Project management: the basics

Project management provides businesses with a method of planning, organising, managing and executing a specific task, objective or set of goals.

Guide

7 min read

1. Overview

A project is a temporary piece of work which falls outside 'business as usual' day-to-day operations and can be anything from moving offices or building a website to carrying out major construction work or complex statistical analysis. Some businesses are entirely project-based.

Proper management of a project can help to ensure costs do not spiral beyond budget, that work is completed on time and to the right quality. Project management can keep things clear and efficient, and reduce threats to your business or project. It is essential in helping any business grow and is expected by many organisations when tendering for work.

2. How project management can help your business

Project management can bring many benefits to a business. Good project management should:

  • reduce the chance of a project failing
  • ensure a minimum level of quality and that results meet requirements and expectations
  • free up other staff members to get on with their area of work and increase efficiency both on the project and within the business
  • make things simpler and easier with a single point of contact running the overall project
  • encourage consistent communications amongst staff and suppliers
  • keep costs, timeframes and resources to budget

As well as these general benefits, many government departments and international businesses require a specific benchmark or provable project management standard from businesses that are tendering for work. If a business can show a strong track record in this area or if staff have formal qualifications or accreditation to a recognised project management system, it is likely to benefit from a greater availability of opportunities compared to those that can't.

3. Project management basics

While every project is unique in its own way, there are certain basics which define most project work. These are:

  • objectives
  • constraints
  • lifecycle

It's important to remember that the level of detail you need at the various project stages should remain appropriate for the size and complexity of the project.

Defining your objectives

The main point of any project is to achieve specified goals and objectives. Goals and objectives should be clearly defined, measurable and achievable. Without this, any project is likely to suffer from a lack of focus and an increased chance of failure.

Once objectives have been established, they should be clearly communicated and agreed with all stakeholders on the project.

Understanding your constraints

A constraint is any factor which can limit or have an impact on a project.

Typical constraints are funding, the scope of the project, available resources and time. It is important to understand what the constraints of any project are in order to clearly define the boundaries in which project work must be done.

Lifecycle

Projects have a definite start and finish point within which their objectives need to be fulfilled. This is known as the project lifecycle. While this is usually defined by a start and finish date, the lifecycle of a project can also be defined by a finite resource such as money or a fixed amount of staff time available to the project.

Any successful project will deliver its goals and objectives within the lifecycle of the project.

4. Project management stages

All projects will use the following 5 basic elements at a level appropriate to the size and complexity of the project.

Initiation

The formal start of a project and will usually be triggered by the issue of a Project Mandate which briefly describes the purpose of the project, and gives authority to spend money on initiating the project. The initiation stage assesses what needs to be done and how best to do it with whatever resources are available.

This information is usually captured in a project initiation document (PID) or project definition, which can be the key product of this stage of the process.

Planning and development

A more detailed phase of planning and development. The result should be a clear specification for what needs to be done, who by, and when.

The main focus should be on ensuring that time, cost and resources are sensibly managed and available, and committed to the project. This enables you to create a project plan and schedule, which is a key product of this stage of the process.

Production and implementation

The production and implementation stage is when the project plan is put into action. At this point anydeliverablesare produced (where applicable) as defined by the project plan.

Monitoring and controlling

The ongoing progress of the project must be monitored. Progress must be controlled and any issues which arise as a result of the day-to-day work must be dealt with.

Project performance should be regularly observed and measured against the predicted expectations of the project plan, as well as any quality measurement mechanisms also in place.

Closing

The last phase of any project and is when the work done is formally accepted and the project is dissolved. Closure does not necessarily mean success, but simply the final point of the project - when failed projects are cancelled, for instance, they should also be closed.

5. Project management mechanisms

While every project is unique in its own way and may need specific tools to succeed, there are some basic mechanisms which are commonly used to manage projects.

Defining your scope

The scope is everything that the project (team) will change, deliver and is responsible for. The processes of delivering the scope should be factored into a project plan. It should be clearly defined by the planning and development phase of any project.

Creating a project plan

A project plan is a detailed proposal for doing or achieving the objectives and goals of a project.

A project plan should detail the 'what, when, how and by whom' of any project and is a key resource to successfully managing work. Project plan templates can vary, but there are many examples available for free or from professional bodies. You can also use software to compile a project plan although this is probably best suited to large or complex projects.

Identifying and logging risks and issues

Risk and/or issue registers are common tools for identifying, analysing and managing risks (something which has not yet occurred) and issues (something which has already occurred).

Using these registers, project teams can estimate and adjust their planned activities, taking into account risks and issues, thereby managing their impact.

Creating a project library

Keeping track of and allowing access to the relevant documentation can be vital to ensuring a project is successful.

Without a proper, centralised system of logging and storing of information about a project, important data can become lost. Poor version control can result in both a duplication of effort and conflicting iterations of project documents in circulation.

Closing a project

At the end of a project it's always worth carrying out a 'lessons learned' exercise. It should provide a valuable reminder of things that worked well, what was less effective and why, and what this teaches you so that you are better equipped to undertake another project in the future.

6. How to identify and work with a project manager

The project manager is the focal point of any project and a vital link between staff, stakeholders and the project steering group - also sometimes referred to as the project board. The project manager is responsible for making sure that a project is planned, developed, implemented, controlled and closed.

In many smaller businesses an existing member of staff can also take on the role of a project manager alongside their existing duties.

When looking to appoint a project manager, consider the needs of a project and how much time is likely to be required to manage it. A project manager does not usually directly participate in the activities which produce the end result, but drives progress and manages the processes of the project instead. Therefore, a gifted designer may not be a good choice to manage a design project as this may not be where their strengths lie.

As well as having generic management skills, a good project manager should be:

  • confident and able to engage with and build relationships both internally and externally
  • flexible and able to balance and prioritise often conflicting project constraints such as time, quality and cost
  • well organised and diligent when it comes to time management and paperwork

If a project is fairly small, then it is common for an existing manager to take on the temporary role of a project manager, either as a secondment for an agreed amount of time, or alongside their day-to-day role.

If the desired skill set is not readily available, then you should consider hiring a project manager either for a specific project or on a longer-term basis. This could be a on a freelance or fixed-term contract if you're not likely to require a full-time position.

If you're new to working with a project manager, make sure you ask them to explain any unfamiliar terms or even to avoid using unfamiliar jargon from the outset.

Read our guide Strategic planning: the basics.

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