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An Introduction to Project Management

Projects can and do go horribly wrong. Before we explore how to avoid the pitfalls, here are some sobering statistics.


 

We use tried and tested project management techniques and tools to tip the balance between success and failure in our favour (which is 'success', to be on the clear side).

 

What is a Project?


I'm sorry to have to do this, but let's quickly start at the beginning because I'm always surprised by how many people get confused about what a project actually is.


A project is a temporary endeavour to create a unique result.


Unlike routine 'business as usual' operations, projects have a defined beginning, specific objectives to fulfil, and completion criteria.


It's important to understand that a project has a definable end, after which it closes. So, if you find yourself in a project that doesn't know its destination, ask serious questions.


Projects also tend to draw from across functional teams in an organisation. So, they often involve people who infrequently work with each other.


Finally, projects are typically fraught with pitfalls because they are risk-laden adventures into the unknown. The degree of risk is unique to each project, but if you know in detail what you are doing and have done it many times before, it's not a project; it's a standard operating procedure. That said, you can have templated projects, like building a house.

 

Overview of Project Management

Project management methodologies and practices have evolved over the years, adapting to changing industry landscapes (such as software development) and increasing project complexity (such as software development).


Traditional methodologies, like the Waterfall model, follow a linear and sequential approach, going step-by-step from requirements to delivery. It's a nice, ordered, logical approach but not very adaptable to change.


Newer, more flexible and adaptive frameworks like Agile, Scrum, and Lean are designed to deliver more iterative and incremental results, enabling teams to respond quickly to changes in requirements and stakeholder feedback. The approaches deliver a little bit, check if it's okay with the stakeholder, do a bit more, rinse, and repeat until done.


The choice of methodology depends on the project's nature, objectives, and specific requirements.

No single approach works for every delivery, and no approach is exclusive – you can mix and match them to suit your needs.


The following guide is designed more around the waterfall approach, but it doesn't mean that Agile practices can't be added to the execution phases.


The Project Life Cycle

The project life cycle describes the phases of a project from initiation to closure.


These phases are:


  • Initiation: Defining the project at a broad level and establishing its feasibility.


  • Planning: Detailing the scope, defining the objectives, and developing the project management plan to achieve those objectives.


  • Executing: Implementing the project plan and executing the tasks to deliver the project's outputs.


  • Monitoring and Controlling: Tracking progress, managing changes, and ensuring project objectives are met within the defined scope, time, and cost.


  • Closing: Finalising all activities across all project management process groups to formally close the project or phase.


We'll explore these in more detail as we go.

The 5 Project Phases Diagram
The 5 Project Phases

The Project Management Triangle

There are three main constraints that all projects are trying to control: scope, time and cost.


The project management triangle, also known as the 'triple constraint,' is a model that demonstrates these constraints, their interrelationship, and how changes in one factor can impact the others.


Here's a brief overview of each:


  1. Scope: This refers to the size of the project, the goals to be achieved, and the requirements to meet those goals. It defines what will be delivered as the project outcome, including the tasks, features, and functions.

  2. Time: This encompasses the schedule or timeline for completing the project. It involves determining the project phases, key milestones, and final deadlines.

  3. Cost: Also known as the budget, this pertains to the financial resources available for the project. It includes all expenses such as labour, materials, tools, and other costs needed to deliver the project.

The Project Management Triangle Diagram
The Project Management Triangle

The principle behind the triangle is that if any of these constraints change, it will impact the other two.


For instance, if the project scope expands (more features are added), it will likely take more time and increase costs.


Similarly, reducing the timeline might increase costs (due to the need for more resources to work faster) or reduce the scope (fewer features can be realistically completed in a shortened time).

This is an essential concept because it demonstrates how a small impact in one of the constraints can significantly impact the others.


Project managers must walk a tightrope; allowing the project to lean a little too much in one direction unchecked can lead to catastrophic outcomes.

 

Importance and Benefits of Effective Project Management


By adhering to established project management principles, organisations can achieve their strategic objectives within the allocated time and budget, ensuring the efficient utilisation of resources (or at least doing much better than without it).


The following sections summarise some of the main advantages of employing sound project management practices.


Enhanced Efficiency and Productivity

A structured project provides a roadmap that leads to project completion.


By defining clear objectives, milestones, and deadlines, project managers can oversee the systematic progression of tasks, leading to an uptick in efficiency and productivity.


So, it's critical to bring clarity and control to a project, and guess who is central to that? You.

You ensure the project knows where it is, what it's doing, and where it's going.


Improved Risk Management

Risk management is a crucial part of any project manager's responsibilities.


By foreseeing potential pitfalls and planning accordingly, project managers can minimise the impact of risks when they turn into realities.


A proactive stance on risk management helps safeguard the project and ensures it stays on track regarding its budget and timeline.


It's impossible to see or prevent every risk that might happen, but you can, at the very least, think about the big ticket ones you can predict and ensure you have a plan.


Enhanced Customer Satisfaction


The ultimate goal of any project is to fulfil the client's requirements - delight the customer.

Delivering what you think they want rather than what they need is a recipe for disaster.


Effective project management ensures that projects deliver 'the right thing right', increasing customer satisfaction, happiness and karma.


Satisfied clients are more likely to engage in repeat business and provide positive referrals, which is imperative for an organisation's (or project manager's) reputation and long-term success.


Optimal Resource Allocation

Resource allocation is a critical aspect of project management, involving the efficient distribution of tasks and the judicious use of time, budget, and human resources.


Let's face it: all teams are stretched, and resources need to be carefully aligned so that they can deliver the most significant benefit to the organisation.


Effective project management ensures that resources are allocated optimally - avoiding people sitting around doing nothing or stretched too thinly. It also ensures you get the biggest bang for your buck, thus maximising the project's return on investment (ROI).


Improved Team Coordination and Communication


Project management fosters a cohesive team environment by promoting transparent and consistent communication.


A project manager can ensure that everyone works towards a common goal by keeping all team members informed about project objectives, progress, and changes.


Without this kind of roadmap, chaos seeps into the project, little by little, until everyone walks their path, expecting different outcomes and benefits from the project.


An American colleague once referred to this as the 'Goat Rodeo', which made me smile and is now a metaphor I often refer to.


This is perhaps the most critical aspect of project management to me. Without this kind of unification and agreement on goals, tasks, dependencies and commonality, the project will go off the rails. If you can keep the communication going in all directions, you'll increase your chances of project success exponentially.


That's so important, I will put it in a box.

If you can keep the communication going in all directions, you'll increase your chances of project success exponentially.


(There. Said I'd do it, and I did.)


So, that's the basic part done, let's look next at the project phases in a little more detail.


Key Terms and Concepts

Let's tick off some terms I may have thrown around and not explained fully.


Stakeholder

A stakeholder is any individual, group, or organisation that may affect, be affected by, or perceive themselves to be affected by a project's decision, activity, or outcome.


Stakeholders can directly or indirectly influence the project and its success.


Scope

The scope of a project refers to the detailed set of deliverables or features of a project. It includes all the work required to complete the project successfully.


Managing scope is crucial as it prevents 'scope creep', which is the project's expansion beyond its initial objectives, often causing budget and time overruns.


It's always important to clarify what is out of scope as much as within the project's scope.


Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)

A Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) is a hierarchical decomposition of the total scope of work to be carried out by the project team to accomplish the project objectives and create the required deliverables.


WBS is a key project deliverable that organises the team's work into manageable sections.


Gantt Chart

A Gantt chart is a type of bar chart that illustrates a project schedule. It shows the start and finish dates of the various elements and a summary of the relationships between the elements of a project.


Gantt charts help plan and schedule projects and track project components' progress.

Senior managers love looking at a Gannt Chart. It provides them with a level of false confidence that their project is delivering.

An example of a simple gantt chart

Critical Path

The Critical Path is the longest path/sequence of tasks that must be executed to reach the end of a project. The tasks on the critical path are called critical activities because if they're delayed, the project itself will be delayed.


Critical Path Example
Critical Path Example


Risk Management

Risk Management involves identifying, assessing, and responding to project risks to minimise their impact on project objectives. It includes risk identification, analysis, response planning, monitoring, and control.


Prince2

PRINCE2 (Projects IN Controlled Environments) is a structured project management method and practitioner certification programme primarily used in the UK, which emphasises dividing projects into manageable and controllable stages. It is a process-based approach that guides a project's high-level management, control, and organisation.


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About the author

Hi, I'm Alan, and have been working within the IT sector for over 30 years.

For the last 15 years, I've focused on IT Governance, Information Security, Projects and Service Management across various styles of organisations and markets.

I hold a degree in Information Systems, ITIL Expert certificate, PRINCE2 Practitioner and CISMP (Information Security Management).

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