Understanding Project Management
Whether you’re already a seasoned project manager or couldn’t tell a deliverable from a didgeridoo, it’s always valuable to study the fundamentals. From key concepts to time tracking, we’re going to cover everything you need to know in order to get your projects off the ground and across the finish line.
There’s a lot of information here, and if you’re looking for something specific, you can use the links below to skip to the section you’re most interested in.
Project management can feel overwhelming, but with a few basic frameworks, you’ll be surprised how much easier it can be to tackle even the most challenging and complex tasks.
There’s no shortage of project management jargon and terminology, but most of it is easy to understand once you have a good grasp of the fundamental concepts.
“If you fail to plan, you’re planning to fail” –Benjamin Franklin
When starting a new project, the most successful teams dedicate a good deal of their time and resources to planning and structuring. Learn how to structure your projects for success.
Tracking and focusing on the wrong elements of a project can be more harmful than helpful because doing so can distract you and your team from the things that truly matter. In this section we’ll cover the basics of project tracking, and outline the elements you should be tracking in most projects.
If you’ve ever pulled an all-nighter to finish a project, you know firsthand how important time management is, and how painful it can be not to have a good time management plan in place. In this section, we’ll cover the most important tips you need to know about time management.
Organization is absolutely crucial if you want your projects to run smoothly and reliably. This is especially true on larger teams. Here we’ll cover the organizational frameworks you need to keep everyone on the same page and on track.
Don’t repeat yourself, and if you do, make sure you put things in place to make it easier each time. In this section, we’ll cover the knowledge you need to build processes that will allow you to delegate tasks more effectively and free up your team’s bandwidth.
Section I: How to Think about Project Management
The goal of this section is to provide you with a better understanding of project management concepts while providing an overview of best practices you and your team can use to get things done more effectively and reliably.
We hope you’ll find the learnings here valuable whether you’re a newly hired project manager, a seasoned PMP seeking a refresh, or someone doing the work of a project manager without the title.
So with that in mind, let’s start at the very beginning: What is project management?
Project Management Defined
At its core, project management is a set of frameworks and activities designed to support the achievement of a project’s end goal.
That definition may seem a little ambiguous. After all, there are countless ways to support a project’s end goals, and the range of project management activities can be as diverse as the projects you encounter.
Tools like the Project Management Institute’s Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK), provide the project management community with standard terminology, tools, and frameworks to help make sense of a wide array of projects and achieve positive outcomes more consistently.
Mastering these essential elements of project management will grant you credibility and allow you to walk into new client or project situations with greater confidence, even if you decide not to implement all of them for the particular project you’re managing.
The Value of Project Management
Project management acts simultaneously as your project’s blueprint and its insurance plan.
Are you able to complete projects without an insurance plan? Sure – but the risks outweigh the time and resource investment.
Can you build a house without a blueprint? Once again, yes, but how long will it stand?
A successful project manager provides those invested in their project’s success with a holistic view of what resources are required, what needs to take place, and peace of mind that if something is off track, it will be identified and mitigated effectively.
What Is a Project?
Think of a project as anything with a fixed timeframe and a clear end goal. A project is distinct from “day-to-day operations” which do not have a fixed timeframe.
In a business context, a project may be the merging of two departments, the construction of a new building, or the implementation of a new technology.
Project Management vs. Project Delivery Tasks
It is essential to understand the separation between project management and project delivery.
Project delivery is the time and effort that directly contributes to the generation of project deliverables. In contrast, project management activities exist to ensure that the project will be completed on time and within budget.
For example, let’s examine the project: “Apply to Colleges.”
The project delivery, or task list, for this project may include items like:
- Identify a list of preferable schools
- Gather school application requirements
- Write five application essays
- Collect letters of recommendation
- Submit applications
As you cross each item off the project task list, you are one step closer to your goal of submitting college applications.
Project management activities, however, may include things like:
- Determine the project’s scope (number of schools to apply to)
- Develop the task list
- Define a budget
- Identify dependencies
- Establish a timeline
The process of defining your budget does not bring you closer to the end goal of submitting college applications; however, overlooking this step could result in rework or frustration down the line. Imagine if you got to the end of the application process and realized that each of your ten applications cost $500 to submit and you only had $300 total allocated to this project!
What Does a Project Manager Do?
It truly depends on whom you ask.
Inspect a few job postings seeking a ‘project manager.’ When you look past the title and into the day-to-day responsibilities, you’ll find that companies may be seeking a virtual assistant, others a PMP-style professional, an account manager, or a product manager.
A theory for this wide application of “project manager” stems from the fact that project managers often take on additional responsibilities outside their scope of work. An existing role may evolve into being more project management-focused as a company grows and needs to scale, or as new priorities and deadlines demand it.
Alternatively, a company may be hiring a project manager but also expect them to take on responsibilities beyond project management if, for example, there are not enough active projects to constitute a full-time project management role.
Whatever your job title, a strong project management foundation will serve you well and enable your team for successful and on-time delivery.
What Makes a Successful Project Manager?
While pinning down exactly who a project manager is, and where to draw that line may be difficult, defining the characteristics of a successful project manager isn’t.
The best project managers are chameleons who have honed both their practical expertise and an instinct for motivating a team over time.
From a process perspective, a great project manager adapts core concepts and best practices to fit the specific client needs, project goals, and stakeholder preferences.
From a people perspective, the most successful project managers will ‘blend in’ with the team they’re joining. It is critical for any project manager to build trust with the project team. The soft skills related to project management such as stakeholder management and effective communication often separate great project managers from good ones.
Take time to develop both the ‘hard skills’ we’ll explore in the next section and the soft skills that are best learned through requesting and applying feedback from teammates and managers.
In the next section, we’ll cover some of the key concepts and terminology you’re likely to encounter in project management.
If there’s a different topic you’re excited to learn about, you can follow this link back to the table of contents.
Section II: Project Management Fundamentals + Key Concepts
Now that we’ve explored the diversity of projects that can benefit from project management and the wide range of project management duties you may encounter, let’s review some key project management concepts and demystify some common jargon associated with each.
Defining and Managing Scope
Accurately documenting the exact scope of a project at the outset is critical to project success. Scope creep, whether intentional or accidental, can quickly derail a project by adding to timeline/budget and creating resources constraints.
To prevent scope creep, establish a process for documenting project scope and receiving sign-off from all relevant project stakeholders. A project scope section is often included in a Statement of Work (SOW), Project Contract, or Project Proposal as scope usually dictates project budget.
- 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 – when activities are requested or executed that are out of scope for a specific project
- 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
The project timeline will be a critical tool for setting stakeholder expectations around project delivery. As business stakeholders may not be involved with the nitty-gritty project details, setting expectations on when work will be delivered can help mitigate tough conversations later on.
Provided with clear deadlines for project activities and deliverables, your team will be able to properly prioritize the most important and urgent tasks.
A well-defined scope supports the development of a project timeline. The scope informs what needs to be accomplished over the course of a project; the timeline will tell you the timeframe for completion. For longer, complex projects, it is often helpful to break the project into phases defined by fixed milestones.
Project timelines can be influenced by external forces such as government policies or by contracts already in place. If there are hard deadlines associated with the project, it is critical to know them upfront so that you can accurately forecast the budget and resources needed for meeting the deadline.
- 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
To help your project team function like a well-oiled machine, every member should have a crystal clear understanding of both their individual responsibilities and how their contribution fits into the broader team context.
When managing a complex project, team members may hold varying roles (based on strengths, knowledge, bandwidth, etc.) for specific project activities. For example, the project analyst may be responsible for developing weekly status reports while the project director provides internal sign-off, but for the quarterly meeting with a broader audience, the project director instead takes the lead role in developing the report.
A project management tool called a RACI matrix can be a useful way to create a shared understanding of every team member’s role for each specific project activity.
- RACI (“Responsible” “Accountable” “Consulted” “Informed”) – a RACI is a matrix that assigns roles to project resources at the project activity level
- Resource – any member of the project team
Capturing and Escalating Risks
One of the most important skills that a good project manager can possess is their ability to identify and resolve project risks.
The goal in risk management is to identify and mitigate risks before they turn into issues. Risk identification starts prior to Day 1 of the project. It may sound backward, but it is the sign of a healthy project to have risks identified at project kickoff as you cannot monitor a risk until it’s been identified!
- 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 – the logical, constraint-based or preferential relationship between two activities or tasks such that the completion or the initiation of one is reliant on the completion or initiation of the other
- Scrum Meeting – a brief project team meeting with the goal of aligning the day’s activities across team members and identifying and resolving project roadblocks
Whether you are handed a set project budget or involved in the budget defining process, project managers are usually responsible for managing a project’s budget. If a project sponsor is held responsible for completing the project within a given budget (or is trying to come in under budget), the sponsor will likely expect regular updates on actual project spend against budget projections.
Budget management can be accomplished through a variety of project management tools, but typically involves:
- Expense Tracking
- Time Tracking
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.
- Expense – any purchase that will be 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
Clear communication, both internally and externally, is foundational to the success of any project, regardless of size or industry. 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.
- Stakeholder – any individual or group that is 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
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.
- In the weeds – aware of and involved in the minute details of the project
In the next section, we’ll cover some best practices for structuring projects.
If there’s a different topic you’re excited to learn about, you can follow this link back to the table of contents.
Section III: 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, if one of your project deliverables is a blueprint for a building, there may be a variety of activities needed to support the creation of that blueprint.
Deliverable: Building Blueprint
- Gather inputs from architect 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
An exhaustive list of detailed project activities that need to be completed will be an input to your workplan and 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.
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 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.
If there’s a different topic you’re excited to learn about, you can follow this link back to the table of contents.
Section IV: Tracking Things That Matter
Tracking and focusing on the wrong elements of a project can be more harmful than helpful by distracting you and your team from the things that truly matter.
It’s crucial to track only the things that truly make a difference to the success of your project.
This lesson will help you understand which elements of a project are make-or-break, and why. It will also illustrate how tracking and communicating these key elements helps ensure project success.
The Iron Triangle
In project management, there is a triple constraint known as the Iron Triangle. It is called this, as the three sides are viewed as three competing constraints. These constraints are:
Tracking these three elements is critical for the success of a project, as the three are interrelated. Any pressure on one side requires at least one of the other two to compensate. For example, if the timeline needs to change by two weeks, it will cause a change in either cost, scope, or both.
By its very definition, a project is temporary and must have an end date. Progress towards this end date must be monitored and managed to ensure you’re still on track to meet your deadline. To do this, a project schedule must be created, regularly updated, and controlled throughout the project.
A lack of details like these in your project schedule makes it difficult to track progress and identify risks and issues. On the other hand, too much detail can result in an unmanageable schedule that takes hours to update.
In fact, the Project Management Institute (PMI), lists ‘Inappropriate Level of Detail,’ as one of the top ten scheduling mistakes that project managers make.
So how do you create a schedule that tracks at an appropriate level of detail?
Start by developing the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) of the project. This means you take the project and break it down into smaller chunks.
For instance, your project may be to construct a house. The project can be broken down into the foundation of the house, the main structure of the house (framing, roof, etc.), and the internal components of the house (drywall, electricity, etc.)
Each of those chunks would be broken down further and further until you get to the lowest reasonable level of detail. The lowest reasonable level of detail usually differs from project to project, so it can be helpful to have a set of basic rules to follow when determining it.
Here are some guidelines for which level of detail is reasonable:
- It consists of one clear deliverable or milestone.
- The work will be performed by one person or one ‘role’.
- It can be given one defined period for completion.
- An estimated cost can be assigned to it.
Consider this example: Hook up all the power outlets in the house.
- It has one clear deliverable.
- It will only be done by a single type of person: electricians.
- It can be given a defined timeline. It’s not something that will start today, then have to stop in two days and cannot start again until something else is completed.
- It’s possible to assign a cost to the task based on estimated hours and materials required.
Why not have hooking up each room as a separate activity?
As a general rule of thumb, the lowest level in a schedule should be between 20 and 80 hours of work. So, if each room only takes 3–4 hours, it would be overkill to include that level of detail in your schedule.
Every project needs a budget, and it’s crucial to track costs against this budget to ensure you don’t run out of money before the project is completed.
A project’s cost should be monitored at both the overall project level and at the detailed level. The project’s progress also needs to be taken into account.
For example, let’s say your project budget is $50,000 and the project length is six months.
You’re three months in, and you spent $25,000. Are you on track?
What if the project is only actually 40% complete?
Or, what if the final phase of your project, which doesn’t start until month five, requires ¼ of your total budget?
If you don’t track at the lowest level of detail, you may miss problems until it’s too late.
However, it can be difficult to track labor down to the lowest level of detail when tracking by dollars spent. There are two reasons for this:
- Converting hours to dollars may require access to sensitive payroll information.
- It adds complexity to the project schedule and tracking system, since two people with the same job title could make different wages.
To overcome these difficulties, labor is often tracked in hours rather than dollars.
The third side of the triangle is project scope. The scope encompasses not only what must be delivered as part of the project, but also the quality of those deliverables.
Scope tracking is critical to managing any change requests to the original scope so that you and the end customer are both aligned as to what the scope of the project is. Effective scope tracking also helps avoid Scope creep, which is when the scope of your project slowly grows little by little until it has a negative impact on project performance
Some common examples of tools for tracking scope are:
- Requirements documents
- Design documents
- Change requests
- Verification or sign-off criteria
If we go back to the house example, the scope of the project may be a two-level, three-bedroom, 2,000 square foot home. The scope may also include other factors such as energy efficiency levels, grade of materials used, etc.
The blueprints of the house, and inspections and walkthroughs by the client, are examples of tools used for tracking and verifying scope.
Other Components to Track
Three other factors that should also be tracked for successful project management are:
- Risks and Issues
- Project changes
Ensuring that resources are assigned to the tasks in your schedule and that they are available when you need them is a critical component of project management.
Without proper resource allocation and management, a project could come to a screeching halt.
For example: what happens if you need the structure of the house inspected before you begin drywalling, but you forgot to book the inspector?
Maybe, when building the initial schedule, you knew you needed an inspector, so you assigned the role of ‘inspector’ to the task in the schedule. But, you forgot to find an individual inspector, and to replace the generic role with that person’s name. So, when the time comes for an inspection, you don’t have an actual individual on site and ready to do the job.
Tracking resources means ensuring that named resources have been assigned for all upcoming tasks, and that those resources are both available and aware that they’ve been assigned.
2. Risks and Issues
During the planning stage of a project, risks should be identified, and a risk management plan should be created. This allows you to identify what could happen, and what your Plan B is, if it does.
However, without tracking risks, you won’t know when to implement your mitigation plan or Plan B. Plus, you won’t capture new risks that arise as the project progresses. It’s important to review your identified risks and mitigation plans regularly to make sure you’re prepared for when something goes wrong.
When a risk occurs, it’s referred to as an issue, which also needs to be tracked. This is so you can monitor and communicate its impact and what is being done about it.
If a tropical storm blows in and delays project construction by a week, it’s an issue. You’ll need to track the storm’s progress, any damage it causes to the project, and what you’re doing to resolve the issue.
For example, you may plan for the team to work overtime for two weeks after the storm ends to catch up. You will need to track that everyone is available, that the extra cost is within the project’s cost constraints, and that the schedule is catching back up.
3. Project Changes
Change is the final component to track. These could be changes to the scope, schedule, cost, or resources.
There should be a defined process for proposing, reviewing and approving changes on a project. Often this is encompassed in a change management plan and tracked with change request forms and a change request log.
Change tracking allows you to ensure all changes are documented, assessed for potential impacts, reviewed, and approved by the relevant experts and project stakeholders. This tracking and control process ensures that impacts of change are not missed, and that all changes are accepted by the customer and project stakeholders before they occur. .
The six primary things to track and communicate on a project are:
- Risks and issues
Tracking and reporting on these six things allow you to:
- Keep track of progress towards deliverables and milestones.
- Manage costs and identify budget issues early.
- Have well-defined project scope and deliverables.
- Ensure resources are available and ready to complete tasks.
- Identify risks and implement mitigation plans quickly.
- Deliver end products that meet customer expectations.
Coming up next, we’ll cover the topic of time management in depth, with tips and processes to help improve personal, team, and project time management.
Section V: Time Management
Time Management is the process of organizing, planning and managing what you spend your time on during the course of a project.
If you’ve ever pulled an all-nighter to finish a project, you know firsthand how important time management is, and how painful it can be to not have a good time management plan in place.
As a project manager, you need to have the knowledge, skills, and ability to perform both project time management and personal time management.
Project Time Management
It’s important to manage your project time to ensure tasks are completed efficiently, labor costs are kept in check, and products or services are delivered on schedule.
The Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK) outlines ten fundamental knowledge areas that every project manager needs, and one of these key areas is about project time management. Time management is considered that important to the success of your project.
The knowledge area used to even be called time management, but it has been relabelled schedule management as of the PMBOK 6th edition.
Even though it now has a new name, this knowledge area is still about how to manage the overall time spent on your project. The name change was made to illustrate the importance of project scheduling when it comes to managing project time.
The 7 processes of project time management
There are seven proven processes for successfully managing project time. These are:
- Plan schedule management. This process focuses on how you will manage your schedule. How will you set start and end dates? How will you construct your schedule? How will you track progress?
- Define activities. In this process, you must define the activities that need to be completed to accomplish your project.
- Sequence activities. The next process is to identify relationships and dependencies, and then sequence activities based on the order required to complete them.
- Estimate activity resources. After activities are sequenced, any resources required to complete them need to be estimated. This includes both labor and material resources.
- Estimate activity durations. How long is expected to take to complete each activity must be estimated. This process focuses on how to create those estimates.
- Develop schedule. Once the previous five processes have been completed, you can now use this information to build out your project schedule and create your schedule baseline.
- Control schedule. Finally, you need to monitor the actual progress of the schedule against the baseline. If the project starts to go off track, then corrective actions need to be taken to recover and prevent further delays. These corrective actions are also part of this process.
4 tips for improving your project time management
- Avoid lengthy activities. Research shows that people are more likely to procrastinate and be inefficient if given longer deadlines. If the duration of a task or activity is longer than 1-2 weeks, create milestones or deliverable phases in order to break it up.
- Monitor project time regularly. Your project schedule should be reviewed and updated at least once per week. This review allows for early identification of
issues,and keeps the team focused on time management and progress.
- Make sure your estimates are realistic. Unrealistic estimates can negatively impact team performance, since the team may feel like they are being set up for failure. Unrealistic estimates can also lead to an unattainable project schedule, missed deadlines, and an unhappy customer. You can use an estimation technique such as PERT to improve your activity estimates.
- Use tools for improved time management. It’s possible to build, update, and monitor a schedule in a spreadsheet. However, it’s time-consuming, and you’re more likely to have errors. Project management software can improve tracking and monitoring by allowing you to easily compare actuals against estimates, have warning flags for potential issues, and even do analysis on potential future problems and risks.
Personal Time Management
Managing the overall time of the project is not the only time management responsibility of a project manager. You also need to manage your own time.
Ineffective personal time management can lead to increased stress and frustration for everyone on the project. It can also result in the following:
- Missed deadlines
- Poor work quality
- Poor professional reputation
- Poor work/life balance
8 tips for improving personal time management
- Prioritize. It’s important to rank tasks by priority and focus on doing the ones that are both urgent and important first. The 4-square method of prioritization is a great way to do this.
- Have a task list. While your project management activities should be in the project schedule, they will not be detailed enough to make clear what you need to do each day. Having a detailed daily task list will allow you to manage your day-to-day duties.
- Tackle the hard things first. If you have several activities on your list that are both urgent and important, tackle the hardest ones when you have the most energy and focus. Many people find that first thing in the morning is when they are most productive.
- Get rid of distractions. The ability to multitask is a myth. It’s important to focus on one task at a time and to shut out all distractions. If you can’t help but check your email or surf the internet when you’re working, there are apps that can help you. Two examples are Freedom and FocusMe. Also, consider removing distractions around you. If you work in an open-office environment, you may want to wear headphones or earplugs when you need to focus. Another option is to book out a meeting room for you and your team during critical phases of the project.
- Track your time. It’s important to track what you’re actually spending your time on and how long things are taking compared to your estimates. This detailed tracking will allow you to identify issues and readjust your plan as needed.
- Control your time. Make use of a timer or a time management technique like Pomodoro to control your time. Sticking to your deadlines can force you to work more efficiently and procrastinate less.
- Time manage your meetings. It’s important to make sure project meetings start and end on time. Have an agreed agenda and take any significant issues or side topics offline if they are going to cause a meeting to run over schedule. Don’t make everyone sit through lengthy discussions that don’t involve
them,if you want to keep everyone focused.
- Don’t micromanage or do your team’s work. This tip relates to the one about prioritizing your tasks. It’s important to make sure you are delegating and not getting involved in the details that your team should be doing. It can be tempting to pitch in, especially if you have a background in the field, but you’re needed to manage the project and focus on the big picture.
Time management is critical to both your project’s success and your personal success as a project manager. It is your job to effectively manage your own time and that of the project as a whole.
The seven processes of project time management are:
- Plan schedule management
- Define activities
- Sequence activities
- Estimate activity resources
- Estimate activity durations
- Develop schedule
- Control schedule
4 tips for improving project time management are:
- Avoid lengthy activities
- Regularly monitor project time
- Have realistic estimates
- Use time management tools
8 tips for improving personal time management are:
- Have a task list
- Tackle hard things first
- Get rid of distractions
- Track your time
- Control your time
- Time manage meetings
- Don’t micromanage
Organization is key to staying productive and keeping project outcomes more predictable. In the next section, we’ll cover best practices for organization.
Section VI: Organizing Processes
Business Process Management (BPM) deals with managing and organizing business processes. BPM affects all levels of an organization, and that includes Project Managers, especially when you consider project management processes.
After all, there are 49 unique processes defined within the Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK). Executing all of these processes properly and at the right time can become extremely difficult without a strong organization methodology in place.
Organizing processes allows you to understand how these 49 processes interrelate with each other and with other processes within your business. The result of organization is a unified framework, which makes it easier for you to plan and manage the timeline of your project.
6 steps for organizing processes
There are six main steps you should follow to organize business or project processes.
1. Consider your project
Your project deliverable, scope, and business purpose can all affect how you organize your processes and work.
For example, if your project is for software development, it’s very likely that you will opt for an Agile methodology to project management. This will result in you organizing your project and processes very differently than if you were using a Prince2 methodology.
2. Identify processes and activities
The next step is to identify the project processes, activities, and tasks needed to complete your project successfully.
It’s important to consider the entire scope of your project. If you are responsible for after-delivery support, such as end-user training, you need to include those processes in your project plan as well.
3. Classify and group processes
Once all of your processes, activities, and tasks are identified, it’s time to group them together.
Grouping processes is the most complex organizational step, and there is a wealth of literature around different approaches that can be used. There are three primary approaches to consider, which we will discuss in the next section.
4. Assign work and delegate authority
After you’ve grouped processes together, it’s time to assign them to your project team.
A RACI matrix is often used to clearly assign roles and responsibilities within the team. This simple diagram identifies who is responsible, who is accountable, who needs to be consulted, and who needs to be kept informed for each task or process.
5. Design reporting relationships
Once work is assigned, you need to identify reporting relationships among the team. Does the entire project team report directly to you? Or do you have assistant project managers, team leads, or other personnel that people will report up to?
When deciding reporting relationships, it’s important to consider the size of your project team and the ideal span of control. The ideal span can be anywhere from 3-15 people per reporting authority.
The ideal number depends on several factors:
- The structure of your project
- The complexity of your project
- The skill set and approach of the authority figures
- The expertise of your team
6. Manage coordination
Once your project structure is complete, it’s important to oversee it and ensure that it is working effectively. A key aspect that you will need to monitor as the project manager is the coordination between different groups.
For example, imagine that you have a design team reporting to a design lead, who reports to you. Imagine that you also have a testing team, reporting to a test coordinator, who reports to you. In this scenario, you will need to make sure the two separate teams are keeping each other informed and working together as well as updating you.
3 options for grouping processes and activities
1. The work process approach
The work process approach aligns processes based on their outcomes. This is the simplest and most common approach to grouping project processes.
In this approach, you start by grouping processes into one of two buckets: operational processes and administrative processes.
‘Manage quality’ would be an operational process, while ‘plan quality management’ would be an administrative process.
2. The behavioral process approach
The behavioral process approach aligns processes based on behavior patterns.
According to David Garvin of the Harvard Business School, “Behavioral processes are the sequences of steps used for accomplishing the cognitive and interpersonal aspects of work.”
It can be challenging to group processes in this way, as behaviors can vary from person to person, project to project, and organization to organization.
However, these processes tend to fall into three sub-categories:
- Decision-making processes, such as ‘plan risk responses.’
- Communication processes, such as ‘manage communications.’
- Organizational learning processes. The ‘lessons learned’ process, which is part of the ‘close project or phase’ process, is a great example of this.
3. The change process approach
The change process approach aligns processes based on changes in the project, product, or organizational life cycle.
In this approach, you start by grouping processes under either autonomous processes or induced processes.
Autonomous processes are changes that occur naturally. Induced processes are ones that much be triggered by an action or event.
An autonomous process could be ‘validate scope,’ as it naturally becomes necessary during certain phases of a project. For example, during the software development life cycle (SDLC), you would need to validate scope in the implementation stage but should not have to do so once you move through to the maintenance stage.
An example of an induced process is ‘implement risk response.’ This process does not come into effect unless it is triggered by a risk occurring.
Other considerations for organizing processes
When you’re determining how to group and assign processes and activities, there are four more considerations that you should take into account. These are:
- Whether the process is repetitive and ongoing or a one-time requirement.
- If the process needs more than one person or type of resource to complete it.
- What the dependencies are between processes.
- Processes that are heavily dependent on each other should be grouped together.
- How your organization typically groups processes and project activities.
- If they generally group processes by phase, and you group by function, it could be difficult for your team to adapt.
Whichever approach you take to organizing processes, it’s important to map out the entire structure, workflow, and reporting relationship. A visual model can help communicate the structure with the team and ensure that no dependencies have been missed.
There are six primary steps to organizing your project processes and activities:
- Consider your project needs.
- Identify the processes.
- Classify and group processes.
- Assign work and authority.
- Build the reporting structure.
- Oversee coordination.
When grouping processes together, there are three primary approaches:
- Work process
- Behavioral process
- Change process
Other factors to consider are:
- Repetitive vs. single processes
- Solo vs. collaborative processes.
- Process dependencies.
- Your business’ normal approach.
Reaching your maximum productivity potential is going to be more challenging if you or your team are repeating similar tasks over and over again. In the next section, we’re going to borrow a powerful concept from software engineers called the Don’t Repeat Yourself (DRY) principle, and introduce you to a project management secret weapon: operationalization.
In the next section, we’re going to borrow a powerful concept from software engineers called the Don’t Repeat Yourself (DRY) principle, and introduce you to a project management secret weapon: operationalization.
Section VII: Operationalizing Processes
This lesson will help you understand how to use operationalizing processes in project management.
To operationalize a task or activity means to do the following:
- Create a standard way of executing the task.
- Document measurable, defined outcomes of the task.
- Ensure the task is aligned with the goals of the project and business.
The purpose of operationalization is to remove any ambiguity around project variables and vague requirements and to ensure everything is measurable. Operationalization of tasks also allows them to be conducted in the same way every time, enabling consistency and repeatability.
To understand the importance of operationalizing processes, let’s look at an example: product testing.
If product testing is not operationalized, how would you ensure the test results are reliable?
For instance, one tester may report they discovered ten defects, while another tester reports they discovered none. What is the issue here?
Without operationalization it could be any of the following:
- Each tester has a different definition of what is considered a ‘defect.’
- Each tester ran different tests.
- One tester completed ten test scenarios, and the other only did two.
Even worse, if the testing process isn’t operationalized, how do you ensure they were testing the right things, or that the tests can be repeated? Imagine if the tester with ten defects did not document his tests, and cannot remember how to replicate them. How will your developers investigate and resolve the reported issues?
Operationalization is a critical component to successfully executing and controlling your project. There are four primary methods that you can use to operationalize:
- Measures and controls
Measures and controls
As discussed, one of the reasons that operationalizing is conducted is to remove any ambiguity from your project requirements. To do this, measures and controls must be created and implemented.
It’s impossible to know if something was completed successfully if you have not defined what it means to be successful. Any project requirements need to have a quantifiable measure to track against.
For example, a customer may have asked for ‘fast reports.’ You will need to define (with the customer) what speed is fast enough to satisfy the requirement. Then, you will need to have a reliable way to measure reporting speed to ensure it meets the requirement.
A Verification Cross Reference Matrix (VCRM) or a Requirements Traceability Matrix (RTM) is a common tool for documenting project requirements and how they will be measured. To create one, first, you break your scope requirements down into defined, quantifiable sections. Then you detail what is considered an acceptable outcome and what test will be used to verify that each requirement is met.
The report may also include information such as the following:
- The relevance of requirements (how they tie to project or business goals.)
- Who is responsible for conducting tests.
- Who will approve tests.
- When testing will occur.
- The current status of testing.
- Comments and notes.
First, you will need to determine which aspects of your project need to be controlled. For instance, you may determine that you don’t need to control how someone creates the software code but that you do need to control the testing of the code.
The next step is to consider what methods, tools, or processes will be used for controlling your project. These may be manual controls, such as your signed approval being required for any changes. Or the controls could be automated, such as software access being restricted to ‘read-only’ for everyone except the developers.
Automating tasks can help operationalize them as it increases the likelihood that the tasks will occur the same way every single time. Automation can also reduce the time it takes to complete tasks, and allow them to occur outside of normal working hours.
There is some risk to relying too heavily on automation, as machines are not perfect. Have you heard the saying, “code is only as good as the person who created it”? A test program for software might miss certain errors if the person who built it did not think to test for those specific errors.
The way to combat this risk is to incorporate some human oversight into any automation process. For example, machines may make a product, but people manually inspect every 5th one.
When deciding what to automate on your project, consider the following:
- What is repetitive and standardized?
- What has little chance for variation?
- Do you have the tools, technology, knowledge, etc. required to automate the process?
It’s important to look at all of your project tasks, activities, and processes and consider which ones can be improved or optimized.
Automating processes is one way to optimize, but it’s not the only option. For example, DRY stands for, “don’t repeat yourself” and it is a key software principle that can be used for optimizing projects.
The belief behind this principle is that any system can be broken down into smaller and smaller pieces until you get to individual representations of knowledge and that each of these representations is only allowed to occur once within a system.
This same principle can be applied to your overall project by dictating that the lowest level of your Work Breakdown Structure (WBS), is not allowed to have any duplication. Of course, some level of redundancy may be necessary, but, it should be kept to a minimum to increase optimization.
Consider which areas of your project you or your team are doing things more than once. For example, when you update your project progress, do you need to manually input updates into both your schedule software and your cost tracking software? If the two systems were linked, it would save you time, reduce the likelihood of keying error and ensure both systems are always aligned.
There are two aspects of collaboration that are relevant to operationalizing your project:
- Knowledge management
There is a saying, “No one knows everything, but everyone knows something.”
Projects involve a lot of interconnected pieces. Any change to one aspect can impact many other things. For example, a scope change can shift the schedule, cause the budget to increase or decrease, change the testing requirements, create new risks, and so on.
Due to this interconnectivity, and the fact that no one knows everything, knowledge management is imperative to your project’s success. If one isolated person makes a decision about a scope change, he or she will likely be unaware of some consideration or potential impact.
Two main types of knowledge management are knowledge sharing and knowledge transfer. Although the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, one study on knowledge management defined them as follows:
- Knowledge transfer refers to the overall flow of knowledge, including the systems used, the conditions required, and the obstacles and barriers preventing successful transfer.
- Knowledge sharing refers to the process of individuals developing personal knowledge from each other.
In this context, knowledge transfer would involve any databases, processes, procedures, and tools that you put in place on your project to provide people with information.
For instance, a SharePoint site containing the project documents is a method of knowledge transfer. A change management system that notifies users of pending changes is another example.
Knowledge sharing, on the other hand, would include things such as training junior staff, coaching system testers, and debriefing your project sponsor on the status of the project.
When planning knowledge management, it’s important to consider who needs to know what. Your project sponsor likely does not want to know about system bugs, unless they’re high-priority defects. Your developers, on the other hand, need to know about every bug so they can evaluate them and determine a course of action.
Another consideration is whether the knowledge will be pushed or pulled. Pushing knowledge means you send it out to people, regardless of if they asked for it. Sending an email, or setting up an automated software alert are two examples.
Pulling knowledge means that people only get it when they go looking for it. For example, if they have to log onto the SharePoint site, find and then open up the change log to check for pending design changes, they’re pulling the knowledge.
Instead of trying to do everything yourself as the project manager, it’s important to delegate appropriate tasks and responsibilities. This method of collaboration allows you to free yourself up for more important work, and assign things to people who are better suited to them.
Six steps to successful delegation are:
- Be clear on exactly what you are delegating, and what results are expected. Include information such as when and how often they should update you.
- Assign the responsibilities and authorities to your delegate. Clarify any relevant details such as the timing of the activities, budget assigned, and the required format of the deliverable.
- Confirm that the delegate understands what is expected of them and what they are responsible for. One way to do this is to ask the person to tell you in his or her own words what has been delegated.
- Confirm that your delegate is aware of any consequences that will occur for the company, the project, or themselves if the task does not occur as required. Ensure he or
sheis committed to getting it down.
- Don’t take back tasks you have delegated. If someone is struggling with a task, resist reclaiming it, and instead focus on how to coach the employee through it.
- Ensure that the person you delegate a task to is accountable for the successful completion of the task.
You will learn more about successful delegation and other methods for optimizing your project team in the next course on working with a team.
Operationalizing processes allow you to standardize and quantify any vague or variable aspects of your project, in order to improve execution, monitoring and controlling.
Operationalizing can be done through four main methods:
- Implementing measures and controls.
- Automating processes and tasks.
- Optimizing processes and tasks.
- Promoting collaboration using knowledge transfer and delegation.
We hope you’ve found this resource helpful in your project management education journey. When you’re ready to continue, check out our blog and resources section for more guides and deep-dives on additional topics.
If there’s a section of this guide you’d like to review, you can follow this link back to the table of contents.
About the Authors
Jessica Everitt is a Project Management Professional with a background in retail, software, and manufacturing projects. She writes about project management, risk management, and transformational change.
Tracy Brinkerhoff is the co-founder and principal consultant of CoLo Consulting, a provider of technology-focused solutions for small and mid-sized businesses. Previously, Tracy worked as a product manager for a healthcare tech startup and as a project manager for a management consulting firm in NYC.