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Project Management - A Primer

Updated on March 29, 2015
Getting the center of the project right makes building the rest of it much easier
Getting the center of the project right makes building the rest of it much easier | Source

Introduction

Project management is an essential function for any business or organization that wants to grow and be successful. At its most basic level, project management is about getting things done in a structured, manageable way through 'applied common sense'.

In this article we explore what a project is, the main elements of a project, the key activities that a project carries out and the most popular project management frameworks. By the end you should have an understanding of the basic principles of project management and the benefits it can deliver. We'll explore:

  • What a project is
  • The main elements of a project
  • The main activities of a project
  • The main methods and frameworks used to deliver projects

What is a project?

A project is a temporary activity or piece of work with a defined beginning, middle and end that is designed to create change and is a benefit to the person or organization requesting the project. We'll break this statement down and examine each part of it. The main things to remember are:

  • A project is a temporary activity or piece of work
  • A project has a defined beginning, middle and end
  • A project creates change
  • A project is of benefit

A good project involves skilled, engaged people working together to deliver a desired result
A good project involves skilled, engaged people working together to deliver a desired result | Source

More project management guides

Read more of our helpful, expert guides to successfully managing a project:

A project is a temporary activity or piece of work

Whilst they may go on for a long time (some larger projects can take years or even decades), they are still intended to finish at some point in the future. This sets projects apart from standard 'business as usual' activities which carry on indefinitely.

A project has a defined beginning, middle and end

Normally set out in a project plan, a project will have a start date, a planned end date and various dates for milestones and project deliverables between the two dates.

Change must be properly managed and communicated into an organization
Change must be properly managed and communicated into an organization | Source

A project creates change

The main function of a project is to deliver change. This could be a change in a business process, an addition to a business's offerings (e.g. a new product or service) or activities that change how an organization functions, normally to reduce risk or meet other needs.

A project is of benefit

Projects are designed to provide benefit to the person or organization requesting them. This could be through increased turnover and profit from new products and services, a reduction in cost due to more efficient business processes or cost avoidance due to managing and reducing the impact of possible risks.

A project should deliver benefits to groups of people, the business, its employees and customers
A project should deliver benefits to groups of people, the business, its employees and customers | Source

What are the main elements of a project?

The main elements that go together to make up a project are:

  • Scope
  • Timescale
  • Resources
  • Quality

Project Scope

A definition of what a project will deliver, based on the requirements of the business, organization or person. This is normally defined in the project initiation and planning documents.

Project Timescales

How long a project will take to deliver what it sets out to do, i.e. meet its scope. The timescale is normally defined in the project plan.

People need to work together to make a project deliver well
People need to work together to make a project deliver well | Source

Project Resources

The time, people, expenditure, effort and energy that will need to be expended to achieve the project. This is normally measured in financial expenditure and would include areas like payroll costs, capital expenditure (hardware, software etc.) and any other incidental costs.

Project Quality

The expected levels of quality that the project will deliver, based on all of the areas above (scope, timescale and resources).

What are the main activities in a project?

The main activities that make up a project are as follows:

  1. Agree with the organization and stakeholders exactly what the project is meant to do and what it is going to deliver.
  2. Agree with the organization and stakeholders how much the project it is going to cost, the scope of the project and how long it is going to take.
  3. Create and maintain a project plan and schedule that will ensure that the project delivers as agreed.
  4. Manage processes, tools, policies, people and relationships to deliver the project outcomes.
  5. Carry out project tasks and activities to create the desired changes and benefits.
  6. Provide regular reports and updates on how the project is progressing towards its goals and any changes associated with the project.
  7. Manage issues, risks and other impacts associated with the project.
  8. Avoid any impact on normal business operations.
  9. Deliver the agreed outcomes from the project to the agreed cost, quality, scope and timescales.
  10. Ensure that the organization gets what it needs from the project.
  11. Conduct a final review and close the project down.

The main activities in a project can be easily linked together
The main activities in a project can be easily linked together | Source

What are the main methods and frameworks used to deliver projects?

There are many different frameworks and methodologies used to deliver projects and an organization may use one or more of these techniques on their various projects. Three of the most common frameworks are:

  • 'Waterfall' or traditional project management.
  • Agile / lean project management.
  • Six sigma / process analysis project management.

'Waterfall' or traditional project management

This is the standard form of project management used by a majority of organizations. These types of projects are managed around a set of clearly defined 'phases' known as:

  1. Requirements gathering and initiation.
  2. Design.
  3. Building.
  4. Integration.
  5. Testing.
  6. Release and installation.
  7. Maintenance.

In waterfall projects, each step is normally completed and verified before moving on to the next step. This framework is often used for larger projects that need a high level of control to succeed.

Example of Agile / Lean Project Management
Example of Agile / Lean Project Management | Source

Agile / lean project management

Agile project management focuses on rapid development, deployment, testing and iteration. There are normally several iterative cycles in agile projects. Each cycle is based on building a solution that is 'just good enough', releasing it, getting people to test it and using the feedback to refine the next release.

This cycle continues until the project delivers an outcome that is fit for purpose. The agile project framework is often used in software companies for rapid deployment, especially to design online applications.

Six sigma / process analysis project management

Six sigma project management is designed to improve existing business processes or to create new processes. It relies on extensive measurement of business processes and then analyzes those processes to understand how improvements can be made.

The normal phases of a six sigma project are: define, measure, analyze, improve and control. The six sigma method is most effective when used on well-understood but under-performing business processes.

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In closing

It's essential that any organization or business that wants to be successful has a robust project management process in place.

Learning about project management, what it does and the skills that are needed is a great way for people involved in business to directly contribute to the overall health of their organization.

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    • Paul Maplesden profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Maplesden 

      3 years ago from Asheville, NC

      I loved project management when I did it, but it's true that it is a continual juggling trick! And like you, I've found Excel to be a surprisingly good tool for fairly lightweight projects.

    • alifeofdesign profile image

      Graham Gifford 

      3 years ago from New Hamphire

      Another nice article, Paul. As a project manager in a few various fields, I found this to be a good breakdown. I have often taken a slightly different view from necessity. In other words, I've needed to manage several thousand projects at a time without a budget for Six Sigma. Excel was the only tool available to me. My process was, therefore, not the typical. I enjoyed PM very much. For me, it's a big puzzle that must be put together ;)

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