The Basics of Project Management
The need to remain relevant within the market place is a major driving factor for change in businesses. This need for change means each business will undertake numerous projects of varying sizes and lengths over its lifetime, even if it does not classify them as “projects”. Therefore, the project management skill set is vital and in high demand.
What is a Project?
The Project Management Institute (PMI) defines a project as
“a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product or service.”1
A project is temporary in that it has a defined beginning and end in time, and therefore must have a well-defined scope and set of resources. Projects are broken into multiple stages and tasks, each of which contributes to meeting the objectives within the project’s constraints. All projects have a budget.
Understanding Project Management and Project Managers
Project management as we know it today started taking form in the 1900s with the development of the GANTT chart. The next 50 years saw further development in the area with the introduction of the Program Evaluation and Review Technique (referred to as PERT) and Critical Path Method (or CPM). Since then several techniques and theories have been developed, some of which are no longer practiced or were further developed to match the changing times and business needs.
Project management is a complex process that involves the monitoring of the project phases, tasks and budget, coordination of resources assigned to the project and the ability to make critical decisions in a timely manner. A project manager is responsible for managing the project. Proper organization, effective communication, solid negotiating skills, critical thinking, risk management and sound money management are some of the core qualities of a successful project manager.
Project managers are seen as change agents, dynamic thinkers, communicators and problem solvers. See ”Why Is Project Management Important?” for a concise yet informative explanation on the value of project management and project managers to organizations.
The Stages of Project Management
The terms used when explaining project management methodology often differ based on who is explaining the concept. However the project life cycle consists of certain phases :
- Initiation: This is where in-depth research is conducted to ascertain whether or not the project will deliver the value needed (e.g., if it is worth undertaking).
- Planning: The tasks completed during this phase are all geared towards ensuring the objectives can and will be met within the specified time and budget.
- Execution: The plan is executed during this phase, with the stage ending either in the handing over of the project or implementation (partial or full). How it ends depends on the decisions made in the previous stage.
- Monitoring and Controlling: This phase covers project delivery, evaluating the project’s success and monitoring the use and/or performance of the end product or service.
Project Management Tools
Project managers use several tools to ensure that each project meets the business needs driving it. Each tool must be used effectively in order to reap the full benefits. Traditional project management tools include:
- GANTT Charts: This is a task list showing the start and end date of each task. Ideally it should show the “best case” scenarios. GANTT charts also show the cost of each task. The information is displayed horizontally on the chart.
- PERT Charts: PERT analysis is often done using graphical charts that depict the relationship between each task and their allotted time frames. In other words, this tool is used to organize, coordinate and schedule tasks. While graphic forms are best, a table or Excel sheet may be used where limitations exist.
- Critical Path Method (CPM): This is similar to PERT in that it too sets out activities and time frames in a graphical way. However, CPA shows the order in which activities must be completed while identifying activities that rely on the completion of other activities. Mapping the project’s critical paths is key to keeping the project on track. This is also referred to as critical path analysis (CPA.)
- Work Breakdown Structure (WBS): This is a chart that shows how all crucial project tasks relate to the overall project and each other. WBSs resemble organizational charts. WBSs usually have three levels with each lower level showing the detailed tasks associated with the level above it.
Expectations of a Project Manager
Project managers automatically shoulder a lot of responsibilities. Unfortunately, the inability to manage the expectations of others from the onset of the project can negatively impact business relationships and the overall project success, so professionals managing projects should attempt to understand what is expected of them and address accordingly. In general, project managers are (reasonably) expected to:
- Keep all stakeholders (e.g., the individuals and groups with interest in the project) updated.
- Identify and plan for possible risks before project commencement. They must also recognize risks as they occur and take decisive action to alleviate/minimize their impact.
- Keep all resources aligned to the project and ensure that human resources are able to work with each other regardless of differences.
- Recognize the need to increase the project’s budget or tailor the expected outcomes to meet the allowed budget where the initial budget proves inadequate after project commencement.
- Recognize when the business environment has changed and see how this change impacts the project’s delivery. Where this occurs, the project manager is expected to find a solution that will not greatly impact the project timeline and budget.
- Work under tremendous pressure.
- Adhere to best practices both in terms of project management and the industry in which the project owner/business operates.
Aspiring project managers are urged to utilize the wealth of knowledge available to practitioners in the field. They are also recommended to gain as much practical experience as possible while they study since real world application is the best way to gain a full understanding of the concepts and practices. Note as well that a sound understanding of business concepts and business practices will prove to be a tremendous asset.