Understanding Project Management

Projects are a common term in day-to-day vernacular. People use them to define home improvement efforts, homework assignments that involve teams, and of course, specific initiatives in a corporate setting whereby some intrinsic deliverable or improvement is the net result.

The term ‘Project Management’ is often splashed around between individuals in both corporate and external settings. Yet in many instances, when people are pressed for a more in-depth synopsis of what project management actual is and what is involved, the answers can sometimes be wild and varied. The line between the responsibilities of the standard project manager can also be obscured and overlapped with other areas of expertise, such as product management, product marketing and business analysis, which can often complicate the true definition of what a project manager does and what project management actually is from a definition standpoint.

In order to be able to clarify these ambiguities, it is important to first begin with the definition of project management. That can be summarized as follows:

Project management is the discipline of planning, organizing, securing, managing, leading, and controlling resources to achieve specific goals. A project is a temporary endeavor with a defined beginning and end (usually time-constrained, and often constrained by funding or deliverables), undertaken to meet unique goals and objectives, typically to bring about beneficial change or added value.

(***Source: Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_management)

While the above definition is wordy, a point form breakdown of project management can also be defined as follows:

  • A project has a specific objective that is meant to be completed referencing certain specifications (scope)
  • A project has a defined timeframe, with definitive start and end dates (time)
  • A project utilizes specific resources, both human and monetary (cost)

**Note: For those savvy enough to spot it, the above three points are the basis of the famous project management triangle, or Triple Constraint. (For further reference, please read the post: Scope, Time and Cost – Managing the Triple Constraint)

Now that a working definition of project management has been provided, the next logical question to ask would be: how does someone ‘run’ a project and produce its net deliverable?

To understand that, we turn to the PMBOK Guide, which identifies project management as being broken down into five specific parts, or ‘Process Groups’. These groups make up the functional life-cycle of the project, from inception to conclusion and add granularity to project management as a whole. The group’s themselves, and their corresponding functions are itemized as follows:


1. Project Initiation

This is the first step in the project management process whereby the actual criteria of what the project is or is attempting to achieve is defined. Some of the high level planning, initial stakeholder analysis, and preliminary business case would all be handled at this stage. Additional attributes of this process group would also be:

  • Allocation of specific resources and skills
  • Outline of the project and its primary benefit(s)
  • Initial documentation (which becomes part of the overall project management plan)
  • The assignment of a project (or program) manager

2. Project Planning

The second step in the process is a more deep assessment of how the project is going to be executed. This is where actual assignment of specific tasks, the primary schedule, and the work breakdown structure will all be defined. Additionally, the communication plans between the team members, stakeholders, project sponsor and any customers in the ‘early adoption’ program will also be set up. Overall attributes for this process group can be summarized as:

  • Work requirements and their specific definitions
  • The project quality plan
  • Breakdown of resources across tasks
  • Finalization of the schedule
  • Risk assessments (this will be ongoing throughout the project)

3. Project Execution

The is the official start of actual implementation as it pertains to the project. All planning activities should now be complete, work assignments should have now been made and all parties should have full understanding of their role and duties as it pertains to this project. Primary attributes of this process group are:

  • Any final negotiations pertaining to resources
  • Providing direction to the team
  • Formulating the process to monitor the work moving forward

4. Project Monitoring and Controlling

We are now at the stage where the project is under way. While this may seem to be the ‘reprieve’ for the project manager, this is arguable, the most important phase of the overall project life-cycle. If anything is likely to go wrong with the project as a whole, it will most certainly occur at this stage. This is the point where we have moved from the ‘theory’ of how we envisioned the project to move forward to the actual ‘practice’, where the engine is running and we are on the road. And as life has often demonstrated, any amount of planning does not always yield to a smooth ride. Which is why it is imperative that the project manager is at their most diligent during this phase. The main attributes of this process group can be itemized as follows:

  • Tracking the progress of tasks
  • Monitoring completion rates of tasks to determine if project timeframe (schedule) is still intact
  • Analyzing the outcomes to ensure key deliverables match predictions as defined in the master plan
  • Monitoring dependencies to ensure problems in key areas do not cause slippage to the project as a whole
  • Making adjustments and variances as needed to ensure project does not run into trouble
  • Maintaining communication with team, stakeholders and sponsor in the form of sync-ups and reports

5. Project Closure

This is the final stage of the project life-cycle and generally means one of two things: either the project has completed and delivered its net tangible or it has been stopped for other reasons. Regardless of circumstance, a project MUST be closed and lot allowed to ‘linger’. Often times, projects can be in limbo due to uncertainties about execution, disagreements about implementation or simply changes to corporate dynamics and a realignment of strategy. Whatever the case, a project does not ever simply sit in a non-closed state indefinitely.

Assuming the project completed ‘successfully’, the key attributes of this process group are:

  • Verification of work assignments (no lingering tasks to be completed)
  • Any open contracts are closed and deliverables verified
  • Any financial obligations and budgeting aspects are finalized and closed off
  • Final sign-off on any paperwork that remains

How Does One Determine If a Project Was Successful?

There are many ways one might answer this question, but the response may not be as obvious as one might expect. Take a simple home improvement project for example: does simply re-doing a bathroom and competing the work denote success? Does the quality match expectations? Does the shower now leak? Is the water pressure insufficient? Does the color of the cabinets not look right? All these may indicate that while the project was completed, the actual requirements do not meet expectations. So from that perspective, one may argue that the project was not successful. Similarly, a corporation may roll out a new product (a new car line for example) and discover that the new vehicle simply is not selling as expected and has problems with quality. As one can see, simply meeting a deadline does not always denote success.

From the standpoint of project management, there are essentially five key objectives that should be met before one can consider the project to be a success. Those objectives are:

  1. The project was completed on time
  2. The project was completed within budget
  3. The project met its requirements are dictated in the scope document
  4. The project was able to leverage its resources in an effective and efficient fashion
  5. The project was a hit with the target customer

Note that one may argue that a project can be successful if one or more of these objectives is not met exactly (most projects often have difficulty meeting schedules for example). Nonetheless, the point to make here is that there is more than one factor to consider when determining project success.

Why Use a Project Manager And What Are The Benefits?

It may seem almost heretical for those of us in the space, but many often ask the question regarding the necessity of whether or not a project manager is even required. Many times, a project manager’s duties are sometimes distributed amongst members of a team and the direct line managers, rather than having a dedicated individual working on the task. While some argue this is a perfectly valid option, more often than not, the decision is made due to political or monetary factors rather than any notions of efficiency.

When it comes to the benefits of a project manager, that can be most aptly summarized as follows:

  • Is able to identify functional responsibilities, monitor dependencies, deal with resource conflicts and be personally accountable for the project as a whole
  • Will minimize the need for multiple levels of status reporting from individuals and be able to more cohesively describe project progress as a whole
  • Can constantly monitor the schedule and determine more effectively if everything is on time
  • Can better spot problems and identify risks due to having a more holistic view of the project
  • Can constantly monitor individual accomplishments and factor those completions against the aggregate project
  • Be able to determine if specific objectives can or cannot be met
  • Is better capable (due to experience and training) to deal with project complexities

In conclusion, project management is a highly sought after skill set because both individuals and corporations understand just how complex and difficult to maintain a project can be. As indicated above, projects have multiple levels of process, can have numerous resources working in unison and can have potentially millions of dollars invested in them. Simply leaving the success of a project to chance is a sure-fire way to see the competition outmaneuver your corporation, your customers taking their business elsewhere or your company being forced to write off potentially large sums of money in the form of investments on a deliverable that ended up not meeting expectations or never existing in the first place.

Collaborative Project Management

As project managers, we are quite comfortable working in our own space and keeping abreast of the various projects that fall within our scope. Managing resources, working with milestones and timelines, monitoring tasks and so forth are all common aspects of the day-to-day duties of anyone within the project management space.

More junior project managers will often be tasked with dealing with projects that are limited in scope and generally self-contained. However, as one matures within the project management realm, projects will become more complex, with various inter-dependencies, shared resource pools and other external factors. Invariably, the notion of either being responsible for or being part of a broader ‘program’ is something that the project manager will likely have to contend with.

With that notion in mind, the project manager is going to have to think outside the box and be mindful of not only his/her own key deliverable and timelines, but also those of other projects that are part of the broader effort. A great example of when such an occurrance is frequent is in the automotive industry, whereby various teams are responsible for specific portions of a fully functioning deliverable (a car or truck). Project managers may also overlap in such cases with other deliverables (eg. a common audio system used in different brands) and as such, have many inter-dependencies to contend with.

With the above being stated, what are some of the key techniques that one can utilize to ensure all project managers are functioning in sync with one another and that the overall program is moving along smoothly?

Regular Project Manager Communication

Whether this is spear-headed by the program manager responsible for over-arching program or is something that the project manager’s themselves take up, it is imperative that consistent communication channels remain open and that all the project managers regularly perform dialog exchanges and status updates between each other. In many cases, utilizing tools can greatly assist in ensuring that this dialog exchange can be performed efficiently. Regardless of the mechanism, these communication channels must stay open and engaged at all times. When considering a large program, inter-dependencies can be one of the trickiest attributes to contend with when functioning in parallel. Often times, a specific portion of one project may have a dependency on another and the timing of those dependencies can easily cause the overall program to derail if they are not handled effectively.

Uniform Usage of Tools & Metrics

Every project manager worth their salt will likely utilize some tools to perform their day-to-day duties. Additionally, these tools likely help the project manager derive the metrics and the primary KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) that they use to ensure their project is hitting on all eight cylinders.

In a collaborative environment with multiple projects functioning in unison, it is of utmost important for the project managers to be working lock, stop and barrel with the same set of tools and metrics. Deviation from specific tools or inconsistencies in KPIs are a sure-fire way to lead to confusion, thereby increasing the likelihood of something slipping through the cracks or a problem manifesting that should have been spotted and dealt with earlier.

The usage of standards (processes) is also important in this context as it will make alignment between timelines and key milestones more easy to classify and monitor.

Tracking Dependencies

As alluded to earlier, one of the key attributes of a broader program consisting of multiple projects is the fact that dependencies exist and must be monitored. In many cases, these dependencies will span the various projects, leading to situations where one project’s forward movement in their timeline may be dependent on the completion of a component in another project’s task list. As such, itemizing these dependencies and ensuring they are being tracked is a key component of the success of the overall program.

From the standpoint of visualizing the dependencies, one classic and very effective technique is to utilize a ‘PERT’ chart. PERT is an acronym for ‘Project Evaluation and Review Technique’. Basically, it is a node and line based way of seeing the various portions of an overall project or program that displays the dependencies graphically, making it a very intuitive and easy way to see how things fit together in the aggregate. An example of a PERT chart is shown below:

The key takeaway from a PERT chart is that specific nodes cannot be reached until previous nodes have been accessed. This step-through denotes the various milestones for a project/program and shows how all the key dependencies are inter-related. (Note: For more information on PERT charts and PERT analysis, please access the following posts: The PERT Analysis – Part 1 and The PERT Analysis – Part 2)

Implement a Planning Framework

A final consideration for an effective collaborative project management strategy is to leverage and implement a planning framework for the aggregate program. What this entails is that the project managers (generally leveraging some template) will perform the due diligence of planning their work scopes independently, confirming (through consensus) that the main line requirements have been fulfilled and then assuming direct control and responsibility of their specific projects and constituent sub-projects. An effective planning framework will allow for the project manager’s to function autonomously within their project scope while still maintaining direct lines of communication and status updates to their peers. This will avoid status overload and will allow for easier distribution of workload amongst the different project managers.

The diagram below shows a diagram of a planning framework using the Dixon Integrated model for PMs:

(Source:  Dixon et al., 1990; Hall et al., 1991)


Whenever project managers work together, the results can often vary and much of the success or failure of such an effort depend on the planning and collaboration techniques that were instituted up front. Without such an effort, you can often discover that you end up with various boats paddling in separate directions without any idea of what the other boats are doing. This can lead to severe problems and outright failure of a program if steps are not taken to get the project managers working in unison. Some of the aforementioned techniques can help guide this effort and ensure that the project manager’s understand that the success or failure of their specific area of scope is very tightly interrelated to other projects working in parallel. This understanding, realized up front, is of imperative importance.


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