A Complete Guide to Project Management
What is project management? You have probably planned and executed a project before. Even something as simple as a home improvement project will require you to budget time and expenses, break up tasks over several hours or days, and follow steps in a specific order. Learn more about the processes, methodologies, and knowledge areas for project managers with our comprehensive guide to project management.
What is project management?
Project management describes both the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements, and the wider professional field of Project Management, which includes an international journal, a nonprofit institute, and a certification body.
In business and industry, a project is created or assigned with a specific objective in mind, usually tied to an organization’s larger goals. A project may range in extent from creating and launching a completely new product, to a targeted marketing campaign to a single presentation.
No matter the size or purpose, all projects share a few common qualities:
Every project is unique and discrete
Projects are transient or temporary, not permanent functional activities
Every project has a planned goal, whether it’s to produce a product, service, or specific result
Project success is measured in terms of output, outcome, value, or benefits
Project constraints typically include time, scope, and cost
To carry out the many various tasks required to execute a project, a skilled and experienced project manager will usually lead a team and oversee the project’s planning, procurement, execution, and closing. Successful project managers are extremely organized, flexible, skilled at motivating and leading teams, and tenacious problem solvers.
Because every industry is different and every project unique, the project management field has developed a series of specific approaches to managing work. Each of these methodologies has a particular focus on the best way to initiate, plan, and execute projects. The one you choose will depend on your organization’s work environment, the project goals and values, and the complexity of the work.
Here’s an overview of the six most common project management methodologies:
Agile is trending in popularity as a more iterative or change-driven approach to project management. As the name implies, Agile positions itself as a system that lends itself to faster turnaround and the dynamic ability to quickly adapt to needed changes or course corrections. The Agile approach tends to take a more people-centric perspective, implementing short, iterative phases called sprints that rely on ongoing feedback that continuously reshapes and refines the project path.
The success of Agile in the software development realm has led to its rapid rise in adoption in marketing. Agile-driven marketing and creative teams indicate that it frees them from the endless development cycles that often occur with more traditional task management methodologies while giving their creativity a boost.
Learn more about agile project management
As with most Agile methodologies, Kanban is designed to make teams work better, and anything that isn’t working for your particular group should be up for change.
When used by development teams, Kanban features a large backlog (list) of user stories that need to be addressed. Business owners/stakeholders are responsible for maintaining and prioritizing that list religiously because it is the sole source of work for the developers. When a team member is ready to work on a new story, they pull it from the backlog and into the “In Progress” column on the Kanban board. As the project progresses it moves across the board until it is completed. The team member(s) handling that project should not start on anything else from the backlog until their current project is complete.
Learn more about Kanban
Waterfall has evolved from more traditional work management methodologies, employing a sequential, top-down approach to project management. Using Waterfall, project managers strive to eliminate risk and uncertainty by outlining all the steps in a project and defining its scope, budget, and schedule upfront.
One of the foundations of Waterfall is that investing time in the early stages of a project on proper design and requirements will ultimately cut down on time, effort, and future problems. This is mainly accomplished by ensuring one phase of a project is 100 percent successfully completed before moving onto the next.
Learn more about Waterfall
Scrum is another Agile framework that organizes projects into sprints, or very defined periods of time. Teams create a backlog of tasks that need to be completed in a sprint and plan realistic deadlines. During the sprint, daily stand-up meetings are held where team members report on what they accomplished the previous day, what they plan on doing that day, and any roadblocks that may hold them back. At the end of the sprint, a meeting is held to review accomplishments.
Learn more about Scrum methodology
This common methodology focuses on the financial returns of projects and encourages decision making based on data. Six Sigma premises are: 1) projects are most successful when variation in processes is reduced; 2) process features can be defined, controlled, measured, and improved; and 3) success is dependent on buy-in from the entire organization.
Even with this variety of approaches, one single methodology might not fit every project or organization. A hybrid approach to your project, where you blend methodologies, can increase benefits and provide a more custom fit for your team. You might consider blending Agile and Waterfall, or Scrum and Kanban into Scrumban, for example.
Any hybrid approach starts with the project manager being well versed in multiple methodologies and knowing when to blend elements for optimum project performance and outcomes.
Read more about project management methodologies
Industries that depend on project management
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a field that doesn’t require some level of skilled project management. Industries that rely heavily on project management include:
When should you use project management?
Formal project management isn’t required for every activity. A project, unlike day-to-day operations or ongoing tasks, usually has a specific deliverable, objective, team structure, and timeframe.
When your work fits the definition of a project
You should deploy project management that initiates, plans, and controls a range of tasks if your work will:
Produce something new or altered, tangible or intangible
Have a finite timespan with a definite start and end
Likely be complex in terms of work or groups involved
Require the management of change
Require the management of risks
When your project has clear objectives
Your project objectives might include:
When you want tangible benefits
Effective project management can help:
Increase the likelihood of achieving the desired result
Ensure efficient and best value use of resources
Satisfy the differing needs of the project’s stakeholders
Increase work visibility
Provide quality control and oversight
Lacking project management is risky
Project management isn’t a guaranteed safeguard against mistakes, roadblocks, or changing conditions. But careful project management can prepare you to address these issues and can ensure that you have the information, insight, flexibility, and communication skills needed to stay on course or pivot when necessary. Without any kind of strategic or intentional project management, you risk far more going wrong along the way, including lost time, lost productivity, poor communication, cost, redundancy, work silos, time off task, or complete project failure.
Your role as project manager
Whatever your industry, your role as a project manager includes overseeing the five processes of project management including: initiating, planning, executing, monitoring, and closing or delivering a project.
Among your specific tasks, you will:
Develop and communicate an effective work plan based on objectives
Acquire, allocate, and manage appropriate resources
Set priorities and assign deadlines
Navigate and overcome unforeseen obstacles
Deliver quality project deliverables
Stay on schedule and on budget
Must-have traits and abilities
Beyond the requisite abilities like time management and organization, there are several key soft skills needed to be an effective project manager who doesn’t just get the work done but guides a team well and serves as a trusted leader. In order to do your best work and inspire others, you should consistently demonstrate:
Comfort with constant change
Active and unbiased listening
Willingness to accept criticism and improve
A well-maintained outside network
Relationship building with your team and stakeholders
Every well-prepared project manager not only has a strong understanding of the following project management knowledge areas but knows how the areas function together. A solid grasp of these areas of industry, interpersonal, and technical knowledge will ensure smoother functions, fewer errors, and happier teams.
The scope of your project refers to the total amount of work that must be done in order to deliver the promised product, service, or result within agreed-upon specifications. It includes everything that must go into a project, as well as what defines its success.
Implementing the following project scope management processes takes a fair amount of effort, but in the long run, they will save you time, money, and headaches. Without a comprehensive project scope management plan, there’s a good chance your team is doing unnecessary work, perhaps even wasting time thinking about what they should be doing next.
Plan your scope: Gather input from all stakeholders, then document how you will define, manage, validate, and control the project scope.
Collect requirements: Document exactly what stakeholders want and how you will manage their expectations.
Define your scope: Create a statement of what specific tasks are and are not included in the project.
Write the project scope: Explain exactly what will be delivered at the end of the project, and outline the parameters of work to be done.
Create a work breakdown structure (WBS): Break down the entire project into smaller individual tasks with clearly defined deliverables.
Validate your scope: Receive a complete review and approval from the appropriate party/parties.
Control your scope: Monitor project status from start to finish, ensuring proper execution and adjusting as needed.
A good scope management plan involves open communication between all the stakeholders and team members involved in a project, resulting in fewer surprises or miscommunication throughout. When everyone knows and understands exactly what work is involved, they can more easily stay focused on the right deliverables.
When your project is being completed across different departments, each with its own processes and methodologies, a great deal of coordination is required to get departments to collaborate with each other, communicate well, and make any necessary compromises. Before implementing integration management practices, gain a clear understanding of current systems, processes, and methodologies utilized by every team in the project.
As projects move forward, there are six primary steps and milestones with corresponding deliverables.
Develop a project charter: The project sponsor or project manager writes this high-level document that outlines roles, responsibilities, goals, deliverables, and gives the project manager authority to execute the project.
Write the scope statement: Outline the framework for all tasks, teams to execute, and deliverables.
Develop a project management plan: Bring all project plans into this single document with goals, budget, risks, scope, WBS, stakeholder management plan, and change management plan.
Direct and manage project work: During the project, manage your resources, execute, create changes where necessary, and review performance against goals.
Perform integrated change control: Officially request and document any changes to keep the project scope under control.
Close project or phase: Wrap up by reviewing, assessing, documenting findings, and handing in deliverables.
Your role as project manager will be to form a cohesive strategy that brings together multiple teams and helps them work seamlessly together. You will coordinate various processes, align objectives, balance competing requests, make trade-offs, and find suitable alternatives in order to keep the project on track.
Resource management is the combined effort of managing and assigning your organization’s resources like team members, budgets, and capacity. Successful resource management depends on three main capabilities:
Insights: Granular insights into what people are working on and how long each task takes.
Priorities: Clearly articulated priorities and project expectations shared across the organization.
Tracking: Real-time tracking and status updates throughout the entire project lifecycle.
Managing resources effectively enables your team to focus on the right work at the right time. This process happens in two primary phases:
From a high level, resource planning is the step in the project outline where you identify all of the resources that will be necessary to complete a given project. You aren’t assigning specific tasks to anyone or allocating budget, just laying the foundation for what you expect.
You’ll want to look at a few “what if” scenarios to make sure you know how other priorities and timelines are impacted. Resource planning helps you avoid blown budgets, missed opportunities, and miscommunication across tasks and teams.
During the scheduling phase, you compare resource needs against resource availability. You look back at the forecasted resources (time, budget, and skills) and determine where they overlap with your team’s current workload.
Use the information about availability to make assignments based on team members’ abilities. It’s important to remember that different people have different skills. Scheduling tasks based on individual strengths helps improve project turnaround rates. Plus, when people are doing work that they’re good at, they’re usually happier and more engaged.
Even more benefits of good resource management:
When your project requires purchased products or services to be incorporated into the work, you’ll go through your organization’s process to secure what you need, whether in the form of standard goods/services, custom good/services, or professional consultations. For example, your project may require you to purchase parts, rent large equipment, or secure legal or design services.
You may have a procurement team to help you handle bids, purchases, and paperwork, but your job will still involve managing and overseeing the necessary procurements and incorporating them as components of the project.
When purchasing or contracting, you’ll need to keep the following in mind and plan for procurement within your project scope:
The cost/benefit of purchasing what you need rather than sourcing it internally
Whether to rent, lease, or purchase
Who is the approval granting party for each procurement?
How does each procurement fit into your overall budget?
How will delivery dates of goods, services, or consultations affect your overall timeline?
How will you measure the quality of goods or services received?
What are the contract requirements for outside purchases?
How will you identify potential suppliers and select one?
Will there be a competitive bidding process? What criteria will determine the winning bid?
Keeping your project on budget involves a four-part cost management process to help you set a budget, monitor and forecast costs.
Resource planning looks specifically at the costs associated with allocating and scheduling each resource. Because of the complexity of this process, a work breakdown structure (WBS) can help to simplify and provide clarity. Identify what resources will be used to complete each item in the WBS and determine the associated costs.
Cost estimation is the ongoing process of approximating the costs associated with each of the resources required for all scheduled activities. Project managers must iterate on cost estimations whenever the project scope changes or change requests are approved. These estimations provide a summation of all costs involved in successfully finishing a project, from inception to completion.
In your cost budget you combine the cost estimates of individual activities into a total project cost, establish the timing of the costs, and then measure the progress of the project against the approximated baseline costs. These budgets should account for everything from direct labor costs, to material costs, factory costs, equipment costs, administrative costs, and software costs.
Controlling project costs requires being aware of the original budget, approved costs, forecasted costs, actual costs, and committed costs. In cases of changes to scope or unforeseen risks, the project manager will need to review the level of impact and take corrective action as needed.
Quality isn’t something measured only at the end of a project. Continually taking stock of the quality of all activities means a project manager can take corrective action when necessary to ensure the desired quality is achieved.
The process of quality management helps to control the cost of a project, establish standards, and determines the steps to achieving and confirming those standards. It also lowers the risk of product failure or unsatisfied, unhappy clients.
A good quality management plan starts with a clear definition of the goal of the project. What is the product or deliverable supposed to accomplish? What does it look like? What is it supposed to do? How do you measure customer satisfaction? How do you determine whether or not the project was successful?
Answering these and other questions will help you identify and define quality requirements, allowing you to discuss the approach and plans needed to achieve those goals. This includes assessing the risks to success, setting high standards, documenting everything, and defining the methods and tests to achieve, control, predict, and verify success. Be sure to include quality management tasks in the project plan and delegate these tasks to workgroups and/or individuals who will report and track quality metrics.
Quality assurance tests use a system of metrics to determine whether or not the quality plan is proceeding in an acceptable manner. By using both qualitative and quantitative metrics, you can effectively measure project quality with customer satisfaction. These tests, or quality audits, will help you predict and verify the achievement of goals and identify the need for corrective actions. Additionally, quality assurance tests will help you map quality metrics to quality goals, allowing you to report on the status of quality at periodic project review meetings.
Read more about project management performance metrics
While quality assurance occurs before a problem is identified, quality control responds to an existing problem. Quality control monitors specific project outputs and determines compliance with applicable standards. It also identifies project risk factors and mitigation, while seeking ways to prevent and eliminate unsatisfactory performance.
More than just delivering on time at the end, project time management is an ongoing process that directly impacts the quality, scope, and cost of a project. Time management processes provide a framework for developing a sequence of activities, activity durations, and resource estimations, as well as determining how these fit into the overall project management plan.
In addition to meeting crucial deadlines, strategic time management has positive personal impact on your team, specifically promoting:
More opportunities for future projects
Meeting budget targets
Read more about helping your entire team track and manage their time.
Ensuring that the right information is communicated to the right people at every stage of project execution involves not just knowing what to say, but when and how often. And knowing when to speak and when to listen.
Set expectations and procedures from the beginning so your whole team knows how they should receive and send information. Your communication plan needs to document communications requirements throughout the life of a project so that all stakeholders are on the same page. Some of these requirements include:
Cadence: How frequently are updates going to be sent?
Audience: Who will project communications be sent to? Are there different groups for different types of communications?
Purpose: Will progress reports be sent at each milestone? Will change requests be shared with all stakeholders?
Channel: What channels (email, Slack, video conference, etc.) will be used for which communications?
Once all stakeholders agree on the communications plan, the project manager needs to ensure that communications follow those guidelines. The plan should be seen as a living document throughout the life of a project, but any changes should be communicated to the project team.
Not all stakeholders find relevance in every project detail, so only include stakeholders on communications when necessary. Create sub-groups of stakeholders and decide what types of communications each needs to receive—project status, project performance, risks, costs, and others. Effectively controlling communication streamlines project management and saves project leaders and team members from distracting and irrelevant information.
Risk is an unavoidable part of every project and needs to be accounted for at all stages of project management. A skilled project manager will understand the potential project risks and their effects and manage them to ultimately improve the odds for project success.
Risk management is the process you take to mitigate the potential negative impact unforeseen events can have on a project's cost, timetable, or other resources. Risk management occurs in 5 steps:
Risk planning: Document a risk management plan with a defined approach, including how risks will be identified and scored and how contingencies and their owners will be determined and assigned.
Risk identification: Find your risks with a risk identification assessment.
Risk analysis: Perform both a qualitative and quantitative risk analysis, then enter your data into a Risk Register.
Risk response plan: Form a response for each threat and opportunity identified within the range of your risk tolerance threshold.
Risk monitoring: Monitor risks, execute on response plans, and document subsequent threats and opportunities that emerge during the project life cycle.
As project manager, you are the main point person for many teams, juggling various processes, needs, conflicts, and individuals. But being the project lead doesn’t mean working alone. A collaborative leadership style means that you work with other leaders across areas: marketing, sales, engineering, IT, operations, etc., forming a cross-departmental team of leaders.
If you want your teams to work well together, it’s especially key to lead by example. Be a good team player, ask for and take feedback from other areas, contribute productively to others’ projects, share your expertise, be honest and transparent. When you leverage your fellow leaders’ expertise, your own leadership is bound to improve.
Accidents, human error, and careless mistakes are all bound to happen. As with risk mitigation, you can’t prevent all things from going wrong, but you can reduce the likelihood. Relying on a few automated processes can also save you time, increase your bandwidth, streamline your work, and keep vital communications up to date. A few automations to consider:
Routing and assigning requests with project request forms
Determining strategic alignment with color-coded priority markers
Sending automated communications to relevant parties at critical project times
Eliminating static with communication integrations
Centralize your work content
Starting your project
How to begin project planning
A project plan is a management document, prepared at the earliest stages of a project, and serving as a roadmap and control tool to guide the project from beginning to end. The plan itself helps you see if the project is viable, if it will deliver on time, and if it’s necessary and beneficial.
Essentially, a project plan will show your reader:
What work is required
Deliverables (product, service, benefit)
How work will get done
Activities (components of work that must be delivered to complete the project)
Work packages (groupings of activities with defined scope, timeline and cost that each person is responsible for delivering)
Reviews (checkpoints where a deliverable or the entire project is evaluated against the business goals)
Interdependencies (when one deliverable can only be achieved when another deliverable from a different work package or project is completed)
Who does what
Resource Plans (presented in tabular format)
When work will happen
Project Schedule (Gantt chart)
Stages (periods of a project when work is done)
Milestones (major events with zero duration that normally depict the start of a stage)
Know who’s on your team
Your role as project manager is primary in ensuring project success, but you will be among many other individuals all working under the same strategy and toward the same goal. Some additional members of your team may include:
Project team member: individual, active contributors to one or more phases of the project.
Project sponsor: usually a member of senior management you’ll work closely with on high-level planning, and who can make key business decisions and sign off on approvals.
Executive sponsor: a visible and high-ranking project champion, and the ultimate decision maker and approval grantor on all project phases.
Business analyst: individual who helps ensure your project adds value to the organization and can assist with documenting business requirements or testing to validate objectives.
To give you a preview of how most projects are likely to roll out, each of the following common phases of project management represents a group of interrelated processes that must take place, but not necessarily in a strictly sequential order.
This phase consists of just two 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.
In establishing a clear and cohesive vision, consider who should ideally be involved in bringing the project to life, then outline and secure the resources you’ll need up front. This way, you’ll give your project a vibrant start.
The key components of the project charter include:
Milestone plan and timeline
Risks and issues
There are 24 different processes which further define and add detail to the high-level charter you identified during project initiation. The project planning phase 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 management.
When you reach the end of this phase, 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.
Comprising eight individual processes, this is where the rubber meets 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.
The executing phase often includes team development, stakeholder engagement, and quality assurance activities, both formal and informal.
The second largest phase, with 10 separate processes to track, involves exactly what the name implies: tracking and measuring your progress against your plan, and taking corrective action where necessary. No amount of perfect planning will prevent the need for constant and vigilant monitoring and reporting. This analogy from projectmanagementacademy.net 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.”
The closing phase involves just a single process, but 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. Closing 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
Education and training
While functions of project management can be learned on the job, and some may still find themselves pulled into being project management by accident, the field is becoming more and more recognized as an academic subject—with specialized training, certificates, peer-reviewed journals, scientific research, and even accrediting bodies.
If project management sounds like a fit for your skills, interests, and talents, there are many venues for you to get the education and training for your needs and goals. Offerings range from starting from the beginning, supplementing your on-the-job knowledge, or refreshing your already-honed expertise.
You can earn the most widely recognized certification for project managers, known as the Project Management Professional (PMP). There’s an application, exam, and requirement to keep your professional development up to date every three years.
Your career path
Not everyone’s career in project management is completely linear. And not all organizations use the same titles. In general, you’ll probably start out contributing as a project assistant or team member, working under a project manager. If you do well and display the key traits and abilities, you may be given a role as a team leader, then project manager. In time, you may be managing multiple projects as a Program Manager or Portfolio Manager.
Villanova University lays out the following possible trajectory:
Project coordinator: Entry level, handling project paperwork, scheduling meetings, distributing information.
Project scheduler: A technical role handling and updating large project software systems.
Assistant project manager: Oversee some parts of the project management, with supervision and mentoring.
Project manager: Coordinating, managing, and taking ownership of a project at all stages.
Senior project manager: Oversees several project managers and coordinates multiple projects.
The future of project management
The new workplace
Decentralized, remote, and distributed teams are growing more common in today’s market. This shift has introduced the need for new tools and technology to enable seamless communication, collaboration, and optimal team structure in order to maintain company culture and efficiency. With Workfront, teams have a central place to share ideas, collaborate, create content, manage complex processes, and do their best work.
The rise of Agile
With all of these workplace and technology shifts, projects will need to be handled with flexibility, agility, and rapid response, which makes Agile set for a top value asset in every project manager’s toolkit.
The number one influence on project management is set to be emerging technologies. One of the biggest game-changers will be artificial and data intelligence technology. Many management functions will become automated, shifting the project manager’s roles and duties, and requiring him or her to be well-versed in the new technologies.
What these changes mean for project management
These changes and predictions all point toward the need for superior project management technology that can:
Reliably automate analog processes while still allowing for customization and integration
Connect, centralize, and streamline work across locations
Optimize Agile with maximum flexibility to adapt to every step of project lifecycle