the ability to adapt and adjust as circumstances change. That's where the project manager comes in.

A project manager is responsible for taking charge and leading the team from start to finish. They must understand the elements that make up a successful project while displaying the leadership skills necessary to bring it together.

The job of a project manager can be complex and demanding. A good project manager needs to be organized and understand the stakeholder’s needs. Their communication has to be precise and effective, ensuring everybody is heard and valued. They'll set the goals and objectives, assign tasks to team members, track progress and budgets, provide feedback along the way, and eventually need to steer the project in different directions as needed.

Different Types of Project Management Methodologies

Project management isn't one-size-fits-all. Different projects require different approaches, and there are several methodologies to choose from. Each has its pros and cons and should be chosen based on the project's specific needs.

Waterfall

The waterfall method is a linear approach to project management. It involves breaking the project into distinct phases and working through them sequentially. The focus here is on the planning phase, which sets out a detailed roadmap for how the project should progress. Often considered a rigid and traditional approach, it's best suited for projects that are relatively simple and well-defined.

Waterfall Methodology

You likely won't be able to make any changes once you've started the project, so ensuring all stakeholders are on board with the plan is essential. Every phase requires the previous stage to be completed before it can begin.

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In a waterfall project, the focus is on delivering the finished project as efficiently as possible, with minimal changes or unexpected surprises.

Agile

Perhaps the most popular project management methodology today is "agile." This method stems from the world of software development and is based on the idea of iterative progress. It’s an overarching philosophy that powers many frameworks today. The agile methodology focuses on rapid iteration and constant feedback, which leads to better outcomes for flexible projects.

The approach allows for changes and modifications as the project progresses. It also encourages collaboration between all stakeholders and teams working together to reach their goals.

The agile approach is ideal for complex projects that require a lot of back-and-forth between stakeholders. It's also great for cross-functional teams, allowing everyone to provide feedback and insights throughout the process.

Agile Methodology

Read our article on the benefits of the Agile methodology to learn more about its strengths and use cases.

Scrum

As part of the agile framework, scrum is a more specific approach to project management. It focuses on breaking down tasks into short bursts of work and delivering them in manageable chunks. These bursts, also called sprints, help the team stay focused and motivated during the project.

Scrum Process

Scrum is all about transparency, inspection, and adaptation. It encourages open communication and collaboration among stakeholders, managed by a dedicated scrum master. The team constantly inspects their progress and adapts as necessary to meet the project's goals.

A scrum master will typically also facilitate the project, leading daily standup meetings. Here, team members can discuss their progress and any obstacles they face.

Lean

Lean project management, or Lean Project Delivery (LPD), is a methodology that focuses on cost-effectiveness and efficiency. It was first developed by authors studying Toyota in the manufacturing industry. It has since been adapted for many fields, including software development and construction.

The focus here is on minimizing waste, which can be anything from money to materials and energy. To do this, the team will identify what's essential for the project and strip away anything that's not absolutely necessary.

7 Wastes in Lean Project Management

The lean methodology is ideal for projects with limited resources. It encourages teams to think critically about how they can use their resources most effectively, which helps them create better outcomes with fewer resources. Startups and small businesses often find lean project management to be a useful framework, as do large enterprises that rely on many different resources and have the potential to optimize their production and waste.

Kanban

Next up is the Kanban project management system. Curiously, Toyota is also credited with pioneering this system since one of its engineers developed it in the 1940s for its lean manufacturing. Kanban (which literally translates from Japanese as "visual board" or “sign”) is based on visualizing workflows and tasks.

What used to be done with a physical board and sticky notes (and still is to some extent) is now mainly implemented in software solutions. The tasks are broken down into columns, such as "To Do," "In Progress," and "Done." These columns represent the workflow, which usually runs from left to right.

Kanban Board

The sticky notes or entries under each column, as seen in the example above, map the respective tasks. When a task progresses in the workflow, it is moved to the next phase.

This structure helps teams easily manage their workloads and optimize their strategy. It ensures everyone can quickly see what's going on and which tasks are due next.

The Kanban system is particularly useful for teams that need to stay flexible, as it helps you plan ahead while staying agile, allowing you to adapt quickly to changing conditions.

Extreme Programming (XP)

Another form of agile project management is Extreme Programming (XP). As the name suggests, this methodology is pretty intense. Unlike other agile frameworks, XP has a rather rigid set of rules that the team must adhere to. In fact, there are five guiding values, five rules, and 12 practices to follow.

Extreme Programming Values and Principles

There are, however, plenty of similarities between XP and other agile frameworks. Sprints are still an essential part of the process, as are daily standups and collaborative decision-making. The focus here is on delivering quality software quickly with a customer-centric approach. Constant feedback and testing are also essential.

Given its specificity and stringent rules, this approach is best suited for specific software projects. It's also great for teams that need to deliver results quickly with minimal overhead.

Critical Path Method (CPM)

Part of effective project management is prioritizing tasks. The Critical Path Method (CPM) is a way to do so by mapping out the tasks with their associated dependencies and durations. You'll be able to identify which tasks are critical and which can be delayed without impacting the overall timeline.

Critical Path Analysis

The CPM also helps with resource allocation since you'll better understand how much time and effort each task requires. This makes it easier to assign tasks to the right people, ensuring that everyone is working on what they're best at. It also helps avoid bottlenecks since you can devise alternative plans if one task takes longer.

The critical path method is often used in large projects and those with lengthy timelines and lots of tasks.

Adaptive Project Framework (APF)

In a similar vein, the Adaptive Project Framework (APF) is an agile approach that promotes flexibility and collaboration. There are many unknowns in any project, so it's important to adapt quickly and make informed decisions. The APF helps teams do just that by focusing on the bigger picture instead of individual tasks or roles.

It encourages teams to communicate frequently and stay up-to-date with changes in the environment. With this approach, teams can adjust their strategy and tactics quickly without compromising the quality of the end result.

Six Sigma

Finally, we have the Six Sigma approach to project management. Not unlike the lean methodology, Six Sigma is all about reducing waste and optimizing processes. It emphasizes the importance of data-driven decision-making, focusing on eliminating defects.

The Six Sigma approach is split into five phases: Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control (DMAIC). Each phase requires gathering data and coming up with the right solutions. This process ensures that any changes are based on evidence, not speculation.

The DMAIC Cycle

The Project Management Process

No matter which project management methodology you use, the core steps remain the same. The project management process has five crucial phases, all of which should be followed for a successful outcome.

Management Process Phases

Initiation

The first phase of the project is initiation. Initiation is where you define the problem or opportunity and create a plan to address it. During this phase, you should also set your expectations and identify any stakeholders who may be involved in the project.

The project's ultimate goal is also determined here, so it's best to be clear about what it intends to achieve. The project's scope, or what is included and excluded, should also be addressed. Many project managers use a project charter to gather all the relevant information. The charter is simply a document that outlines the project's purpose, scope, timeline, and budget.

Planning

Once the project has been initiated, it's time to move on to the planning phase. Depending on your chosen framework, it may be more or less complex. The planning phase is similar to a roadmap that guides the project's progress. It outlines tasks, activities, and milestones that must be completed for the project to move forward.

From technical requirements to resource allocations, the planning phase should cover all aspects of the project. It's also where team members will be assigned roles and responsibilities. As such, methodologies like waterfall require much more detailed plans than agile approaches.

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If the goals established during the initiation phase were somewhat vague, now is the time to zero in on the specifics. Two common methods for setting adequate goals are the SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound) approach and the CLEAR (Collaborative, Limited, Emotional, Appreciable, Refinable) method.

Execution

By now, your team should clearly understand what needs to be done and how it should be done. The ball is officially rolling, and the project is moving into its execution phase. During this stage, team members will work together to complete tasks and activities assigned during the planning phase.

If both previous phases have been done properly, the execution phase should go relatively smoothly. In methodologies like agile, the team has much more creative freedom and can respond to changes quickly. In contrast, the waterfall approach requires each element of the plan to be followed diligently for the project to stay on track.

Monitoring and Control

Simultaneously, the project manager is responsible for monitoring and controlling progress. This phase involves reviewing the project regularly to ensure it's still going according to plan.

If any issues arise, they need to be addressed quickly and effectively. The project manager should also constantly communicate with stakeholders and team members to ensure that everyone is up-to-date and all expectations are met.

Tools with dashboards can visualize the project's progress, while performance reports help managers identify potential problems.

Closure

It’s a wrap! At last, the project is ready to be delivered (to a client or end-user). This is known as the closure phase, where the project team wraps up any remaining tasks and delivers the final product or service.

The closure phase usually involves a sign-off from stakeholders, along with a formal assessment of its success. Once this is done, the project can be officially declared complete. Of course, depending on the project, the work might not stop here. Ongoing maintenance or support may be needed after the project has been delivered.

At first glance, project management might seem like pure chaos that needs to be tamed. But with the right tools and techniques, it can be quite manageable. Among other things, you can consider using the following tools during various stages in your project's lifecycle.

Gantt Charts

Gantt charts are super helpful when it comes to visualizing your project timeline and task dependencies. They provide an overview of which tasks need to be completed and when. Horizontal bars show the tasks, activities, and other ones that are connected to them - all visualized in relation to time. Gantt charts make it easy to see how long each task is expected to take and prioritize work accordingly.

Kanban Boards

As mentioned before, Kanban boards take a slightly different approach to time management. Instead of viewing the project timeline once, it breaks it down into smaller tasks and activities. Each task is represented by a note that can be moved around the board as it's completed or paused.

Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)

A work breakdown structure (or WBS) can be used to break a project down into smaller, more manageable work packages. It helps teams visualize the project and determine which tasks must be completed first. It resembles a decision tree, with each branch representing a different task or activity.

Work Breakdown Structure

WBSs are great for understanding exactly how much work needs to be done and who's responsible for it.

Communication Tools

In addition to these tools, teams need to stay in constant communication, especially if they're working remotely. As such, most project management tools allow for collaboration and communication.

Project managers can use these to keep track of conversations between team members and stakeholders and details like deadlines and requirements. They also allow for file sharing and feedback gathering, making it easier to stay on the same page throughout the project.

Budgeting Tools

Lastly, budgeting tools are essential for keeping financial resources in check if required. They help to create an accurate picture of the project's cost and timeline. With this information, teams can adjust their budgets accordingly and ensure they're spending their money in the best possible way.

Project Management Software

Instead of using all these tools separately, most companies use project management software to bring it all together. This type of software provides a comprehensive overview of the entire project and keeps everyone in the loop. It also makes tracking tasks, resources, budgeting, management, and communication more straightforward.

Project management software usually has a central dashboard that provides updates and alerts when changes occur. By digging deeper, you'll have access to all the above-mentioned tools and more.

At the end of the day, it's all about finding a solution that works best for you and your team. Take a look at our Best Picks to find the right project management tool for your team.

Conclusion

Project management is an essential part of any successful project. Whether you're a project manager or part of the team, you should understand the methodologies, responsibilities, tools, techniques, and strategies to ensure projects run smoothly. With this arsenal of knowledge, you'll be able to carry any project to the finish line.

FAQ

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Project management enthusiast who loves building a good working atmosphere in organizations. Good project management means making team members and clients feel comfortable at every stage of the process. Change my mind.