Understanding Project Management

A Guide to Greater Productivity & Higher Profitability

What do you think of when you hear the words “project management”?

When I first learned about project management, I was in my first job working for a government contractor. I was newly graduated from college and I was entering “the real world” for the first time. The project manager’s roles seemed complicated, intimidating, and full of jargon (“Agile? Gantt? KPI? What does that mean?”). It wasn’t until I got the chance to talk with some of them that I realized project management is actually quite simple. In fact, I was doing it in my own role in HR and communications.

What is Project Management?

In its simplest form, a project is how you accomplish a goal. Project management is how you ensure you fulfill that goal. You may have just one project that you need to complete to accomplish your goal, or you may have several.

As an HR associate, one of my goals was to provide the hiring managers with candidates for open positions within the company. The way I fulfilled my goal (i.e. my project) was by recruiting and reviewing candidates. Every time I tracked a candidate’s progress in our applicant system, I was performing project management. It was a relatively simple goal and project, requiring relatively little management.

When you run a business, however, project management becomes more complex and more important. The bigger your goals, the more (and the more complex) projects you’ll need to fulfill them. If you’re not tracking them, it’s easy for tasks to get lost, take too much time, and require way more resources that you originally intended. It’s also easy to lose sight of how each task fulfills your overall business goals. That’s where project management can help you.

Project management keeps you on track. It’s the vehicle for implementing your big ideas, visions, and strategies. It’s also vital to managing your company’s profitability and liabilities. It needs to be flexible enough to adjust to the different needs of the various projects you’ll manage, but it also needs to provide a stable framework so you know how to predict, track, and measure success.

Just like there’s no one-size-fits-all business structure, there’s no one-size-fits-all project management solution. So how do you implement project management in your own business?

The first step is to understand the different phases of a project and what it takes to manage each one.

The 5 Phases of Project management

The Project Management Institute (PMI) divides the life of a project into five phases:

  1. Initiation
  2. Planning
  3. Execution
  4. Performance & Monitoring
  5. Closure

(PMI is the world’s largest nonprofit membership association for project managers and they provide education and resources on the topic. They also regulate the PMP certification, which is the gold standard for those who want to pursue a career in project management.)

The project manager’s role is to walk the project through each of these five phases. In other words, the project manager isn’t just the bossy director who tells everyone what to do. They are responsible for understanding the goals and purpose of the project, tracking the resources used to complete the project, and managing the project’s execution and completion to ensure timeliness and quality results.

Let’s start with the first phase:

1. Initiation

This is the brainstorming phase. This is where you examine the goal you want to tackle and you make a rough outline of the steps you’ll need to take to fulfill it. You don’t have to worry about specifics here (you’ll sort that out in the second step).

At this phase, you’re primarily concerned about the project’s purpose and feasibilityWhat does the business need? What is going to be required to make this project happen? Who needs to sign off on this project? Should we even be focusing on this right now?

It’s helpful to define the specific goal for your project according to the SMART goal mnemonic.

  • Specific: What do you want to accomplish? Who does this impact? Why do you want to do this? What’s your motivation for this goal?
  • Measurable: How will you measure progress? How will you know you successfully met your goal?
  • Achievable: Do you have the skills and resources to accomplish this right now? If not, can you realistically obtain them? Is the benefit of accomplishing this goal worth the amount of effort required to achieve it?
  • Relevant: Why is this goal important for me to accomplish right now? Is it in line with my top priorities and overall objectives?
  • Time-bound: When will you accomplish this? What’s the deadline, and is that deadline realistic?

Keep in mind that although this phase is where every project starts, this is also sometimes where projects end (or get postponed). Some of the projects that we propose to our clients never leave this phase. If a client doesn’t have the resources to complete the project, or we can’t get the client’s focus or approval for the project, then the project won’t be feasible and we’ll try tackling the client’s goals with a different project.

That’s the beauty of taking the time to walk through this phase and brainstorm your goals and projects. Come up with different project ideas, examine their feasibility, pursue the ones that you’re sure you can fulfill, and save the others for later.

2. Planning

This is where you set both the scope and the plan for your project.

The project scope defines what the project is supposed to accomplish, and the resources (time and money) it will take to complete. If you adjust what the project needs to accomplish, the resources need to be adjusted accordingly.

The project plan establishes the nitty-gritty “how”. You need to define a timeline for the project and baselines for measuring performance so you have ways to track the project’s progress. You should also create a specific budget for the resources and, if needed, create a plan for the team members you’ll need to involve.

This stage is where you’ll find a wealth of information about different tools and tactics for managing your project. If you’re diving into this for the first time, you may find that the answers just generate more questions. Should you use the Kanban method, or the Agile method? What is Six Sigma? What’s a Work Breakdown Schedule and how does it differ from a Gantt chart? What is Earned Value Management? How do you define a milestone?

If you need some guidance along these lines, take a look at the list of resources below.

3. Execution

The execution phase is where you start doing the work and develop the deliverables. Sometimes this phase starts with a “kickoff meeting,” sometimes you just jump straight into your tasks. Either way, this is where it feels like you will be doing most of the work (even though the first two and last two stages are also vital to the success of the project).

Here’s where you’ll be setting up the task tracking systems so you have a written record of everything, executing tasks, procuring and using the resources for which you budgeted, making updates to the project plan and schedule, and keeping other stakeholders updated about the project’s progress (your client, your boss, your shareholders, etc.).

If you’re working with a team, you’ll also be assigning tasks, making sure they have all of the resources they need to do their jobs, and communicating project updates

We recommend that you implement a project management system to help you keep track of all of these steps. We’ve listed some options below for you to consider. Cloud-based options are a great way for you to keep team members up-to-date on task statuses and provide communication channels about the project.

4. Performance & Monitoring

This phase often occurs simultaneously with the Execution phase, but with a different emphasis. Instead of focusing on the execution of tasks along a timeline, this phase focuses on project progression in comparison to overall goals. There are a variety of ways to determine this, but project managers commonly use Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to measure this goal progress.

The KPIs need to be defined in a manner that helps the project manager measure if a project is on-schedule and on-budget, if specific deliverables are being met, and how well the team is handling issues that arise. As the project manager tracks and reviews the KPIs, he or she may need to make adjustments to the project schedule and budget.

This is why it is important to make sure you have SMART goals when you establish your project plan. Clearly defined goals at the outset will guide the specific KPI measurements you’ll need later on.

5. Closure

This final phase begins after you complete the last major progression task (although there may sometimes be outstanding tasks that you’ll need to complete at a later date). Whether it’s a big party to celebrate a new product launch, or a simple email to let your boss know you’re finished, every project needs some mark of completion.

This phase is marked by a review of the entire project from start to finish during this phase before you archive everything and move on to the next project. Sometimes called a “post-mortem,” you should examine what went right and what went wrong so you can learn valuable lessons for the future. You’ll also want to do a wrap-up budget and schedule analysis. If you worked with a team or have other stakeholders involved, you should review this information with them in a final report.

Finally, you’ll want to collect all of your reports, task history, and deliverables in one location for long-term storage. This is also where a cloud-based project management tool can help you. Most have archival functions that you can easily revisit in the future if needed.

Resources to help you get started

To get you pointed in the right direction, here are some helpful (and clear) resources for project management.

Books

  • Project Management Made Easy. This is the very first book I picked up on project management. It’s an easy read, but also in-depth and gives you clear pointers to get started on your own project management system.
  • Project Management for Dummies. If you want to get a broad understanding of all the different tools and options at your fingertips, take a look at this book. It’s a good reference guide that you can use as a springboard into learning about specific systems and tools that might be a good fit for your business. (As a bonus, the latest edition provides you with help to prep for the PMP certification exam.)
  • A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge. This is the comprehensive guidebook for PMI’s standards for project management. I’m giving you a broad overview of the five phases here. This book will give you an in-depth understanding. 

Online Resources

  • If you’re looking for a basic introduction: “The Teamwork guide to project management.” Teamwork is a company that sells their own project management tool, but they have developed a basic guide to introduce the principles of project management. The books will give you a better understanding of project management, but this is a good overview that’s available online.
  • If you’re looking easy-to-understand, but more depth: The Digital Project Manager. Start with the article “9 Of The Most Popular Project Management Methodologies Made Simple.” This is a good overview of the different project management methodologies (Lean, Kanban, Agile, etc.) Once you’ve gotten a good grasp of the basics, I recommend taking a look at all of the resources and articles available on this site. It’s well-written, easy to digest, and full of fantastic insights. 
  • If you’re looking for advanced learning: PMI Learning Resources. You’ll find everything from tools and templates, to training programs, to academic research and publications.

Tools

If you look on Google, you’ll find endless lists for project management systems. The most popular in the industry are:

We’ve personally used over half of the options on this list. Each one has its positives and negatives. Some have a specific application where it excels, but is lacking in other areas. Some integrate well with tools you may already be using (e.g., for time management, client relationship management, etc.) There are too many variables to make a blanket recommendation. What works well for one company may not work well for another.

So bottom-line: do your research. Set up trial accounts, test out your options, and don’t be afraid to move as your needs change and you outgrow your initial choice. (In the history of our company, we’ve moved platforms twice. It’s not easy, but it’s been worth it every time.)

Still Have Questions? Please Reach Out!

You are always welcome to reach out to us to talk to one of our project managers. For most of our projects, we use a hybrid system that’s a combination of the Kanban organization sprinkled with a healthy dose Gantt charts and Agile methodology where appropriate. We incorporate the principles of Earned Value Management into our performance measurements, in addition to standard budget baselines. We’ve also used a variety of software and tools from Trello to Airtable (not to mention, good old-fashioned sticky notes), but we’ve settled on a newcomer to the industry that has a ton of features and customization for a good price: ClickUp.

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