What is project management?
Managing people and processes dates from the times when humans had to build their first villages and gather food — and it remains important in the present. Nowadays, various project management techniques and methods help businesses organize operations and achieve specific project goals.
If you are new to project management or want to refresh your knowledge of the basics, you are at the right place.
In this guide, we’ll introduce you to the topic of project management. First, we will define project management and projects. Then, we will explain project characteristics and the three pillars of project management. You will also learn about the core components of project management — and, we saved an illustrative project management example for the end.
What is project management in simple words?
Project management, in simple words, is the application of skills, tools, and techniques to project activities in order to meet project requirements.
What is a project?
To better understand project management, first, we need to define the term “project.”
Harold Kerzner, in his 10th edition of “Project Management, A Systems Approach to Planning, Scheduling, and Controlling,” defines a project as “any series of activities and tasks that:
- Have a specific objective to be completed within certain specifications
- Have defined start and end dates
- Have funding limits (if applicable)
- Consume human and nonhuman resources (i.e., money, people, equipment)
- Are multifunctional (i.e., cut across several functional lines).”
Another definition, similar to the previous one, comes from the Association for Project Management (APM). APM defines a project as “a unique, transient endeavor undertaken to achieve planned objectives, which could be defined in terms of outputs, outcomes or benefits.”
Let’s now look at examples of projects.
What are some project examples?
If you are new to project management, you may want to know which activities we can call “projects.” Some project examples are:
- Development of a new product or service: a new website, online shop, etc.
- Creation of a new information system: an online airline ticket booking system, a customer relationship system, etc.
- Construction of a building or industrial plant
- Improvement of existing business procedures: implementing a new company wiki, onboarding or recruitment process, customer support procedures, etc.
After defining a project and observing the examples of projects, we can dive into its characteristics.
What are the characteristics of projects?
The Project Management Institute pointed out characteristics common for all projects:
- All projects are unique
- All projects are temporary
- All projects have a team
- All projects have a budget
- All projects have a schedule and expectations the team needs to meet.
Let’s explain these characteristics in more detail.
All projects are unique
Projects bring a new value to an existing entity or create something completely new.
For example, developing a website or creating a new application for online shopping are examples of unique projects.
Redesigning a website is also a unique project — as we suppose that a new website doesn’t have the same design or functionalities as the previous one.
Creating a new marketing campaign is a unique project as well.
We can also use a car manufacturing company as a project example. Each new car model is a unique project, as it is different from the previous one in design or its features. Additionally, car manufacturers market different car models as solutions for various needs people may have.
All projects are temporary
“Temporary” doesn’t mean that projects last for a short time. It means that every project lasts for a limited time and has a definite beginning and end.
A project can reach its end in the following cases:
- We have achieved the project’s objectives
- The project’s objectives will not or cannot be met
- Funding is depleted or no longer available for the project’s allocation
- There is no longer a need for the project (e.g., the client doesn’t want to complete the project, we decide on a change in strategy or priority, etc.)
- The human or physical resources are no longer available
- The project is terminated for legal reasons or convenience
Depending on a project’s nature, a project can last for hours, days, weeks, months, or even years.
All projects have a team
Projects are team activities, as no one has expertise in every project area.
Every project team consists of team members from various disciplines who share a common goal — to complete the project successfully.
All projects have a budget
No matter how big or small the project is, no one can run it successfully without considering costs.
As the Australian Institute of Project Management pointed out in their ultimate guide to project budgets, “if you under-call the budget, you’ll end up missing milestones, being under-staffed, and having to do the walk of shame to the finance department to ask for more money.”
All projects have a schedule and expectations the team needs to meet
A project schedule is a listing of the project’s activities, milestones, and deliverables. It also determines the start and the end date of a project, its duration, and resources assigned to each activity.
When we know what a project is and are familiar with its attributes, we want to make sure that a project is clearly defined.
What are clearly defined projects?
Clearly defined projects are those whose goals and objectives meet the SMART criteria. The acronym SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound.
A project goal provides direction, while project objectives are specific targets the project aims to achieve to meet the goal. Every project has multiple project objectives.
They should be:
- Specific: the objective is clearly defined
- Measurable: there are metrics to determine when the objective is met, or we can create these metrics
- Attainable: the team concurs the objective is realistic
- Relevant: the objective fits the organization’s strategic plan and supports the project charter
- Time-bound: there is a precise date for achieving the objective.
Now, you may wonder how it looks in practice? Let’s provide an example. Example of SMART goals for project objectives
If you are a project manager in a software development company and your company is developing a new website for a client, your SMART objective may look like this:
Change the current back-end tasks priority by assigning new due dates to all five critical tasks over the next three days without changing the original project deadline, so we can demonstrate a demo website version to our client on January 20.
Let’s break down the S.M.A.R.T. criteria for this example:
- Specific: Change the current back-end tasks priority
- Measurable: by assigning new due dates to all five critical tasks
- Attainable: over the next three days
- Relevant: without changing the original deadline
- Time-bound: so we can demonstrate a demo website version to our client on January 20
After explaining what a project is, we can dive deeper into project management.
A quick history of project management
Since the beginning of organized human activities, project management has been a part of our lives — even before being defined as project management.
For instance, thousands of people had to cooperate to build the world’s wonders like the pyramids in Egypt, Machu Picchu in Peru, or the Great Wall of China.
These “projects” were certainly planned somehow and coordinated until they were completed successfully.
However, modern project management dates from the 20th century. Organizations started applying systematic tools and techniques to complex projects in the 1950s, and since then, several project management methodologies have developed.
Henri Fayol and Henry Gantt are considered the forefathers of the project management concept, as they established the foundation of project management and expanded it in all fields. Henri Fayol is famous for defining the five functions of management:
- Coordinating, and
Henry Gantt is well-known for popularizing the Gantt chart as a project management tool around 1910 — though it was Karol Adamiecki, a Polish engineer, management researcher, economist, and professor, who invented this type of tool in 1896.
Additional project management definitions
After defining project management in simple words, let’s add a few more definitions.
Harold Kerzner, in his 10th edition of “Project Management, A Systems Approach to Planning, Scheduling, and Controlling, defines project management as “planning, organizing, directing, and controlling of company resources for a relatively short-term objective that has been established to complete specific goals and objectives.”
Similar to the previous definitions, the Association of Project Management (APM) defines project management as “the application of processes, methods, skills, knowledge, and experience to achieve specific project objectives according to the project acceptance criteria within agreed parameters.”
According to APM, a key factor distinguishing project management from just ‘management’ is that it has a final deliverable and a finite timespan — while management is an ongoing process.
As we can see, all these definitions are very similar — with meeting project requirements as an ultimate goal.
What are the three pillars of project management?
Every project comes with limitations and risks that project managers need to address to ensure success. The project constraints that project managers always deal with, irrespective of their industry, include:
These constraints are limitations placed upon the project that the project manager and his team must work within.
They are often referred to as the project management triangle and the triple constraints.
This model of the constraints of project management has been used since at least the 1950s.
Basically, they are a set of three interdependent project constraints that every manager faces.
Let’s observe them in more detail.
The scope constraint refers to what must be done to deliver the project’s end result. This constraint defines specific deliverables and the tasks needed to meet the project goal.
The time constraint refers to the time available to complete project tasks — and the project itself. It is also called a schedule and includes the deadlines for project phases, all the major project milestones, and the date for the delivery of the project outcome.
The cost constraint refers to the budget available for the project: employees and equipment costs, as well as the cost of other resources needed for the project.
Every project manager needs to balance these three constraints to deliver the best results. And each of these constraints is connected with the other two.
For instance, increasing a project scope will likely require more time and money. On the other hand, accelerating the timeline for the project may cut costs and diminish the scope.
What are the core components of project management?
Projects differentiate from everyday business activities and require employees to come together for a limited time to focus on specific objectives.
According to the Association of Project Management, the core components of project management include:
- Determining the reason why a project is needed
- Understanding project requirements
- Estimating time and resources
- Defining the quality of deliverables
- Analyzing costs and benefits to justify the investment
- Securing project funding
- Developing and implementing a project management plan
- Leading a team that works on a project
- Managing the project’s risks and problems while staying on top of changes
- Monitoring projects process and managing the allocated budget
- Managing suppliers
- Closing the project
Who uses project management?
We can apply project management to all industries and businesses. Some industry examples include:
- Product manufacture
Let’s illustrate project management by using an example related to the IT industry.
Project management example: IT industry — website development
Projects in these industries are different— but project management principles remain the same. The ultimate goal is to close the project successfully, in the planned time, with the use of allocated resources, and within the budget.
Imagine working for a software development company and having a client who wants to hire your company for website development.
First, your managers have to meet with the client, discuss their requirements and create a proposal with estimated time, resources, and costs.
After the initial proposal, the client may decide to proceed.
Project planning phase
During this phase, a project manager defines the project’s requirements and determines how many people and how much time the website development requires.
The client may provide your team with the ideal project deadline.
The project manager decides on a team that will work on the project, creates a timeline, and defines project milestones.
Work in progress
After your company starts working on the project, the project manager is the one who:
- Is in charge of communication with the client to deliver progress updates. For instance, the project manager may schedule a weekly meeting with the development team or provide/ask for progress updates via email.
- Executes, monitors, and controls the project as your team works on the website development. There are various project management techniques project managers can use. Depending on the project management technique, the project manager assigns tasks and requires team feedback to monitor the team’s work progress and the quality of work.
The team who works on a project has to track their time with time tracking software and use project management software which helps a project manager monitor the timeline.
Project closing phase
Once the team finishes website development and your QA team test functionalities, the client reviews it to check if it meets all requirements. After positive feedback, the project closes. After the project’s finalization, the project manager may hold a meeting to review the work accomplished and get team feedback on communication and project organization in general.
Wrapping up: Project management helps reach the project goal
Project management aims to oversee potential problems with a project — as well as plan, organize, and control activities effectively and efficiently in order to close the said project successfully.
Making the effort to systematically manage a project enables the better organization of business processes and helps the team working on the project meet the project goal and objectives in an optimal manner.
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