project management process groups
October 29, 2018

Project Management Process Groups: What Accidental Project Managers Need to Know

By Scott Duehlmeier | Senior Communication Manager at Workfront


Ever heard of the PMBOK—Project Management Body of Knowledge?

No biggie. It’s just the bible of the project management profession, now in its 6th edition, weighing in at 756 pages. It bills itself as “a fundamental resource for effective project management in any industry.”

Unless you’re a certified project manager who works in a PMO (project management office) or similar, you’ve probably never considered needing access to such a resource. And yet you probably spend a fair amount of time managing projects, whether or not you’ve had any official training.

We’re All Project Managers Now

According to our 2018 State of Work report, 57% of knowledge workers “have not been formally trained to manage projects but do manage projects.” We often call such individuals “accidental project managers,” which refers to how they landed in that role rather than how they perform within that role. (My guess is that there’s nothing “accidental” about the way you manage your work.)

In a world marked by constant digital transformation, the flattening of office hierarchies, and geographically dispersed teams, more and more of us are called upon to not only do the work, but manage it as well. And I’m not talking just about project-related work. I’m talking about the complete DNA of work—including tasks, content, collaboration, and yes, projects, too—the very things modern work management solutions were designed for. (Not clear on the difference between project management and work management? Read all about it here.)

Whether you’re in an official project manager role or tend to manage work more informally, the PMBOK is full of valuable information that will help you organize and execute team projects more effectively. But who has time to wade through all 756 pages of project-manager speak? Lucky for you, I do. And I’m about to demystify one essential aspect of project management for you now, known as “project management process groups.” Stay with me; it’s more interesting than it sounds.

What Are Project Management Process Groups?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t find “project management process groups” to be a very intriguing or intuitive title. I think “project management phases” would be a more fitting term for the five stages of a successful project—initiating, planning, executing, monitoring/controlling, and closing. Each of these phases represents a group of interrelated processes that must take place, but they don’t necessarily roll out in a strictly sequential order. (For example, executing happens at the same time as monitoring/controlling.) So, oOn second thought, my guess is that the PMBOK people chose the “process group” label precisely because it doesn’t imply sequence or chronology, unlike “phase” or “stage.” Fine, I’ll admit it; the PMBOK was right. The PMBOK is always right. So let’s see how it defines the five project management process groups, one by one.

A Brief Overview of the 5 Project Management Process Groups

The PMBOK Guide describes 47 separate project management processes, which can be divided into either 10 knowledge areas or five process groups.

project management process groups

Certified project managers will want to brush up on the complete list of processes (featured here on a dynamic color poster!), but for an accidental project manager such as yourself, this brief overview may be enough to start you on the path to better project management.

1. Initiating Process Group

This group consists of just two separate processes: the project charter and stakeholder register. The point is to determine the vision for your project—what you hope to accomplish—and secure approvals from a sanctioning sponsor or entity. The key components of the project charter include:

  • Business case
  • Scope and deliverables
  • Objectives
  • Resources needed
  • Milestone plan and timeline
  • Cost estimate
  • Risks and issues
  • Dependencies

When you take the time to establish a clear and cohesive vision, think through who should ideally be involved in bringing the project to life, and outline and secure the resources you’ll need up front, you give your project a strong, vibrant start that sets the stage for everything that comes next.

2. Planning Process Group

This group includes 24 different processes, listed in the table above, which further define and add detail to the high-level charter you identified during project initiation. This is where you build the project infrastructure that will enable you to achieve your goal within your predetermined time and budget constraints, starting with a project management plan, project scope, work breakdown structure and more—and wrapping up with qualitative and quantitative risk analyses and risk responses. This is your detailed roadmap—your blueprint for success. When you reach the end of this process group, everyone on your team will not only understand the vision of the project, they’ll also understand precisely what they need to do, both individually and as a team, to reach the finish line on time and within budget.

3. Executing Process Group

Comprised of eight individual processes, this group is where the rubber hits the road, where most of the budget is allocated and most of the project deliverables are produced. You take your plan and put it into action, whether that takes weeks, months, or even years. An article from Villanova University defines the goal of this phase as “managing teams effectively while orchestrating timeline expectations and reaching benchmark goals.” Whether you have an official or accidental project manager in charge, this process group often includes team development, stakeholder engagement, and quality assurance activities, either on a formal or informal basis.

4. Monitoring and Controlling Process Group

The second largest process group, with 10 separate processes to track, involves exactly what the name implies: keeping an eye on actual progress against your plan and taking corrective action where necessary. No amount of perfect planning will exempt you from the need to be constantly vigilant with tracking and reporting. You know what they say about the best-laid plans, after all. This analogy from describes this process group in familiar terms:

“One way to think about monitoring and controlling is to imagine that you were driving across the country according to your plan or a roadmap. But if you got lost and you didn't have a GPS you'd stop, ask for directions and get back on track, or maybe based on new information, such as a new road that would cut hours off the trip, you'd change or update your plan.”

5. Closing Process Group

This process group includes just one solitary process, and it’s more than simply checking off the project as done. It’s essential to formally close the project and secure a sign-off or approval from the customer, stakeholders, and/or project sponsor. This process might include:

  • Delivering the project
  • Hosting a post-mortem or lessons learned meeting
  • Archiving project records
  • Celebrating or acknowledging the achievement
  • Officially disbanding or releasing the team

The importance of this final step can’t be overstated, especially as more and more work organizations are adopting the Hollywood model of work, where temporary teams come together around a specific project, and then disband and regroup for another project, much the way film crews operate. Every film production ends with a “wrap party,” and so should every major work project. (To borrow the words of Julia Child, “A party without cake is just a meeting.” By that logic, bringing cake to your wrap-up meeting might just turn it into a party. I say it’s worth a try.)

In Summary

Projects that are far-reaching in scope, that are complex, that are resource-heavy, and that are high in strategic importance will require higher levels of project management experience and knowledge. These kinds of high-value projects might need a certified project manager to navigate the 47 individual processes and 5 process groups. But most of the work we do doesn’t fit that definition, especially for modern knowledge workers who currently spend 60% of their time on something other than the primary work they were hired to do. Still, having a basic understanding of the importance of the five process groups—initiating, planning, executing, monitoring/controlling, and closing (with cake)—will help even accidental project managers achieve consistent and repeatable project success, on initiatives both large and small.

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