What is Project Management? A Guide for Beginners
If someone asked you, “What is project management?”, would you find it easy to answer? Of course, it’s about managing projects but what exactly does that entail?
Project management is so multi-faceted that it’s not easy to explain in just a few words. Even project managers at the start of their careers tend to realize very quickly that there’s more to the role than meets the eye.
In this post, we’ll share a clear definition of project management, explore the project management process, and provide actionable tips for successfully managing projects.
What is a project?
Think of a project like a folder on a computer. That folder holds files called “plan,” “budget”, “deliverables,” “tasks,” and “deadlines.” These elements all contribute to your project, helping direct your team’s work towards a defined objective. Here’s what each element contributes to the overall project:
- Plan: Do you know where you’re going? It’s one thing to say “we want to redesign the website,” it’s another to actually do it. With a plan in place, you can make the best use of the resources available to you.
- Budget: How big is the pile of resources you can burn for this project? The first resource is money, of course, and knowing how much you have available before the project begins can inform your plan. Can you afford to hire an agency? How many developers can you use on this project?
- Deliverables: A deliverable is the actual thing — physical or digital — that is the outcome of your project. Maybe it’s a piece of software, an eBook, or a new policy. A project will often have multiple deliverables, each a small piece of the desired project outcome.
- Tasks: A task is a unit of work that can be assigned to a collaborator. The amount of work that can go into a task varies, with some tasks taking weeks to complete, while others might just take a few minutes. The best tasks have a due date and a clear objective.
- Deadlines: When will your project be completed? Better yet, what are some milestones you can hit along the way? The best projects don’t usually meander along until they reach 100% completion. Usually, project managers will set deadlines for each step of a project.
What is project management?
If you’ve ever helped organize a group project in school, or even planned a vacation, you’ve taken on some degree of project management.
In the context of a business, however, project management can be defined as “the application of processes, expertise, and tools in order to meet project goals and requirements within a specific timeframe.” A project, in this context, is an endeavour carried out with the goal of achieving specified objectives. Building a new website is a project, for example, as is writing a how-to guide or designing a logo.
Project management, however, is nothing without the work of dedicated project managers (PMs). The numerous roles of a PM can include:
- Ensuring projects are completed within a set timeline
- Acting as a liaison between clients and internal teams
- Setting and managing expectations
- Planning and defining project scope
- Creating and implementing processes
- Resource management
- Analyzing risk and roadblocks
- Monitoring project status
- Reporting and leading project retrospectives
While every department requires some form of project management — or the support of a Project Management Office — many companies still fail to fully understand the value of project managers.
What are the benefits of project management?
- Boosted efficiency: Project managers use industry-proven methodologies to plan, execute, and monitor tasks and projects to ensure they’re on-track. When project roadblocks occur, project managers are skilled in resolving disputes and finding solutions to ensure projects meet their deadlines.
- Higher accountability: A well-managed project will have a clearly-defined scope of work and clearly-defined roles. Not only does this make responsibilities more clear to all stakeholders, but the ongoing monitoring of the project manager ensures that everyone is held accountable for the delivery of their tasks.
- Cutting costs: Experienced PMs recognize when projects are at risk of scope creep and can nip it in the bud. Project management will also save you money by reducing wasted time and effort and identifying opportunities for increased efficiency.
What is a project management process?
While all projects are unique, there’s an overarching set of processes that remains consistent. When you begin with a solid and proven framework, like the one below, you increase the likelihood of a successful project.
Initiation (research and discovery)
Before a project begins, it’s important to conduct research in order to determine whether to proceed. This stage of the process can include market research, competitive analyses, brainstorming and/or focus groups, and other forms of user research. It’s within this stage that the project goals and objectives are determined, as well as what will be required to achieve said goals.
Once the project scope and objectives are determined, planning can get underway. This is where you’ll figure out what exactly needs to be done, and how that’s going to happen. With proper planning, you’re able to manage your team’s time, the project cost, risk, as well as budget and timeline. The planning phase is where you’ll list the schedule of all tasks, the work breakdown structure, resource planning, a communications strategy if needed, and anything else required to help prepare for the project to actually begin. Once you’ve identified the actual work needing to be done, created a detailed schedule, and built an appropriate budget, you’re ready to move on to the execution phase.
This is where the project is put into motion — and where most of the project manager’s time is spent. In the execution (or implementation) phase, team members carry out their roles within the project. The project manager is there to provide guidance, check-in, and respond to requests.
Monitoring and adjustment
Once a project is underway, the project manager also needs to ensure everything is on track. They do this through constant monitoring. When an issue or roadblock is identified, they facilitate adjustments as needed. This phase of the project often includes a testing period. The results of these tests either guide further changes or confirm that a project is ready for launch.
The final stage of the project management process is its completion. Here, the project manager makes sure that the stakeholder or client has all the project deliverables, any relevant project documentation, and the closure of the project is communicated. Once the client or stakeholder is satisfied with the project deliverables, you can start planning your project retrospective to identify lessons learned — and to celebrate successes.
How to achieve better project management
Now that you understand what’s involved in project management, it’s time to hone your skills. Here are some tips to help you achieve success as a project manager:
Get to know the lingo
When starting out as a project manager, it can often feel like everyone around you is speaking a different language. Become familiar with project management terminology and definitions before you start to ensure you’re not missing crucial information when the time comes.
Arguably the most important skill for any project manager to have, you want to make sure your approach to communication is clear and efficient. As we explained in a recent blog post, “According to the Project Management Institute’s Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, about 75-90 percent of a project manager’s time at work is spent communicating.”
Begin by establishing a structured communications framework (so everyone understands expectations and process), practice mindful listening (both to words and body language or actions), and…
Use the right tools
The right tools can make all the difference when it comes to effective project management. From creating projects and tasks to analyzing data and reports, there are countless tools available to make your job help you better manage projects.
If you’re looking to elevate your experience and streamline your tools, Unito’s workflow management platform can help. Unito helps with team coordination and project management so you can break down project silos, automatically keep projects up to date, effortlessly share updates with key stakeholders, and manage clients — all from your tool of choice.
Manage risks properly
Every project will have some degree of risk. Your goal should be to manage potential risks before issues ever arise.
Dedicate time (before the project begins) to think about any outside forces that could impact timelines, the quality of work, or your team members. For example, if you know a certain stakeholder is a very thorough editor, ensure you’re leaving an adequate amount of time to address their revisions.
Avoid scope creep
Scope creep happens when major changes are requested during a project that increase the amount of work required.
As you plan a project, ensure you and your stakeholders are perfectly aligned on the overall scope. Collaborate on a change process in case anything absolutely needs to be changed during the course of the project. You should get buy-in for that process from both the stakeholders and your team before the project kicks off.
Feedback is an invaluable resource for any project manager, but especially for those just starting out. The best way to learn and grow is by actually doing the work, gaining experience, and receiving constructive feedback. This feedback can help you make better decisions in future projects, so it’s always a good idea to encourage those working with you to provide feedback both as you undertake a project, and at its completion. Ask your team and stakeholders:
- What could I have done better?
- What’s one thing you appreciated about my approach/work?
- What was the biggest roadblock during the project? Is there anything I could have done to fix this?
- What was the biggest success of the project?
These are all great starting points. They invite larger conversations or act as the foundation of a good retrospective.
What the experts say about project management
If you need legal advice, you go to a lawyer. That’s why we asked six project managers some of the most common questions about project management. In the Project Manager Interview series, we dive into essential project management skills, common responsibilities, and more:
- Common project manager responsibilities: Whether you’re officially a project manager or not, you might find yourself managing essential projects for your organization. According to Elizabeth Harrin, a project manager with over 20 years of experience who writes at RebelsGuidetoPM.com, project managers do a little bit of everything: “Good project managers unblock tricky situations for their teams, smooth over the office politics, and give people the tools and environment they need to do their best work.”
- Project management certification: Unlike lawyers, project managers don’t explicitly need a license, but it can certainly help help, according to Alexander Nowak, a marketing and business strategy consultant with five years of project management experience: “One of the biggest benefits is in the job search phase; it gets you through filters but also conveys to employers, during the interview phase, your skillset and lets them ‘take for granted’ your capabilities here. If you’re seeking strict PMing jobs, I’d argue it’s a must.”
- Project management skills: The best project managers are generalists, but they sill need key soft skills. For Cornelius Fichtner, president of OSP International, and host of The Project Management Podcast, people skills are essential: “The only project where you don’t have a conflict is when you are just one person. Your ability to get [a team] all together and pull in the same direction, I think that is the number one essential skill that you need as a project manager.”
- How to get a job: The path to the role of project manager isn’t predetermined, and each PM lands their first job differently. Laurent DuBerger, an agile coach at Element AI and former project manager at GSoft, started in the field under a different role: “I was offered the opportunity to have the Scrum Master role when a position opened at a previous company I worked for (an internal move). I then did that for 4 years. The real position was in reality more one of Agile Project Manager.”
- Project management software: There’s always a right tool for the job, but in project management there are dozens of possible choices. Martin Thienpont, project manager at Valtech, says: “We like to use Jira and Confluence for our web development jobs and documentation needs. We even started implementing them for campaign projects.”
Project management is one of the most critical components of any business. From the numerous roles of a project manager, to the many phases of the project management process, it’s clear why successful project managers are irreplaceable.
How do project managers save time?
They use integrations to make sure important data can flow across tools.