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Project Management Fundamentals and Key Concepts 

Project Management Guide

Project Management Fundamentals and Key Concepts 

By Steve Pogue

A diversity of projects can benefit from project management. Let’s review key project management fundamentals and concepts to demystify common jargon associated with each.

What is Project Scope?

A project’s scope is the boundaries and framework of a planned-out project. Documenting the scope of a project at the outset of a project is critical to project success. 

Intentional or accidental changes to a timeline incur “Scope creep”. Changes could include budget updates, materials delays, strained resources, and more.

To prevent scope creep, establish a process for documenting project scope and receiving sign-off from all relevant project stakeholders. Statements of Work (SOW), Project Contracts, or Project Proposals typically contain project scope.

Common Terms:  

  • In-Scope – activities that all parties agreed to include in this specific project
  • Out of Scope – activities that all parties agreed not to include in this specific project
  • Scope Creep – changes that lengthen or alter a project timeline
  • Decision Log – a tool used to document decisions on project scope for historical record

Establishing & Tracking to Project Timeline

Developing a realistic project timeline is important for many reasons. 

Setting Realistic Expectations

A project timeline is a critical tool for setting stakeholder expectations around project delivery. Top-level business stakeholders may not be involved with the nitty-gritty project details. Their challenge is setting expectations of when work will be delivered. This expectation-setting will help mitigate tough conversations later on.

Prioritizing Work

Clear deadlines provide your team the ability to properly prioritize the most important and urgent tasks.

A well-defined scope supports the development of a project timeline. Scope informs what needs to be accomplished over the course of a project. For longer, complex projects, it is often helpful to break the project into phases defined by fixed milestones. 

Be mindful of external forces in risk mitigation like government policies or contracts already in force. It’s critical to know hard deadlines upfront so you can forecast the budget and resources needed to meet the deadline. 

Common Terms:

  • Milestone – a fixed point on a project timeline that typically represents the completion of a project phase. 
  • Project Phase – a logical grouping of project tasks and activities within the context of a larger project
  • Deliverable – a measurable outcome, result, or item produced to complete a project milestone
  • Agile – a methodology that prefers many short, iterative cycles to a linear or “waterfall” approach. This article provides more information on the pros and cons of various project management methodologies. 

Project Roles & Responsibilities

Every member needs a clear understanding of their individual responsibilities and how their contribution fits into the broader team context.

When managing complex projects, team members may hold varying roles based on strengths, knowledge, bandwidth, etc.) for specific project activities. For example, a project analyst may be responsible for developing weekly status reports. The project director provides internal sign-off. However, for the quarterly meeting with a broader audience, the project director takes the lead role in developing the report.

A “RACI” matrix is a useful way to create a shared understanding of every team member’s role in project activity.

Common Terms:  

  • RACI (“Responsible” “Accountable” “Consulted” “Informed”) – a RACI matrix assigns roles to project resources at the project activity level
  • Resource – any member of the project team

Capturing and Escalating Project Risks

One of the most important skills a good project manager can have is identifying and resolving project risk.

The goal of project risk management is to identify and mitigate risks before they turn into issues. Risk identification starts prior to Day 1 of the project. The sign of a healthy project is to have risks identified at project kickoff. It will take time to learn how to plan for those risks, but as you progress, you’ll spot risks easier.

Common Terms:  

  • Risk – a potential situation that, if realized, would negatively impact project metrics such as timeline, budget, or quality
  • Issue – a realized situation that is negatively impacting project metrics such as timeline, budget, or quality 
  • Kickoff – the formal start of a project. Often marked by a kickoff meeting or announcement to inform relevant stakeholders that the project is underway
  • Dependency – A task can’t start before another task finishes
  • Scrum Meeting – a brief meeting with the goal of aligning the day’s activities across team members and resolving project roadblocks

Managing Project Budget

Project managers are usually responsible for managing a project’s budget whether you created the budget or not.

Budget management typically involves: 

Setting up clear systems and expectations with project resources on the correct method and cadence for submitting expenses and tracking their hours is crucial for accurate, real-time budget reporting and management. 

Common Terms:  

  • Expense – purchases deducted from the project budget (i.e. software license, building materials, etc.)
  • Project Sponsor – the person ultimately responsible for the success or failure of a project.  A Project Manager may report directly to a project sponsor. 

Creating and Executing a Communication Plan

Project management fundamentals say that clear communication, both internally and externally, is foundational to the success of any project. Unclear or untimely updates can cause unnecessary panic and waste valuable time! 

A common approach to preventing communication issues is crafting a communication plan at project kickoff. The purpose of a communication plan is to align stakeholder expectations on frequency, content, and communication channel for different types of information. 

Additionally, a communication plan is an important tool to manage calendars and block the availability of busy stakeholders. For example, if you have a large workshop to schedule, you can propose times in the communication plan at the beginning of the project and block time on the calendars of key stakeholders well in advance of the workshop. 

For more communication strategies, see 15 Simple Ways to Improve Team Communication. 

Common Terms:  

  • Stakeholder – individuals or groups involved in or impacted by the project 
  • Internal – the members of the project team that are within your organization or group
  • External – the ‘client’; members of the project team or project stakeholders that are outside your organization or group

Reporting on Project Status

One of the most important project management fundamentals is the ability to report on project status. Project management software makes it easy to report on project status.

As a project manager, you’ll likely be “in the weeds,” or deep in the tactical details of a project. While you may be able to rattle off the current budget amount left, the number of open risks, and deliverable statuses, the project sponsor and other project oversight may not need to know that level of detail. 

Project managers often agree to a frequency and method of reporting on or presenting project status updates at project kickoff.  A status report may take the form of an excel report, a dashboard, a PowerPoint deck, a weekly email, a meeting, or some combination of these options.  

In the best-case scenario, a project manager has a purpose-built tool that can automatically provide this information to stakeholders at a glance. 

Reporting on project status is a balancing act: you need to communicate the important updates but only get into detail when necessary. Sometimes the level of detail comes down to stakeholder preference, however, you can expect anything ‘negative’ you report to be a target of further questioning.

Common Terms:  

In the weeds – aware of and involved in the minute details of the project

How to Structure Your Projects

“If you fail to plan, you’re planning to fail” – Benjamin Franklin

While every project has its own nuances, a standard project structure can be employed to set your project up for success.  An investment of time and intentional forward-thinking during the planning stage of a project will pay dividends in the long run.  

Building on our understanding of Project Management Fundamentals, you can use this framework as a method to approach structuring a project and planning for project success!

What is a Project Workplan?

A project workplan (also referred to as just a project plan or a work breakdown structure) lists all project activities set against a timeline. Your workplan should serve as a trusted guide that you can always refer back to during the (inevitable) chaotic moments of a project.

The first step to building an effective project workplan is understanding the building blocks used to construct it. 

Outline Your Deliverables and Structure Project Activities

To deliver on the overall project goal, the project manager must clearly outline what results the project will deliver and when that delivery will occur. It is common to define deliverables as part of the project proposal process, but if this step has not taken place, refer to this guide to crafting your deliverable strategy.

After deliverables are agreed upon, a project manager will work with the team to determine what specific activities need to take place to produce each deliverable. Properly structuring your project activities in support of deliverables will help you allocate your resources accordingly and identify dependencies.

For example, a blueprint for a building has a variety of activities needed to support the creation of that blueprint.

Deliverable: Building Blueprint

Project Activities:

  • Gather inputs from architects and other stakeholders
  • Develop a first draft of the blueprint
  • Review the first draft of the blueprint with project stakeholders
  • Revise draft according to stakeholder feedback
  • Send final blueprint to stakeholders for approval

These project activities will serve as a virtual to-do list for your team.

Quantify Your Work

After documenting all project activities, you can go one level deeper and actually quantify the number of hours and resources you will need to allocate to that specific activity in order to complete it.

In some cases, the exercise of quantifying project activities is pretty straightforward. For example, if one resource needs to review five documents for 15 minutes each, total hours for project activity = 1 hour and 15 minutes.  If two resources need to review these documents, this should be represented in the project plan as two separate instances of 1 hour and 15 minutes with the total time allocated for the activity = 2.5 hours. 

For more complicated activities, it may be challenging to come up with an estimate without knowing the exact structure of the deliverable or acting with incomplete information. 

Remember that any estimate is better than no estimate as you can baseline your stakeholders and identify/mitigate risks if necessary. Additionally, when acting with incomplete information, clearly documenting assumptions is a best practice.

Project Workplan Development

After defining project deliverables, structuring supporting activities, and quantifying the work needed for those activities, a project manager can use these inputs and develop a project workplan.

Typically, project workplans are set against a timeline and broken out into phases to allow for easier stakeholder consumption. The more detail you add up front, the easier it is to modify your project workplan accurately as you can shift the variables and see the subsequent effect that shift has on overall timeline and budget. 

A well-thought-out and properly structured workplan will save you many headaches over the course of project delivery!

Project Management Toolkit 

After your project plan is ready for execution, it will be your job as the project manager to ensure the plan is followed and/or adjusted accordingly. 

Building on the project management fundamentals from the previous section, here are some best practices for executing on project management key concepts. 

Project Scoping

Document both what is considered “in scope” as well as what is definitively “out of scope” so that there is no ambiguity.  Be as detailed as possible so that you have a definitive answer when a scope question is raised during the project. 

After the scope is defined, a project manager is often responsible for catching and handling any potential scope creep. For large complex projects, it’s best to educate all team members on the scope of the project and have them alert you if there are asks received that fall outside of scope.

For more tips on preventing and managing scope creep, see What is Scope Creep? And How Does it Impact Your Project Management?

Project Roles and Responsibilities (RACI development)

After you’ve constructed and received sign-off on your project workplan, list out all project activities in rows and all project resources in columns. For each activity, assign a minimum of one resource as”Responsible,” “Accountable,” “Consulted,” and “Informed.” Share the RACI with the whole project team and update it as needed over the course of the project. 

Risk Management

Risk identification is dependent upon other factors such as a defined project timeline, budget, and success metrics. By tracking relevant project metrics, you should be able to identify risks and propose mitigation plans. Risks are also often communicated to project managers by team members who are experiencing roadblocks with their assigned activities. 

Transparent communication of existing risks, while not always pleasantly received, is fundamental to project success. Good project managers always have mitigation options (ideally with a recommendation) ready when presenting risks to project stakeholders.

Communication Plan Development

A communication plan lists recurring meetings such as status meetings or governance meetings and notes the purpose, attendees, and a high-level agenda. If someone is not included or stakeholders are not comfortable with meeting frequency, those details can be negotiated upfront rather than leading to issues mid-delivery. 

Now that you have laid a solid foundation for your project, it’s time to move on to tracking things that matter. 

Summary: Project Management Fundamentals

Let’s not get intimidated by the importance of project management fundamentals. They’re called fundamentals for a reason: Communication, Teamwork, Clarity. Be a good steward of your peers and your projects will be successful.

Steve Pogue is the Marketing Operations Manager at Workzone. He writes about project management tips and the buying process. When not at Workzone, you can find him playing vintage base ball or relaxing with his family at home.