An introduction to Project Management

We start our careers and build up our professional experience and depending on the needs of the company we are in or even if we are starting out on our own, depending on our skill-set and our personal drive we get thrust into roles we knew nothing about and ask to deliver value to our companies, to our customers, to ourselves. Regardless of your current role, there is often the need to plan and oversee a project, you struggle to do the work at hand, you try and do our best and eventually succeed, usually the hard way, learning by doing. In our quest to professional growth; knowledge, guidance and support are your benefactors.

Through-out my professional career I’ve come to find various sources of information that I’d like to share to aspiring project managers who are looking for a starting point. In this article, I am going to provide a brief step by step introduction to project management. This will follow closely Richard Newton’s ‘Project Management Step by Step: How to Plan and Manage a Highly Successful Project’ [1]. Which provides a clear and concise step-by-step process on how to structure, monitor and finish a project. I will use the book as a guide, coupled with my own personal experience in project management.

Before we get into the process it is important to understand what a project is, what the role of a project manager is and how does a typical life-cycle of a project go.

What is a project?

The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide 5th edition) [2] defines the project as “a temporary endeavour undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result.”.

Breaking this down we see that a project has a finite life-span with a start and an end date and a goal in mind to deliver something in the end whether that is a product (i.e. a new smartphone), a service (i.e. an improved customer service experience at a retail store) or a result (i.e. restructuring the various departments at a company).

A typical life-cycle of a project would be

  • Understanding and specifying why you are doing the project
  • Planning the project and understanding how it would need to be executed
  • Executing the project and creating the various deliverables that it needs to produce based on your plan
  • Ensuring that the deliverables meet the original specifications of the project
  • Closing the project down

What does a project manager do?

The main role of the project manager is to structure, monitor and ensure that a project is successfully completed within the required time and cost. This breaks the role into the following distinct functions: know why you are doing the project and what the project will produce, plan the project, manage the project and complete the project.

Dimensions of a project

A project has a goal, deliverables, quality standards to adhere to, a start date and an end date, a budget and associated risks. Let us take the simple example of a small personal project to change the oil to our car. The five dimensions of the project would be:

  • Scope of a project is understanding what needs to be done/produced in a project. The scope here would be to change the oil in our car.
  • Quality of a project depends on the type of the project and what it will produce. In our example, we can either use a cheap oil brand or an expensive oil brand.
  • Time of a project is the period required to start and end the project. If we change the oil at a garage it could take 1 hour, if we change it ourselves it might take 3 hours.
  • Cost is the monetary cost required to complete it. Depending on which oil we choose and whether we will go to a garage or do it ourselves it could require anywhere between 20-50 EUR.
  • Risk is of not meeting the requirements of the dimensions. For example, we might not have the budget for an expensive oil, if we change the oil ourselves we might do something wrong or take much more time to completed than we originally planned.

There is a variety of project management methodologies depending on the company, the industry and the type of product, service or result you want to create. A nice introduction to the various methodologies can be found in Wrike’s project management guide [3]. For the purposes of this introduction we are going to use the traditional waterfall model where we follow in sequence the steps to define, plan, execute and close our project. This will provide you with the initial building blocks to be able to understand how a project should be structured and monitored to fruition.

Project Definition

You cannot start a project without knowing why you need to do it. This is accomplished by creating your Project Definition which will serve as the driving and motivating force for everything else that follows. The process can be simplified by answering the below questions.

For the purposes of this project definition let’s say we are an agency designing websites who has decided to update their company website.

  • Why do you want to do this project? This is a short, concise statement telling you why you want to do this project and what you want to achieve once the project is completed. Example: Redesigning your company’s web-site.
  • What will you have at the end of this project that you don’t have now? This will give you an understanding at what the delivery of the project would be. Example: A re-designed web-site using the latest technologies in the market.
  • Will you (should you) deliver anything else? Sometimes when you are doing a project, it gives you the opportunity to work on additional items beneficial for the client, or company. These can be listed here but be cautions not to expand the project in a way that becomes unmanageable and out of scope. Example: Create a manual of the process when you are re-designing the website to serve as training for the future web developers of the company.
  • Is anything explicitly excluded from the project? Do you need to explicitly exclude something from the project? This will help narrow the scope of the project and not let it get out of hand. i.e. The logo of the company would not have to be redesigned.
  • Are there any gaps or overlaps with other projects – or changes to the boundaries of your project? Sometimes when a project is initiated there could be someone who has performed something related already (i.e. there is already a website template ready which was created for a previous project but never used), or your project is dependent on the output of another project (i.e. there is another project in place which redesigns the logo of the company), or your project might need to be integrated with a bigger project. (i.e. you are designing a landing page for a new product that will also need to be featured in your main website).
  • What assumptions (if any) are you making? At the beginning stages of planning a project you need to make assumptions in order to narrow down the time-frame and cost of the project. These should be listed here and would serve as the baseline of your project risks. Example: The designer working on the website might get sick for a week and the project could be delayed up to a week unless a work-around is found.
  • Are there any significant problems you are aware of that you must overcome? Here you can list problems/challenges you expect to face in the project Example: A junior developer will work on the project and he will have to be trained as he goes along. This will affect the dimensions of the project and the way you approach the project.
  • Has the customer, or the situation, set any specific conditions on the way you do this project? A project is done to deliver value to some stakeholder, whether this is the company, an individual within the company, a customer, etc. Here you would need to list the constraints that the stakeholder imposes Example: fixed time, maximum cost, adherence to specific laws/regulations. When planning the project, it’s important to take these in mind, understand them and examine if these are possible. For example, a customer want’s a project to be done within a month however when you formulated your project plan you can see that it cannot be done in less than two months,

Once the project definition is finalised it is vital to agree it with all the stakeholders of the project, so that you are all on the same page before proceeding further with the project plan. Failure to do so might result in delivering a project that does not meet the actual deliverables of the project that the stakeholder wanted.

Project Plan

Following from the project definition we are ready to move on in creating our project plan. A project plan is extremely important for numerous reasons: it helps you understand how long a project will take and how much it will cost, you can use your project plan to explain the project to other people. It allows you to allocate work to different people in the project and it serves as the basis to manage and complete your project.

To produce the project plan there are six activities involved. The first step would be to divide the project into its individual component tasks. The key here would be to keep dividing them until you reach the point where a task can be allocated to a person. The next step would be to estimate the length of time that each task would take, followed by ordering the tasks in their correct sequence. Once this is nailed down you need to determine the resources you would require meeting this plan (people, money, equipment, services) and determine the costs for each. When the time and costs are known you need to evaluate the resources that you have available at your disposal (i.e. people might not be available to work 100% on your project) and take this into account, refining and finalising the project plan. When the plan is ready you need to be able to answer two important questions can you do the project and should you?

Breaking the project plan into actionable steps you can use the below as a guideline:

Step 1 Brainstorm a task list: start by brainstorming all the tasks you would need to do to complete the project. At this stage if you know anyone who has done a similar project, be sure to include them in the brainstorming session as their experience would be invaluable.

Step 2 Convert the task list to a skeleton plan: take all the tasks from the initial steps and transfer them into a more formulated plan, which is called the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)

Step 3 Estimate times, add dependencies and delays: convert your WBS into a schedule of activities by listing the required time for each task and their dependencies.

Step 4 Add in who will do what: allocate the tasks to the people available for the project. It’s essential to notice their availability to do the task and their skills.

Step 5 Build the plan into a schedule: once the tasks are finalised, the dependencies are added and the people involved are allocated you are ready to build the schedule by adding the start and end dates of the project.

Step 6 Work out costs: an important aspect of the project plan is also working out the required costs of the project which fall into two categories: costs associated with running the project and costs associated with buying deliverables.

  • The costs associated with running the project includes the required time of the people working on the project and anything you must buy to enable them to complete their work, including your work as the project manager.
  • The costs associated with buying deliverables: this includes anything used to create your deliverables on the project.

Step 7 Add in contingency: We have planned the tasks and costs and time-required but we may be worried about errors we have made in our planning. At the same time once a project starts there are many things which could go wrong. To deal with these potential issues, we add what is called contingency to our project (i.e. set aside additional time and money to cover the possibilities of any flawed estimations or things going wrong. When adding contingency you must take into account how risky the project is and how much experience you have when tackling similar projects.

Step 8 Add in milestones: For any project lasting typically over a month it’s useful to split the project into milestones. Milestones are points in time identifying when an important stage has been completed. This helps track the high-level progress of the project as well as makes it easier to communicate the status of the project to people on the outside.

Step 9 Review and amend: Once the project plan is formulated you have a clear understanding of the budget required to deliver it. Before signing it off with the stakeholder there are three useful questions you need to ask yourself.

  • Can you do it? Are the resources in time and money available to complete the project?
  • Should you do it? You start planning the project with the scope of the project in mind. A project aims to solve a problem for the stakeholder. Now that you have the project plan in place does it make sense to continue with the project?
  • Can you do it any better way? Now that the plan is in place is there any way to do it faster, cheaper or better? Examine the key items in cost and time and see if you can make any changes. Examine possibilities while thinking of the five dimensions of the project: time, cost, scope, quality and risk.

A useful reference for this stage is planning what is called the critical path of the project. The critical path of a project are the series of tasks that when laid out create the timescale of the project. Typically, tasks that are not on the critical path can be moved around without changing the length of the project.

Step 10 Review the plan with your project customer: The final step in the project plan is to go over the project with the project customer (stakeholder). The customer needs to understand the project plan (both the time and cost), review and accept it. At this stage, you know more of what is required in the project so you will need to have confidence in your plan. The customer would typically request things to be done more quickly, more cheaply and would question your need for contingency. The customer would need to understand that for the plan to change, sacrifices in the scope or five dimensions of the project (time, cost, scope, quality and risk) need to be made.

Managing Delivery

Once the project plan is signed off, the hard work of the project manager begins. You know what needs to be done in the project, you are in an excellent position to deliver it and now it’s the time to initiate the delivery of the project and keep an oversight of how the project is going.

During the delivery of the project, your task as the project manager is:

  • To ensure that the project starts properly and that each project member understands their role and the tasks they need to do.
  • Monitor the progress of the project and make sure that the day to day work is moving as per your project plan.
  • Identify and resolve any problems that prevent the project from progressing.
  • Identify and resolve any potential problems that may arise and prevent the project from progressing.
  • Ensure that the project objectives remain relevant to the customer and where they do not introduce any changes that may be required in a controlled way.

To be effective as a project manager requires that you keep yourself immersed in the day-to-day work of the project and understand what is happening. You also need to keep talking all the time to the project team, telling them what needs to be done and finding out how they are progressing. Project management is not a hands-off activity, it requires focus, attention and ongoing interaction with everyone involved in the project.

When managing the delivery of the project you can use the below actionable steps as a guideline:

Step 1 Start the project: Before starting the project it’s useful to have one final conversation with your project customer to verify that there are no last-minute changes to the project definition, that they are on-board with the project plan and that you will start the project and start using the necessary resources to complete it.

Afterwards you need to follow with a conversation with the project team to verify that each person in the team is aware of their role on the project, the tasks they need to do, the order of the tasks, the resources at their disposal to complete their work as well as how to keep you updated on their progress. With everyone on-board the project goes live.

Step 2 Plan your day: A project slips away a day at a day. It is the job of the project manager to make sure that the project is progressing as planned and to resolve any issues that may arise. The project manager should start their day by answering the following questions:

  • What things are causing most difficulty to the project now?
  • What are the things that are most likely to cause problems to the project in the future?
  • What actions are my responsibility to undertake?
  • Which are the most important things that I need to resolve now?

Even though typically the project manager isn’t responsible for doing the tasks of the project team, they are responsible to ensure that everything happens.

Step 3 Collect information and reports: As the project progresses and depending on the size of the project team you would need to establish a way to collect information from your team members as the work progresses. Information may come verbally on day-to-day interactions with the team, but you should also setup more formal, short, weekly meetings with your project team to keep track of the process, keep the team updated and to resolve any issues that may arise. A useful guideline for these meetings is for every team member to address the following:

  • What they did in the last week. Was it as planned, and what was produced?
  • What they plan to do in the next week. Does that match the project plan?
  • Are there any new issues, risks or changes they need to raise?
  • What is the progress on any issues, risks or changes they are working on?

Following these meetings, you are in a position to update your customer regarding the current status of the project. You would need to consolidate all the information you received from the project team and provide the key information back to the customer. A useful guideline for the update to the customer is to provide answers to the below questions. This could be done either verbally or in a progress update report, depending on the needs of the project and client.

  • What is the current overall project status. Are things on track? If not, what will be done in order to bring the project back on track.
  • An overview of what was done last week and what will be done next week.
  • Any decisions required to be made by the customer

Step 4 Monitor and manage progress: It is the project manager’s responsibility to monitor and manage the progress of the project. The main process of monitoring and managing the progress is to check the completed tasks against the tasks that should have been completed up to this point in the project plan and answer the following questions:

  • Are you on schedule relative to the plan? Are there any trends you are worried about?
  • If there is any slippage, what is the impact? Are the late tasks on the critical path or not?
  • How much time are you late? How much do you need to recover to bring yourself back on track? Are you likely to slip beyond your contingency time?
  • What options are there for recovering this time? Which option is best?

When slippage occurs, there are various actions you can take to get the project back on track. These should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis but potential solutions might be:

  • Getting your team to do subsequent tasks more quickly
  • Accepting the slippage and using some contingency
  • Adding more resources
  • Looking at alternative ways to do what you are trying to do
  • Changing the project in some way
  • Doing nothing

If everything went according to plan you would not need a project manager in place. You must be able to face such challenges with the attitude that there is always a solution and actively seeking ways to find and implement it.

Step 5 Identify and resolve issues: As the project progresses, issues arise that if not dealt correctly have the potential to hinder the success of a project. It is the project managers responsibility to be able to deal with them and navigate smoothly in their presence.

The communication venues established from the previous steps must ensure that all the members of the project team report any issues that may arise. These should be documented and addressed in an “issues log” to ensure that they are handled correctly. An issue log should contain the below information:

  • What the issue is.
  • When it was identified.
  • What impact it is having on the project.
  • Who is going to resolve the issue? This person is usually called the issue owner.
  • What the action to resolve the issue is.
  • When it needs to be resolved by.
  • When the next update on progress to fix the issue is due.
  • Whether it is open or closed

The project manager should review this log daily and during the weekly review meetings check with the issue owners to ensure that these are being resolved. A growing list of issues not getting resolved is a sign that a project is in trouble.

Step 6 Identify and manage risks: During the initial planning session of the project we identified potential risks that could hinder the success of our project. These risks should be reviewed and monitored weekly to ensure that they do not become issues that need to be dealt with. You can find a non-exhaustive list with potential project risks here. [4]

Project risks should be documented in a ‘Risk Log’ and for every risk provide the below information.

  • What the risk is.
  • What is the likelihood of it occurring.
  • What the impact will be, if it occurs.
  • What its overall priority is.
  • Who is responsible for managing this risk.
  • What the next action to resolve this risk is.
  • When any actions need to be completed.
  • What the current status of the risk is.

Step 7 Manage changes: During the life-cycle of a project it is not uncommon for variables in the original project scope to change. When changes do not happen in a controlled way, they threaten the time-line and budget of a project or even divert the deliverables from the project scope resulting in an end goal that does not meet the requirements of a client. You control changes by incorporating a change management process.

Once changes are identified they should be documented by capturing the below information.

  • Document what the change is.
  • Describe why the change is being proposed.
  • Identify when the change needs to be accepted by, if it is to work.
  • Identify the impact of the change – will it change the length of the project, or the cost? Does it change the level of quality or risk?
  • What the proposed action with regard to this change is.
  • Keep track of the current status of the change: it can either be ‘in review’; it can be ‘accepted’ or ‘rejected’
  • Sign off from the customer to the change.

It is crucial for the customer to understand the changes being made and the impact they would have on the project. It is up to the customer to accept or reject the change and afterwards the responsibility of the project manager to update the project plan and budget accordingly.

Step 8 Take action to ensure the project’s success: By following the previous steps you monitor the project’s process, understand issues and risks and any requested changes. You have a process that collects all the required information to manage the project, however managing a project is not simply about understanding the various flows but also about taking action when issues arise. You will need to use your experience, common sense to come up with solutions are issues arise in order to steer the project back on track when it gets side-tracked.

Step 9 Keep your customer informed: During step 3 we covered the fact that the customer would need to be updated on the current status of the project, this needs to happen both when things go right but also when things go wrong. It’s far better for the customer to be aware of any issues in the beginning than reach the deadline of the project and inform him that the project will be either late or over-budged. Customers do not mind if a project is late or over-budget if they have been kept informed, and understand why a project is late and more expensive.

Step 10 Update the Project Plan or Project Budget: When the project plan and budget were originally prepared, they were predictions on how the project would progress. They offer the guideline to manage and track the project. However, as the project progresses potential risks become issues, other issues arise and changes are introduced which deviate the original plans from the current state of the project. The project plan and budget should be monitored and updated accordingly as these occur.

Complete The Project

Project Managers often do not take into account the impact and effort required to complete a project. Finishing a project does not mean simply producing the deliverables but also correctly managing the delivery to the client. This is what differentiates an average project manager from the outstanding one, as these are steps which are regularly forgotten.

When the project deliverables are ready (i.e. in the case of a new software being implemented), they should be thoroughly tested to ensure they meet the requirements and scope of the project. If a project deliverable needs to be explained to the client, a process will need to be setup (and included in the original project plan) to ensure the customer is trained and has assistance with their deliverables. Some deliverables require support even if a customer has been trained on how to use them. It is important in such cases to allow for a brief period of time even after the training to provide support to the customer and for them to feel comfortable in using them.

As the project progresses and completed, people no longer required on the project can be released from the project team. However, make sure to always do this with caution. Only release people from the team if you are sure that they have completed all the tasks required and you have the confidence that you will not need them at a later stage (i.e. when completing the project) for any testing and implementation required.

When a project completed it has valuable lessons to teach you for your next one. Make sure to setup a process to review what went right and what went wrong to assist you in the next project that you tackle. This review should involve the project team – and if you can, the project customer as well. During your review take note to answer the following questions.

  • What went well and what will you do again on your next project?
  • What went badly and will you do differently on your next project?
  • What will you start doing? What didn’t you do on this project that in hindsight would have been good to do?
  • Is there anything else you have learnt that is worth remembering for next time?

Congratulations, you now have the knowledge to successfully plan, structure, implement and deliver your first project. An excellent way to continue to expand your knowledge is to check out in more details the references of this article, including Wrike’s Glossary in Project Management [5].

References

[1] Richard Newton (2006) Project Management Step By Step How to Plan and Manage a Highly Successful Project Pearson Education Limited

[2] Project Management Institute (2013) A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide) Fifth Edition pp 3

[3] Wrike Inc (2017) Project Management Guide: Choose Your Project Management Methodology available at:https://www.wrike.com/project-management-guide/methodologies/

[4] Anna Mar (2016) 130 Project Risks available at: https://management.simplicable.com/management/new/130-project-risks

[5] Wrike Inc (2017) Project Management Guide: Glossary available at https://www.wrike.com/project-management-guide/glossary/