A person painting a self-portrait, representing the project management process.
The 5 Step Project Management Process That Guarantees Success
A person painting a self-portrait, representing the project management process.

The 5 Step Project Management Process That Guarantees Success

Some of the most important initiatives your team will work on will be part of some larger project. Defining the limits of a project, who will work on what, and how everything will get done is part of the project management process. If you leave all that up to chance, you’re probably going to end up with wasted resources and not much progress to show for it. That’s why most organizations hire project managers, whose only job is to make sure a project reaches the finish line in a state that’s acceptable for everyone who has an interest in seeing it done. But if you don’t have the resources to get a professional project manager, you’ll have to get familiar with what they do.

Here’s a breakdown of the project management process, from the initial concept to project completion. Note that this is a streamlined process that can apply to all kinds of organizations, both big and small.

Project management process step 1: project initiation

According to the Project Management Institute’s guide, the project management process starts before work on the actual project does. Not only that, but it even starts before you plan your project out. Think about it like a road trip; even before you start planning how you’re going to get to your destination, you need to get a few facts straight.

Define the project’s goals

Without a destination in mind, you don’t have a road trip. You just have a car and people who don’t mind burning gas as they try and decide where to go. In the same way, your project needs a clear, defined goal before you do anything else. Something like “improve customer retention” isn’t quite good enough. You can use SMART goals to clearly define what you plan to achieve.

Identify deliverables

Once you have a goal in mind, you need to define exactly what completing that goal looks like. That’s done by defining your project’s deliverables. In the project management process, this is the phase where you bring your goal from the abstract to the concrete. What are the exact things your project will create? A new email campaign? A stronger editorial process? Whatever it is, defining it here is a big part of project management.

Identify project stakeholders

A stakeholder is, quite literally, anyone who holds a stake in your project. Usually, they’re outside of the team that’s working on the project. They might be a manager of a team affected by your project, a VP, a department head, or even another company. Find out who they are, how you can contact them, and how they expect to stay up-to-date on your project’s progress.

Hold a kickoff meeting

During the kickoff meeting, you’ll bring together people who’ll work on the project and stakeholders to move from the project initiation phase to the planning phase. You’ll share what the project is trying to accomplish and source ideas for how that can be done. You’re not sharing a full plan yet. Think of this as part pitch-meeting, part information session.

Project management process step 2: project planning

After the initiation phase is over and done with, you’re almost ready to start the actual work. Taking up the road trip analogy again, you now know where you’re going, but not exactly how you’ll get there. So before your foot hits the gas, you need to do some planning.

Define the project’s scope

Are you driving there and back? Stopping along the way? Is your destination just the first step of a larger journey? When defining your project’s scope, you’ll be asking yourself similar questions. Scope determines how much your project is trying to do. That way, when someone inevitably adds new tasks or initiatives to your project, it’s easier to determine whether they’re feasible — and contribute to the overall goal — or are just potential distractions.

Create a project plan

You know where you’re going, you know how much you’re trying to do, now it’s time to figure out how you’ll get there. One of the first steps in this stage is picking the project management methodology you’ll follow. Do you want something simple and easy like a Kanban board? Or do you need a more advanced work breakdown structure? You’ll also need to break down your project’s goals and deliverables into smaller tasks, which can then be dispatched to the team.

Define your budget

What kind of resources are you working with? Is a whole department putting a chunk of its budget into what you’re doing? Or is this more of a skimp-and-save situation? Knowing your budget — whether it’s actual dollars or the number of hours the team will work — can help you determine what’s achievable and what falls outside your project’s scope. It’ll also determine whether you can hire external help or not.

Outline roles and responsibilities

Now that you know what needs to happen and how it needs to happen, you have to start putting some faces to all those tasks. Exactly how this happens can vary, though using something like a RACI chart can quickly define who’s doing what. Make sure you keep stakeholders, managers, and other peripheral people in mind here.

Project management process step 3: project execution

You know your goal, you’ve made your plan, now it’s time to actually get things done. Here’s how you make sure your project keeps heading in the right direction.

Allocate and manage resources

Once you know what needs to be done and what resources you have to do it all, you can start allocating resources. If you have money to spend, decide what it gets spent on. Decide who’s going to take care of what tasks, and keep a close eye on everyone to make sure no one’s getting overworked. If you’re managing a project, it’s your responsibility to make sure no one’s carrying a load that’s too heavy.

Execute on the actual work

Usually, project managers aren’t involved in the day-to-day work part of the project management process. Their job is to direct traffic and keep things moving. But if you’re not a project manager, you might end up lending a hand here or there. Either way, keep a close eye on the work that’s getting done, so you can course-correct as needed.

Meet to fix issues along the way

While asynchronous communication methods are great for keeping track of your project without cluttering everyone’s calendar, you’ll still need to meet up from time to time. These meetings should give everyone a chance to talk about how their work is going, reveal places where they’re stuck, and ask for help if they need it.

Project management process step 4: project monitoring and control

While a project manager isn’t usually working on a project’s actual deliverables, they have to monitor its progress to ensure it’s on the right track. And if it isn’t, they need to step in to course-correct.

Track effort and cost

At the start of a project, people’s expectations are high. They think they’ll have more time than they actually do, probably expect to be a bit more productive, and consequentially will take on more work than they can handle. Project managers need to confirm that individual tasks aren’t eating up more resources than initially planned, otherwise a project can get into trouble.

Monitor progress

Tracking the effort required to close out individual tasks is just one part of a project manager’s monitoring duties. The overall progress of the project has to be tracked and reported on, too. Stakeholders will want to be informed, and individual collaborators need to be aware of how the overall project is going, since they’re often focused on individual parts and miss the whole.

Stick to the plan

Making sure your project is moving forward is one thing; keeping it advancing in a straight line is another. When managing a project, you need to compare that progress to your initial plan to make sure you’re not deviating from it too much. Adapting on the fly is fine, going in the wrong direction for two weeks isn’t.

Manage risks

There’s an untold number of risks that can make a project fail. A key team member falling ill for an extended period of time, the budget running out, a software tool not working as intended, and the list goes on. Risk management is about knowing what these risks are before they come up, and having a plan for dealing with them.

Project management process step 5: project completion

Congratulations! You’ve worked hard, and now you’re at the best part of the project management process; ticking off a few last-minute items before calling the whole thing done. That’s what’s called project completion, or the project closeout.

Review and hand over deliverables

Hopefully, being at this stage, you have some shiny new deliverables to review. Compare them against your initial plan and the project’s scope. Do they fit the bill? Are there still some tweaks to make before they’re ready?

Get approval

Now that you’ve reviewed the project’s deliverables, it’s time to get all its stakeholders together and give them their say. Present the deliverables, ask questions, and take in stakeholder feedback. Note that you don’t have to accept everything they tell you, but a consensus should be listened to. Don’t be surprised if some things have to be sent back for a final review at this stage.

Have a retrospective

Now that your project’s done, it’s time to disband the team and call it quits, right? Wrong. The end of a project is the perfect time to hold a retrospective, during which the team looks back at what they’ve accomplished and what went wrong. From there, these learnings can be taken into future projects, which makes the whole project management process run much more smoothly.

Trust the project management process

And that’s it! That’s everything you need to run a successful project from ideation to completion. Just remember that you need to know where you’re going, make a plan to get there, do the work, and monitor how that work is going. Once all that’s squared away, you just have to worry about delivering the completed project and reaping the rewards!