What Is Project Management?

Director Paul Naybour breaks down exactly what project management is and the role of projects within organisations.

What is project management?

What Is Project Management?

The term project management is widely used to cover a whole host of activities, from managing the build of an extension on a house to managing the organisation of the Winter Olympics. First, it would be useful to distinguish between those activities that we all might use in our personal lives to organise and control tasks and the project management profession, in which project managers are trained and qualified to employ best practices developed over many years to ensure successful outcomes of projects that implement major change in organisations.

The project management profession has evolved over the past 15 years to become a widely recognised discipline that is essential for most businesses and corporations. From major charitable organisations managing the upkeep of historic buildings to energy companies establishing environmentally friendly methods of producing the energy we all need; from building major infrastructure projects such as CrossRail, to developing the equipment our military need to protect our country and its people. A series of internationally recognised qualifications and accreditations have developed alongside the profession. These recognise the different levels of knowledge and experience and the continuing professional development (CPD) that is an essential part of any profession.

However, the nature of project management means that there are some fundamental principles that apply irrespective of the industry. Managing a project to develop cutting-edge computer software, for instance, follows the same fundamental principles as managing a project to relocate an organisation to new premises. The differences lie in the technical details of how the project is implemented, not in the management approach.

At its heart, project management comprises a set of skills, processes and values which can be applied universally to many situations that lead to change.

The simple view

Let’s start with the very simplest view: project management involves the management of a variety of tasks and the people responsible for those tasks. It includes the planning and scheduling of work activities and the control of the budget associated with the project.

The aim of a project is to deliver an end-product – this may be a physical thing such as a new electronic gadget, it may be an intangible thing such as a new business process within an organisation or it may be a tool such as a new software application.

In the early stages of a project a business case is proposed and assessed, and the requirements of the interested parties are gathered. Experienced project managers are often involved in these processes, which can result in a proposed project being scrapped if no valid business case can be determined, or if the requirements indicate that costs would simply be too high.

But professional project management is not just about managing a series of tasks to deliver a successful end product; that role could effectively be done by a manager or any individual. It is more about effecting a major change, such as hosting the Winter Olympics or producing a ground-breaking technical gadget or building a state-of-the-art road bridge. Whatever it is, it is distinguishable from straightforward management of day-to-day business activities in that after the project is complete there will be a significant difference within an organisation, in the environment or within the wider world. And there is a clear beginning and end to a project (or there should be) – it is not an ongoing process.

The job of managing a project has, on the one hand, been made easier by the development of a variety of project management software tools that help with administrative tasks. On the other hand, however, projects are becoming more complex as technology becomes more complex and changes at a faster pace. But it still requires the skills and expertise of a human to state goals and assign resources, schedule and monitor tasks and their inter-dependencies and assess and deal with risks. This is particularly true where there are complexities either within the tasks, where, for instance, a project will be using ground-breaking new technology, or within the teams working on the project, such as being geographically dispersed. Project management tools can make parts of the job easier, but they cannot do the job of a project management professional.

When and where are projects used?

A project that is going to be formally managed could be in any area of a business, but some of the most common areas in which project management tools and techniques will be used are:

  • IT
  • Product development
  • New business development
  • Construction
  • Research and development
  • Defence
  • Transportation
  • Energy

Increasingly, project management is being applied across a whole range of new sectors and types of project.

Fundamental project management processes

Below are the fundamental processes of managing any project, in any industry and with any method. To keep it simple in this summary we have deliberately avoided reference to any of the known methods such as PRINCE2 or Bodies of Knowledge from the Association for Project Management (APM) or the Project Management Institute (PMI). We will cover these in future knowledge articles. Each of these areas may have many sub-processes, especially when dealing with complex projects:

Defining the requirements

The requirements should define the purpose of the project as accurately as possible. This is the definition of what is needed in order to achieve the business aim, along with any assumptions that have been made, any constraints that have been imposed and any important timescales. Because the requirements are a statement of the aims of the project, they can be used to define individual tasks and to control which tasks are approved as part of a project.

Depending on the type of project, the requirements may be fully detailed and completed prior to any project work beginning or they may be in the form of broad statements of the desired outcome. This is especially true where this is uncertain or unpredictable, such as in the case of new technology or technically sophisticated software which may require an iterative process to achieve the right end product that meets the needs of the stakeholders.

Part of the project management role is to work with other departments or teams to agree on the requirements definition so that those with a personal stake or the expectation of benefiting from a successful outcome for the project are fully involved in approving the specific activities being undertaken. On some projects, techniques such as brainstorming or prototyping may be necessary at this stage to help clarify what actually needs to be done to achieve the goal.

This analysis of the requirements also needs to be supplemented by an assessment of the benefits of the project together with the likely costs and risks. This assessment normally results in a business case for the project which justifies why the organisation should invest in the project. Typically, this will be a written document, especially if the funding is provided by a third party such as a bank.

Planning the project

The project plan is not just the schedule for the project. More importantly, it is the plan for the management of the project. Typically, this can be broken into three areas:

  1. A summary which defines the overall objectives for the project and outlines its assumptions, constraints and summarises the benefits.
  2. Processes and procedures that will be used to control the project including the procedures for change control, risk management, quality and reporting.
  3. Detailed schedules for the implementation of the project which include the detailed scope definition, time-based schedule (e.g., Gantt chart), cost plan and requirements.

Of these, the project schedule is critical, documenting the specific activities needed to complete the tasks that will ultimately achieve the desired outcome. This may include people and equipment, time estimates, dependencies between tasks and important milestones that can be used to determine progress. It will also show the estimated timescale of the project, which may be essential if there is an imperative to get a new product to market as quickly as possible to gain a competitive advantage or because of an immovable deadline (think Olympics again).

Expertise is required to schedule tasks efficiently for the available resources so that the overall time span and costs of the project are minimised while still ensuring that activities can be completed properly and that dependencies between tasks do not create bottlenecks in the schedule. Where possible tasks independent of each other should be allocated resources and scheduled to be done in parallel.

There are many project management techniques and tools available to assist with the planning, monitoring and controlling of the project work, one of the most common being Gantt charts. A Gantt chart is a tool used for the scheduling, budgeting and reporting of a project. Each task is listed individually on the chart with an associated timeline that can be used to visualise how, or if, tasks are dependent on each other; it can also be marked with milestones to show when certain tasks must be completed in order for the project to stay on schedule.

A Gantt chart also helps with factoring in a time contingency – something every project should have because experience shows that project estimates are very often overly optimistic. It is also a useful tool when there is an immoveable fixed end date and the project tasks have to be fitted into the time available.

Allocating and managing tasks

Part of this process is to allocate every task to individuals or teams that have been assigned to the project in a way that makes best use of the human and financial resources available. The requirements, dependencies and timescales will have to be clearly communicated to the project team, as will the acceptance criteria by which each task is determined as complete.

The role of a project manager is very diverse and one of the most essential attributes that they can possess is good interpersonal skills. Not only will a project manager allocate and oversee work within the team, but they must also ensure the team is motivated, helped to overcome obstacles and shown that their efforts are appreciated.

Another major part of the role is identifying and managing potential risks as well as managing changes to the schedule and requirements as the project progresses. It is a rare project where the requirements as initially defined remain unchanged or that the first schedule is adhered to throughout the project and the project still delivers what was expected.

Reviewing and controlling progress

It is essential to good project management that estimates, deadlines, milestones and overall progress are regularly reviewed to ensure they are still on schedule and that they will still meet the demands of the stakeholders. Circumstances and goals can, and do, change during the life of a project so all documentation, including the schedule, needs to be kept up to date with new estimates and new tasks. Changes need to be controlled to ensure they do not undermine the original aims of the project.

It is also necessary to notify stakeholders of project progress and any potential problems at regular intervals and get their approval for any changes that substantially impact any aspect of the project. Typically, a change to any one area, for instance a reduction in budget, will have a negative impact on the scope of the work and the timeframe. Similarly expanding the scope beyond the originally agreed requirements will increase the costs and time required to complete the work. It is the project manager’s job to ensure everyone involved is clear about issues such as these.

Time, budget and scope are the often-quoted fundamental elements of a project that will all impact each other and the overall project if changed. Monitoring and controlling these will go a long way to producing a successful outcome, but they are not the only factors determining success of a project. A professional project manager will also communicate regularly with stakeholders and clients to ensure that they are satisfied with progress and with the anticipated end product. With the increasingly rapid pace of change in business it is important to deliver a project that meets the client’s needs at the point of delivery, and this may be different from the aim when the project was initiated.

Project closure and follow-up

Project management does not cease once the final deliverable is complete. A testing phase should have been incorporated into the schedule and an acceptance process documented in the project plan. The project manager will make sure these steps are completed so that the client receives a working product that meets their needs.

Depending on the type of project, users may have to be trained before the product can be fully implemented and there are almost always areas of the project that were less successful than others. In an ideal project management world, the less successful areas would be documented and discussed so that future projects could benefit from the lessons learned from previous projects in order to avoid making the same mistakes again.

It is easy to talk about schedule, budget, requirements and successful project delivery but, in practice, the most experienced project managers (and the most successful) are prepared for any, or all, of these to go wrong. They also know that there is much more to successfully managing a project than just following a rule book. In many ways, it is dealing with the problems and unpredictability that makes the project management profession exciting and challenging.


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