INTRO

Projects are today’s demanded model of productivity. However, if not managed skillfully, they can also be a massive drain on time and resources, occasionally threatening the very existence of even major multinational companies. Though the consequences aren’t always so dramatic, projects can still be a sore spot for many agencies. In fact, in its 2019 Global Project Management Survey, the Project Management Institute (PMI) found that “organizations wasted almost 12 percent of their investment in project spend last year due to poor performance.”

So how does a company navigate the pitfalls of a business model that they can’t afford to ignore? PMI’s data makes it clear: when a company puts healthy project management (PM) tools and structures in place, they are more likely to:

  1. See their projects meet their original goals, 
  2. Meet goals while staying on budget,
  3. Meet goals within the scheduled time frame,and
  4. Avoid scope creep (a topic we’ll discuss below).

WHAT IS PROJECT MANAGEMENT?

Project management accounts for all of the practices that enable a project to run smoothly. Completed individually or by a group of stakeholders, it is the process of defining a specific and achievable goal, outlining and coordinating the tasks required to accomplish that goal, allocating the available resources for each stage of the process, monitoring tasks and knowing when to make adjustments along the way, and finally, presenting the initiative’s outcomes, reflecting on the process, and celebrating with stakeholders.

However, it may also be helpful to establish a mutual understanding of the word “project”. Most, if not all, people have undertaken a formal or informal project of some kind (learning to tie your shoes, writing a paper at school, planning a party, applying for jobs, etc.), and therefore most people probably have an idea of what the word means. Yet a more formal and refined definition from Dr. Mike Clayton states that it is “a coordinated set of tasks which together create a defined new product, process, or service, within a constrained time and resource budget.” Dr. Clayton goes on to highlight several aspects of this definition: “coordination”, which can apply to the tasks themselves and the way that they relate to one another in terms of time and resources (one must be accomplished before another can be started, some must occur simultaneously, etc.); “defined”, meaning that the project has a specified goal and/or intent; and “constrained”, meaning that all tasks pertaining to the end goal need to be accomplished within the framework of resources allotted at the outset of the project.

It is worth noting that there is a difference between “projects” and “operations”. This is made clear by PMI, who, in their definition of a project, note that it is a “temporary endeavour”. While a project may forever alter the way a company functions on a day-to-day basis, the project itself will have a defined beginning and end date; operations, on the other hand, are the everyday tasks and foundational functions of an organization that enable it to exist.

TRIPLE CONSTRAINT AND SCOPE CREEP

The delicate balance project managers are always trying to maintain centers around the project management triple constraint, often represented as a triangle. On one side of the triangle is the constraint of budget, on another side is schedule, and then on the final side we have the constraint of scope, quality, or compliance to objectives (it can have different names depending on the presentation of the model). The idea is that, once these three constraints have been settled at the outset of the project, none can be modified without recalibrating the balance between all three.

project management triple constraint

For instance, say you are on a nine-month track to design a new phone. At seven months, your team realizes they are behind schedule. You now have a few options: you can stretch out the “time” constraint in order to maintain “quality” or “scope”, though it’s likely you will need to stretch out the “budget” constraint then as well. Alternatively, you can knock off some of your features on the “scope/objectives” side of things in order to stay within the original constraints of “budget” and “time”. These are difficult decisions to make, but when armed with a solid understanding of how all the elements play into one another, a project manager can talk to decision-makers with a more informed and realistic selection of options for going ahead and avoiding more disappointment in the future.

One related issue that project managers have to watch for is scope creep. This is when a project’s objectives grow or change while the project’s execution is already underway. Perhaps the original goal was to address one bug in a system’s software, but along the way, four more were identified and added to the docket. Logically, once the objectives (or “scope”) of the project expand, the time and budget constraints will need to be widened as well, often leading to confusion and frustration on the part of team members and stakeholders. Scope creep is one of the biggest culprits in terms of projects getting out of control, so although it can be tempting to add just one more little thing to a project’s list of to-do’s, it needs to be avoided as much as possible (however, as the rate of development increases, many are adopting project management methodologies that are more able to handle project adjustments (these are called “agile” methodologies, and will be discussed below).

 

THE 2 STYLES OF PROJECT MANAGEMENT

There are two overarching styles when it comes to project management methods: the traditional, waterfall, or predictive camp (which the project life cycle fits into), and the adaptive, or agile camp. It is also possible to choose a hybrid methodology, which combines elements of both camps.

Traditional Project Management Methodologies

Perhaps the more intuitive camp, traditional project management methodologies are linear, following a fixed sequence of stages and tasks in one direction to the end. Outcomes are clearly defined and relatively immovable, with stakeholders (other than those who are actually completing the work) having their role largely limited to the project definition and ultimate presentation bookends. Risks are anticipated and planned for at the beginning, and documentation is extensive from beginning to end. The traditional method is good for quite defined and/or predictable projects, as well as large-scale projects with very firm objectives that need to be monitored closely.

agile 12 principles

Agile Project Management Methodologies

The agile approach was born in the software industry, and is a much more flexible method of project management. Developed in 2001 by 17 software practitioners who felt that existing project management methods didn’t fit their industry, they came up with the following manifesto with four values to adhere to:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

Working software over comprehensive documentation

Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

Responding to change over following a plan”

(The writers did qualify their manifesto with the note that, “while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more”.)

In other words, where traditional methods are linear, agile is iterative, working in cycles, or “sprints”. Where traditional tends towards long-term and/or big-picture, agile is suited for short bursts of productivity, all ultimately contributing to a larger purpose. Where traditional is fixed in its goals, agile adapts and readjusts according to the needs of customers, new discoveries, obstacles, and ideas. Where traditional has a project manager that oversees and guides all progress, agile relies more heavily on stakeholder collaboration for navigating the path ahead.

What can make things confusing is that “agile” is an umbrella term that can be realized by several different implementations. Scrum is the most common version practiced in today’s workplace, commonly implemented alongside Kanban methodology (sometimes called “Scrumban” when combined), so often when a company is talking about their “agile” style, they are actually more specifically referring to Scrum.

Clear as mud? Well, the good thing is that the labels really don’t matter that much, and in reality most companies end up with a loose version of one method with other bits sprinkled in - or even a straight-up hybrid. There are no project management police to prevent this; whatever tools and bits of other methodologies’ tools help your organization run as smoothly and productively as possible is what you should unreservedly go for.

 

THE PROJECT LIFE CYCLE IN 4 STAGES

In the traditional model of project planning, a project goes through four life stages or phases (it should be noted that this is sometimes broken into five phases of project management, and then is somewhat inaccurately called the PMBOK method):

1. Initiation or Definition Stage

  • Clarifying the problem you’re seeking to solve, or the goal you are aiming to achieve
  • A period of sorting out if an idea is worth pursuing, if its impact will be important or will matter to the targeted market or stakeholders
  • May include feasibility testing
  • Defining what the project’s objectives are (and what they are not)
  • Generally a phase that involves extensive brainstorming and consultation with a diversity of stakeholders and experts
  • Ultimately, if the idea is deemed achievable and worth pursuing, this is also the stage where management and leadership roles will be designated

2. Planning, Design, or Mobilization (somewhat confusingly, also called the “Initiation” phase in some UK-based models)

  • Sorting out the nuts and bolts of what it will take to reach objectives, the financial and human resources, as well as the schedule
  • Will involve breaking stages, goals, and individual tasks down, sometimes into a hierarchy called the “Work Breakdown Structure” or “Work Breakdown Schedule” (WBS) (check out this video for a particularly clear demonstration of this)
  • Also involves delegating who will be responsible for the completion of each task
  • The Project Manager may find it helpful to create a Gantt chart at this point 
  • Demonstrated below (in the video under the CPM heading), this is a timeline structure that visually displays each task of your project, the relationship between all tasks, and helps you see your progress as well as identify obstacles
  • The Planning stage will also involve a Risk Management Assessment and Plan, which means that there needs to be a discussion about what may go wrong, and what to do if that happens
  • The team and stakeholders will also outline expectations and channels for communication throughout the project

3. Execution, Delivery, or Implementation (occurs alongside Monitoring and Controlling)

  • Sometimes broken into two separate phases, the execution and monitoring phases happen simultaneously
  • While the team focuses on accomplishing the tasks outlined in the previous stage, the project manager keeps an eye on both the big picture, and on each individual step it takes to get to the finish line, paying particular attention to the critical path if one has been identified
  • The project manager is also the one that is immediately consulted if problems arise in one of the tasks, and they are the one who goes to the higher-ups if more time or budget is needed, or if initial objectives unexpectedly prove impossible to meet

4. Completion or Closure

  • Comprises everything that has to do with the wrap-up of the project
  • Will likely involve some kind of report, and may involve some kind of additional presentation to either stakeholders or industry insiders
  • Team should reflect on what went well, any obstacles faced, and areas that could be improved upon in future projects. This can be done both individually and as a team.

PROJECT MANAGEMENT METHODOLOGIES

Depending on a person’s personality, it’s likely that one approach or specific methodology intuitively sounds much better than the others. However, each approach has its time and place, and using a good methodology in the wrong situation can lead to disappointing, even disastrous results. For this reason, a person has to evaluate the needs of stakeholders, potential pitfalls, and expectations of the team and the targeted end result before deciding on which methodology is actually best for the individual situation.

While all methodologies are designed to make life easier, many can be a bit tricky to explain initially, and are often best made clear by demonstration. View the following videos below to learn more on each, or pick and choose the ones to watch if you’ve already heard about some that you’re curious about.

PRINCE2

PRINCE2 is a system of project management that has an entire institution behind it, and one that also involves certification. While the original version fell into the traditional camp, in the last several years, PRINCE2 Agile has been introduced as a hybrid methodology more suited to today’s business climate. Most of what you’ll need to know will require the help of a staff member who is trained in the method (it wouldn’t do the institution much good to go splattering all their secrets all over the internet if they still wanted people to come and pay for the course). You can, however, get a quick teaser on both the traditional and the agile versions of PRINCE2 from the following videos:

Waterfall

Waterfall is sometimes spoken of as if it’s synonymous with traditional project management, and while that may not 100% be the case, it is perhaps the most straightforward and intuitive way of accomplishing a project. That’s not to say it’s necessarily the best, fastest, or easiest - that will depend on the circumstances that it’s being applied in. But theory-wise, many will likely find this one the simplest to wrap their heads around.

Critical Path Method (CPM)/Program Evaluation Review Technique (PERT)

While these two traditional methodologies are not exactly the same, CPM was born out of PERT, and therefore they are very similar. The following video is a great and very clear example of the creation of a Gantt chart and CPM in action (and, not going to lie, just watching how amazing this guy is at writing backwards makes this video worth the watch).

Critical Chain Project Management (CCPM)

Similar to CPM in theory, CCPM is a traditional methodology that focuses on resources instead of tasks, and works to avoid both the student syndrome (procrastinating until the last minute to get work done), and gold-plating (finishing tasks early and unnecessarily adding to them - and, by default, adding to the project’s scope - because it seems like the right thing to do with the extra time).

Scrum

Easily the most popular agile project management methodology, Scrum is practiced in enterprises all over the world. While born out of the software development industry (and remaining their method of choice), it has been adopted by all kinds of teams to help them run their projects more smoothly while also allowing the flexibility for adjustments along the way.

Kaizen and Lean Six Sigma

There is some debate as to whether or not these should be called full-fledged project management methodologies, but regardless, they are agile tools that ease the flow of project completion:

Kanban

An agile project management methodology that originated with Toyota, Kanban is an extremely popular project management strategy, often combined with Scrum to double-down on optimizing workflow and communication within a team.

BECOMING A PROJECT MANAGER

After reading about all the complexities that project management entails, it may not come as a surprise that there are ample career opportunities in the field. So how do you become a project manager?

Well, actually, the path isn’t so clearcut; university degrees in project management are pretty rare, (though many universities offer supplemental certificate courses) and you’ll find that many project managers that are out there today have extremely diverse backgrounds. That being said, each method of project management has some sort of professional body behind it that does offer training and certification, often including career guidance and networking opportunities within their courses. A good place to start is by checking out the Project Management Institute for their variety of education and certification routes.

While this training is very important, perhaps the best way to develop a foundation in project management is to be part of a project first. As you become knowledgeable in the way that different enterprises function, you will:

  1. Gain insight into good leadership practices from the perspective of a team member
  2. Collect tips and tricks as you see what project management tools and implementations do and do not work
  3. Gain experience in different project management styles and methodologies, building your toolkit and enabling you to customize your outfit of tools and project management solutions for each team you’re a part of
  4. Learn from others about how to troubleshoot when things go wrong

PROJECT MANAGEMENT SOFTWARE

Now that you’re armed with the knowledge of what project management is, and know how critical it is to productive and efficient business practice, you may be looking for next steps regarding how to implement some project management tools in your own entrepreneurial endeavors. Lucky for you, we’ve already done the work in rounding up all the best software options (both online and downloadable) on the market today.

Click here for the 45 Best Project Management Tools, and here for the 12 Best Free Project Management Tools.

While larger corporations will likely want these project management software tools in conjunction with a dedicated project manager (or managers, if you have many projects happening at once), businesses of all sizes will find that having project management software helps, or rather, is more or less a must for managers who need tools to do everything they need to do. Smaller businesses may even find that having PM software allows them to go without hiring someone dedicated exclusively to project management, as the team or someone already in leadership can bear the lightened burden of working with the tool to make sure everything is running smoothly.

CONCLUSION

Projects aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, so if you’re not set up to manage them correctly, you’re not set up to be a competitive player in today’s marketplace. While implementing a system of management may seem a bit daunting at the outset, its entire purpose is actually to make your life easier by smoothing out communication lines, clarifying expectations, increasing transparency regarding progress, and providing more predictability and structure to your goals and your journey of reaching them. And when you choose the right methodology, you’ll find that it will do just that.

Happy project managing!