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Project Management: The Extensive Guide
Project management is much more than making sure “stuff” gets done. Learn more about strategic project management and why it matters.
Project management is a priority at nearly every organization today because of its effectiveness at setting proper expectations around what can be delivered, by when, and for how much money. It unites teams and coordinates efforts to achieve results—without it, projects can veer off deadlines and out of scope.
Because of the extreme need for good project management within organizations, detailed bodies of knowledge exist to offer instruction on how to best manage projects, and people dedicate their entire careers to building this expertise. When projects are managed successfully, teams are able to do much more than deliver what’s been promised. The end result is often a full strategic alignment between teams, departments, and the entire organization.
In This Article
- Chapter 1: What Is Project Management?
- Project Vs. Program Vs. Portfolio Management
- Project Management Basics
- Chapter 2: When & How To Tie Projects To Strategy
- How To Know When A Project Is Strategic
- A Framework For Linking Projects To Strategy
- Remember This...
- Chapter 3: Project Management Life Cycle Stages
- 1. Project Initiation
- 2. Requirements Definition And Planning
- 3. Project Execution
- 4. Performance Monitoring
- 5. Project Closeout
- Chapter 4: Project Management Template (& An Example)
- Project Management Report Template
- Project Management Plan Example
- Chapter 5: Project Management Methodologies
- Chapter 6: Project Management Software
- Task Management Software
- Resource Planning Software
- Strategic Project Management Software
- Start your project management software search by considering your needs.
If your organization is trying to learn more about project management, this article can be your “getting started” guide. Over the next few weeks, we’ll publish five chapters that explain everything strategy managers need to know about this discipline.
Project management is the application of skills, knowledge, and tools to plan, launch, execute, manage, and close the work of a team to achieve specific goals within specific timeframes. This “work” is a project. It will be important for your organization to define what a project is and how to separate an individual project from a program or portfolio, both of which require differentiated methodologies for managing.
With similar spellings and common misuse of the terms, it can be easy to confuse projects, programs, and portfolios. Yet these are not the same things and it will be counterproductive to lump all efforts in these areas under the project management discipline. Here’s where the differences lie:
A project has a start date, end date, percent complete indicator, and a budget. It also has an owner. Projects can range in size—it can be something as small as redesigning a sales process or as large and capital intensive as building a bridge. Ideally projects are linked to strategic objectives, but sometimes they are not.
Are your projects linked to your strategy? Should they be? Download our Project Management Field Guide to find out.
A program is a group of projects aimed toward a particular goal. For example, if you are a municipality with a goal to improve safety, you may have a program related to one land corridor comprised of projects to improve lighting, repair the streets, police neighborhoods, etc. Projects are a subset of a program. A Program Management Dashboard allows you to understand how your projects are impacting your program.
A portfolio is a group of projects within one business unit or department. The portfolio owners (or office) are responsible for managing the budget and resources, while ensuring projects are strategic and will help the entire organization execute its initiatives. The owners answer questions like, “How much money are we spending on our projects?” and “How do we prioritize our spending?” The portfolio office must also be aware of potential conflicts, like redesigning a sales process for a product or service that will soon be discontinued.
While some overlap exists, there are distinct differences between projects, programs, and portfolios, and the management of each requires specific skill sets and tactics. For the purposes of this article, we will only be focusing on project management.
In organizations worldwide, project managers are typically required to get one of two certifications: the Project Management Professional (PMP) from the Project Management Institute, or PRINCE2, which was originally developed by the U.K. government. Each certification teaches a different approach, but there are basic elements of project management that span both the PMP and PRINCE2 frameworks.
Here are the three foundational components of project management:
- Determine all the steps involved in a project and put them into a timeline. This methodical, step-by-step process is the basis for everything that comes next.
- Identify resources needed (human, technological, financial, etc.) and their interdependencies. For example, don’t schedule one person to be in two different places, or try to begin erecting a structure in a construction project before the foundation is built in the prior phase. Finding and balancing resources is one of the most challenging parts of a project manager’s job.
- Plan for contingencies. The project scope may change over time, perhaps due to priority shifts handed down from senior leaders or politicians. Or you may run into unexpected problems, like bad weather, dwindling raw materials, or inspection failures. No project goes perfectly to plan, so it’s important to prepare for the unexpected.
These basics are fairly straightforward for simple projects, but as your projects increase in volume, size, and complexity, it will become critical to choose either a PMP or PRINCE2 framework to ensure successful execution. And if you're looking for more than light reading, check out these project management books.
Next, let’s talk about the types of projects your organization might undertake—and why the most valuable ones will inevitably be linked to your strategy.
Strategic project management always starts with the strategic plan (no surprises there), but not all projects are going to tie to your plan in a clear way. In fact, it can be counterproductive to link certain projects to strategy. In this chapter, we’ll explain how to be smart about which projects you categorize as strategic and how you can build a solid framework around them.
A project is strategic if it’s put in place to drive the execution of the strategy itself and, if implemented correctly, brings your organization closer to achieving its key goals and KPIs. These projects are tracked within your strategic plan and reported on at the executive level.
Projects that aren’t considered strategic are typically operational or tactical in nature—in some cases, they might even be called tasks or tactics. They only loosely tie to the strategy and don’t need to be discussed with leadership teams. Why? Generally speaking, these projects are inexpensive, don’t require budget approval, and can be managed deep within the organization.
For example, improving a maintenance program on capital equipment is a project that will generate time and cost savings for a department, but it wouldn’t be constructive (or logical) to tie it to the strategic plan.
Other non-strategic projects are regulatory in nature, such as changing an accounting process to comply with a new tax code or implementing environmental safeguards to meet updated standards. Yes, these projects are important and will require resources, but they don’t link closely to any strategic goals and therefore shouldn’t concern the entire executive team.
You may have another group of projects in your organization that can’t be categorized—the most dreaded of these is the pet project. Handed down from someone on the leadership team, this project has no clear reason for existing and lies far outside the strategy. You should use the framework below to call out these projects for what they are. Think of this as an opportunity to focus the organization on what really matters.
All projects need to be managed with an appropriate process (as described in Chapter 1) and will have budgets and timelines, but the trick is knowing when a project is strategic and when it is not. Once you determine which projects qualify as strategic, then you need to know how to actually link them to your strategy.
Strategic projects should primarily be linked to your internal and learning and growth (people/culture) perspectives. These are the areas of your scorecard or strategy with leading indicators. In the for-profit world, a strategic plan includes both leading and lagging indicators. While projects are typically tied to the goals of your strategic plan, it’s important to understand leading and lagging indicators as they guide how projects link to your plan.
- Leading indicators help organizations predict trends or changes. Common examples occur within operational, learning and growth, and capability perspectives. Leading indicators typically measure the inputs or particular processes that drive strategic change. If you are very clear on what drives true change in your organization, then tracking leading indicators can be very powerful.
- Lagging indicators assess what happened in the past, such as the previous year or quarter. These include your finance (revenue, expenses, profits) and customer (growth, retention, satisfaction) perspectives.
Leading indicators impact and drive changes in lagging indicators by creating or improving processes to reach specific goals and KPIs.
For example, a municipality might link a project to build a new bridge with its goal to improve safety and transportation, and thereby improve customer (citizen) satisfaction. A for-profit company can link product development research projects to its goal to improve product innovation, which would then drive revenue. Or strategic projects around building better work environments or creating career paths can tie to learning and growth goals and increases in employee retention rates.
Another important element to keep in mind when linking projects to strategy is to keep your scope realistic. Within one planning cycle, we typically don’t see more than 8-12 projects tied to the strategy at any specific level within an organization, such as the operational (business unit) and strategic (executive) level. So, while the organization might have 40-50 strategic projects, each leadership team would only be focused on the top 8-12.
You will have a lot of additional projects at the department level that ultimately link to the strategic plan, but these projects should be discussed and managed within the business unit and won’t ever be exposed to the executive team. Certain projects, however, may be executed at the business level, and monitored at the executive level. For example, if a nuclear power plant is being pulled offline for regular maintenance, that project will be handled by the operations department, but tracked by the leadership team because of the significant impact to the overall business.
When thinking about projects, ask yourself which ones need executive-level attention. You should be able to link those projects to the goals of your strategic plan, and have a method of reporting on progress to your leadership team.
For projects that don’t need executive-level attention, you still need to manage them well within your departments and project management office. You should also question if these are critical from an operational standpoint or if they are pet projects that should be rationalized.
No matter what kind of project you’re working on, it will follow the same general path to completion. We’ll walk through those stages next.
All projects follow a logical path from start to finish—it’s referred to as the project’s “life cycle.” While there’s no consensus as to the exact number of stages in the life cycle (opinions range anywhere from four to six), the most common model has five. However you slice it, dividing projects into stages makes them easier to manage and monitor. The five stages are:
- Project Initiation
- Requirements Definition and Planning
- Project Execution
- Performance Monitoring
- Project Closeout
Let’s take a look at each stage in a bit more detail.
The project initiation stage lays the foundation for what’s to come and gets your project off to a good start. Two important steps happen in this stage:
- You’ll tie the project to a business need, demonstrating its value. You may or may not already have a completed business case in relation to the project; if you don’t, then now is the time. A business case justifies the reasoning for the project and explains why it is a worthwhile endeavor.
- You’ll outline the basic information surrounding the project. This information is contained in a project charter (sometimes called a project brief) and usually includes:
- The purpose—Why are you taking on this project? Does it solve a particular business problem, or will it help you achieve your strategic objectives?
- Requirements/resources—Who will be involved and what are the expected costs? (No details necessary at this stage.)
- Known risks—Make everyone aware of the potential pitfalls. For example, you may have a tight budget, or, if it’s a new offering for customers, concern about their acceptance of the end result.
- High-level description—State the project objectives and milestones.
- Key stakeholders—Indicate the project manager, as well as the team carrying out the tasks.
The project initiation stage happens before a project is approved and planning begins. It typically ends with the project kick-off meeting.
Once the project is given the green light, it’s time to start planning in more detail. It’s essential to think through and clarify a few important factors in this comprehensive planning stage:
- Timeline—Create a detailed breakdown of the required tasks, building in milestones and due dates. Make use of Gantt charts to show a visual representation of the work breakdown structure, like the one created in ClearPoint below.
- Budget—List the resources needed to carry out the project and make a plan for allocating funds. Include costs for personnel, equipment and supplies, and travel.
- Risk management—Identify risks and their sources, and make plans to minimize negative outcomes.
- Task assignments—Assign ownership of specific tasks to the appropriate team members. Doing so not only helps move the project along more smoothly but also creates a sense of personal responsibility, inspiring team members to complete their tasks successfully.
When you can confidently address all the above items, you’re ready to move on to the execution stage.
This is where the real work happens! You’re actually executing the plans you’ve made and realizing the value of the project for your strategy and organization.
Depending on the project methodology, the way organizations proceed through the execution stage might look somewhat different. For example, those using a waterfall methodology will complete tasks sequentially in chronological order—building before testing—and may hold weekly status meetings. Those employing an agile approach build and test in repeated cycles, making improvements along the way. Agile teams also tend to meet more frequently, sometimes daily, for status updates.
Whatever the approach, your objective is to deliver the end result as described in the project charter and according to the specifics outlined in stage 2.
Performance monitoring happens in tandem with the project execution stage. Here, you’ll track project performance and progress against the project plan defined in stages 1 and 2. Below are some ways to think about “scoring” your performance for evaluation purposes.
Will your budget be spread evenly over the timeline, or will you align the budget with the work, allocating more money to the months that require increased resources and expenses? For example, if a 12-month project has a total budget of $1.2 million, you can allocate the budget evenly at $100K per month or proportionally depending on where certain tasks fall on the timeline. The option you choose will determine how you track spending and report whether the project is financially on track.
Easily keep track of your projected budget to the real cost of projects. Use a Project Budget Dashboard.
Your timeline establishes the time frame for your progress reporting. If you begin on January 1 and end on December 31, then it’s a 365-day project timeline. In theory, you should be 50% complete around June 30, but some project stages may take longer than others, and you’ll need to reflect that in the reporting. You may also start late or change the end date, in which case project managers must recalibrate deadlines and then accurately report on the project’s updated timeline.
Quality & Effectiveness
This is the hardest but most important dimension to manage. How do you know the project has been successful, beyond that it was completed on time and within budget? For example, if you build a bridge that collapses or needs repairs earlier than planned, it won’t matter if it was completed on time and on budget.
You need an objective measure to assess quality and effectiveness. In some cases, organizations have third-party inspections for quality assurance. Others use customer feedback. There are many different ways to score quality and effectiveness—the important part is that you create consistent rules for your organization to follow.
Also, keep in mind that some projects can be measured while they’re underway (such as testing a tutoring program or managing a drug trial), while others can only be measured when they’re complete (like building a bridge).
Each organization uses a different “formula” to calculate percent complete. It could be an average of all the project milestones, or some milestones could be weighed more heavily at different levels. For example, if you have a milestone that accounts for 50% of a project, it should theoretically weigh more than other milestones. Using the Upward Airlines example, here’s what your project management template might look like when milestones are in progress and the percent complete metric has been calculated:
Once the above determinations are set, your organization will have a consistent (and honest) way to measure progress.
Reporting Frequency & Responsibility
Reporting is an important part of performance monitoring because it helps make sure the project team is on track and held accountable, while also informing outside stakeholders about progress. But determining when to report and who is responsible for reporting can be more complex than it sounds.
Clearly defining who will handle reporting, and when, will be critical to the success of your project. If reporting is overlooked or mishandled, you risk loss of funding and support for the project. You also don’t want to have a budget or leadership meeting with only half your projects containing up-to-date information.
Every project needs closure to officially free up resources for other projects or tasks. This closeout stage also provides an opportunity for an after-action review—essentially, a post-mortem to evaluate if the project objectives were met and discuss which aspects of the project management cycle could be improved for next time. While it’s helpful to discuss how effectively the project was managed soon after completion, it may take some time before you can know how well each specific objective was met.
Finally, now is the time to reward your teammates for a job well done and integrate the project results into your new way of doing business. If your project was to rework a current process, then the new process should now be the default. If it was to design a new product, then the design should be complete and handed off to manufacturing or process improvement. The point of the project was to improve something, and all projects should be closed out and integrated into a new way of doing business for your organization.
Phase 4 of the life cycle above focused on performance management for projects; this is where a project management template comes in handy.
It’s challenging to evaluate performance in part because projects can differ widely within a single organization—building a road, launching a new product, and reducing the time it takes to complete a routine process could all be projects. Some projects are even framed differently than others, identified by their intended outcomes, like “X% improvement in Y” or “Reduce time to accomplish Z.” The wide range of project types makes it difficult to establish consistency, which is why it’s important to use a standardized reporting template.
Project management report templates can vary in look and feel, but all should have these important elements:
- Start Date and End Date: These dates are self explanatory, but you’ll often see them at the top of project management report templates for a reason: Defining the timeline creates a foundation for all other template elements.
- Description: Also called the scope or charter, this is where you clearly define the project from a strategic standpoint. Why are you doing it? What do you hope to accomplish? How does this project tie to the strategy? (It might not...see Chapter 2.) There’s no need to write a novel, but be sure to communicate your justification for the project and its “features and benefits.”
- Owner: Clearly stating who’s responsible for the project will prevent confusion and ambiguous expectations. The owner is accountable for the execution and management of a project, from scheduling to resource planning. The owner will likely have others who assist with the execution and take charge of individual milestones. Regardless of what duties are delegated to others, the owner bears ultimate responsibility for the project.Separately, a project “champion” should sit at the leadership table. This person will report on a project’s high-level progress, providing context and details. The champion should also be able to communicate down to the team if priorities, budget, or timing shifts. If a champion is not included in executive meetings, that project invariably gets deprioritized or defunded.If all these roles are neatly defined, you’ll have the proper level of leadership for projects.
- Milestones: Every project must be measurable in some way—you can’t show progress otherwise. Your project management plan template should include milestones that track the status of a project along all its phases. In a perfect world, you’d display milestones in multiple views, such as in summary lists and Gantt charts.
Creating a project matrix will help you with your milestones and objectives. Learn how to build one in this Project Management Field Guide.
- Budget: Each project should have a budget before it is initiated. If you hope to start a project and find the money later, the project is likely doomed. The budget should include money for project management and contingencies (risk factors).Whoever is creating the project management report template needs to understand where the budget originates and how it fits into the way your company strategically budgets. Why? Budgets can change from year to year; knowing where the money is coming from will help you maintain funding for your project. For example, if your project is funded by an operational budget, you need to partner with that department’s finance executive. This will ensure you’re not overspending or underspending, and keep the project appropriately budgeted for the next planning cycle. Projects are typically funded from one of these three budgets:
- Strategy Execution—Not all companies have a StratEx budget, but it’s a great way to track spending on strategic projects. This approach aligns a portion of your organization’s budget directly to strategic projects or initiatives. (This is different than putting a budget against each of your divisions or departments.) If you don’t have a StratEx budget, you still need a way to budget for your projects, either within work plans, department budgets, or other areas. Some StratEx budgets are aligned by departments and others by strategic goals.
- Operational Expenses—The OpEx budget is a common source of project funding because most projects can easily be categorized as part of a company’s day-to-day business operations. It’s hard to plan for long-term projects using OpEx, but some organizations make it easier by doing multi-year budgeting.
- Capital Expenditures—Many people use CapEx as a way to track large, expensive projects, such as construction projects. CapEx are asset purchases and categorized as investments, which means there has historically been a beneficial tax treatment for these types of expenses. Be aware that not all projects fit into this category, so you need to understand exactly what would qualify as a CapEx to ensure your organization is tax compliant.
Are your project management reports wildly inconsistent? Use this template to standardize reporting for everyone in your organization.
It’s easier to understand how all the pieces of project management templates fit together when you see what one would look like. Here is an example from the fictional Upward Airlines. This Employee Satisfaction Survey project has all the elements we just described: start and end dates, description, and budget. You’ll also see how the milestones can be displayed in two different formats, with aids with both organization and readability.
At the start of this chapter we noted how projects may vary widely even within a single organization—the way you carry out projects can also vary. In the next chapter we’ll take a look at some of the most popular project management methodologies being used today.
Separate from the general phases of project management we discussed in Chapter 3, project management methodologies provide structure for the launch and execution of projects. Each methodology listed below is well-known and commonly used, but all have pros and cons that may make them more appropriate for certain types of projects over others.
The major project management methodologies in use today are:
Agile is a common project management methodology based on fast, continuous improvement. Originally popularized by software developers, this strategy has been adopted by all types of teams and industries.
Agile uses sprints, which are short project cycles, to continually release enhancements to products or services. The flexibility of sprints allows for last-minute changes and can result in a higher quality deliverable. Agile is best suited for project teams that need flexibility and speed (in comparison to the next methodology, Waterfall, which is ideal for teams that need a clear, fixed plan). The agile approach to project management is generally more fast-paced, people-centered, and repetitive than other project management methodologies.
Waterfall is one of the simpler strategies to implement and is ideal for short, uncomplicated projects. This strategy is linear and sequential—simply list tasks sequentially and check them off as you go. A task cannot be initiated until the previous one is complete, and you cannot return to a previous task. (Done is done.)
In general, traditional waterfall project management is a good fit for projects that can be planned from beginning to end before they start; don’t require work on multiple phases at the same time; and have a clearly defined product and process. Both the construction and manufacturing industries have long used waterfall project management.
Scrum is a type of agile methodology. While agile is more of a set of guiding principles, Scrum works within the agile framework to provide a specific set of rules for project management. This includes processes for identifying tasks, resources, completion dates, etc. Scrum is designed for fast delivery, with rapid feedback cycles and responsive change. Close collaboration is a primary element of this approach—teams work on sprints together and have short, daily standup meetings to report on progress. Each sprint must produce a usable product.
Scrum is an iterative methodology largely used in the software industry for product development, but can also be applied to smaller projects that involve a high level of productivity and require intensive refining.
Kanban is a flexible project management approach that promotes continuous collaboration and emphasizes visualization of work, typically through a collection of boards and cards. It moves tasks along stages of a defined workflow in assembly-line fashion. This methodology is also a subset of agile, but is more flexible, with efficiency being the primary goal. Kanban uses a “board” view to map and visualize team progress on tasks. There is a continuous flow of work, with backlogs being tackled by order of importance.
Kanban is ideal for teams that need constant output on a project and want to maximize efficiency (for example, you can leave tasks undone if others take priority). The strategy is popular with product development teams as well as automakers.
Lean is a bit different from the above in that it is a set of principles rather than a project management technique. Generally, it is a way of thinking that focuses on lean operational management, which is grounded in efficiency. Lean principles can be applied to any process; in the context of project management they emphasize the optimization of resources and minimizing waste—essentially, using a minimum amount of materials, equipment, labor, and space to complete a project. Lean and agile both center around the concepts of adapting to change and controlling risk, and so are often used in combination with one another.
Our next chapter will take you further into the project management process and compare different types of software you can use to simplify everything from building reporting templates to tracking tasks and interdependencies.
When you Google the phrase “project management software,” over 9 million results appear, so it’s no wonder that this technology (and topic) causes confusion for many people. Narrowing down all the project management online tools is really about finding the right technology for your particular organization, based on how it handles projects. In this chapter, we’ll explain three different types of project management software, including the pros and cons of each, to help you navigate this complex subject.
Task management software is characterized by tools that allow you to organize and prioritize tasks, while fostering collaboration. This type of software visualizes project elements like timelines and stages with bulletin board, checklist, or “card” layouts. You can usually roll up tasks into bigger categories and roll down tasks into various forms of ownership. Generally speaking, these platforms are very user friendly with a “clean” design.
Task management systems are ideal for marketing projects, or intangible projects like campaigns and process developments/improvements. Asana, Wrike, Trello, Hubstaff, and Favro are leading task management platforms in the crowded field of project management software.
Pro: Great for process flows and working within teams.
Con: Limited ability to manage resource constraints and link between strategic objectives and KPIs.
There are many ways to manage tasks within project plans. Here are some of the most popular project management methodologies.
There’s no doubt that resource planning software can be incredibly useful for organizations. Tools like Microsoft Project, SmartSheet, and ProjectManager.com are superior at project and portfolio management from a resource allocation perspective. If you need to track budgets by task, owner, or moving interdependencies, this type of project management software could be perfect for you. It’s suited for capital projects and projects that have tasks running in serial and in parallel.
Pro: Ideal for managing resource constraints and capacity, and centralizing planning.
Con: Tools and concepts can be overkill for business projects with nebulous or thought-driven tasks.
Strategic project management is where ClearPoint’s technology fits in. This type of software allows you to track hundreds of projects across your organization, including the tasks associated with each. Like the previous types of project management tools, you can assign ownership and accountability, and build Gantt charts. But ClearPoint’s software offers additional, unique strategy management features.
- Give all projects and tasks red, amber, and green (RAG) status indicators for each reporting time period (typically monthly or quarterly).
- Measure and automatically evaluate projects according to the measurements discussed in Chapter 4.
- Identify project-associated risks and track action items associated with them.
- Link projects to KPIs or key goals. Even link the same project to different goals in different departments.
- Add an unlimited number of custom fields.
- Build flexible and filtered reports that can be exported to Excel or PDF, without back-end programming.
- Include both quantitative and qualitative data in your reporting to tell the story of project progress.
Pro: Efficient way to drive change by applying project management techniques to your strategic plan. It also works with any project management methodology.
Con: Not as applicable for organizations without clearly defined goals and KPIs. Cannot handle resource planning constraints.
When researching project management tools, think about what you really need to get out of the application. Are you tracking hundreds of tasks through stages and looking for intense collaboration? Are you centralizing and managing resource constraints and planning restrictions? Do you need to link projects to your strategic plan and demonstrate how the results are impacting your KPIs? Knowing what you really need will keep you from getting enamored with cool features in a short demo with project management software providers.
Knowing what you really need will keep you from getting enamored with cool features in a short demo with project management software providers.
If you have any questions about project management or how ClearPoint’s technology can work for your organization, let’s talk.
If you’re not ready to chat and want to learn more, check out our Learning Center resources on project management.