Project Management Essentials

What is a project?

A project is a unique endeavour with a specific goal that has a beginning and an end with a budget (constraints such as resources and time).

Project management can be summed up into a few crucial questions:

  • What problem are you solving?
  • How are you going to solve this problem?
  • What is your plan (resources needed and how much it takes)?
  • How will you know you are done?
  • How do you qualify success?
  • How well did the project go? Could work be done better?


The process of project management begins with:

  1. Initiating – getting commitment to start a project
  2. Planning – how to carry out the project
  3. Executing- putting your plan in action
  4. Monitoring & controlling- how to get the project back on track
  5. Closing- document the project, performance, lessons learned close contracts.


Approaches to project management:

  1. The waterfall approach – it works well when the project is familiar and has a clear goal, with a clear scope and deliverables.
  2. Agile approach- it works well when the solution is not clear. Agile project management goes through iterations until the project is done. We might know the project goal but might not have the process/procedures to execute it. Small teams are used and it is easier to get everyone on board. Communication is also faster and more frequent

For agile the process is: plan – execute- monitor- close. Repeat!


Considerations when taking on a project

  • Culture
  • Costs
  • Complexity

Initiating a Project 

  • Obtain commitment to start the project.
  • Identify the problem the project is supposed to solve– must have a specific goal e.g. take advantage of an opportunity. Better that it is kept simple, preferably in one sentence. Not a solution. Ask why?
  • Define project goals– high-level results that state the end result of the project, easy to understand.
  • Define business objectives– state smaller, detailed goals. Usually, strategies or tactics that support the goals of the organisation. E.g. financial, quality objectives, performance objectives. Ensure they are SMART

Planning a Project

  • Requirements gathering – they provide details of what the solution is going to look like. These are specific needs of the project. If customers don’t know what they want, you can build a prototype. Business process modelling is another method used to gather requirements. To make sure your requirements are right, write them with customers. During the first round, it is a good idea to write questions for the first interviews. For the second interview, clarify and refine requirements to ensure that they satisfy objectives.
  • Identify deliverables. Products or services that are delivered.  Once the project is underway, deliverables are key to measure project progress. If a deliverable is too big, break it down into pieces.
  • Define the planning scope– what is to be included or excluded from the scope of the project. Manage scope creep as sometimes team members might expand the scope without you knowing.
  • Select a strategy with the help of a decision matrix to compare options. Ensure that the strategy satisfies the required objectives. Is the strategy feasible, the risk, and ultimately does the strategy fit the culture of the organisation.
  • Success criteria: define quantifiable success criteria.
  • Assumptions and risks:  An assumption is something that is believed to be true but not confirmed. The key is to get assumptions out in the open and uncovering unspoken assumptions. A risk is a situation that might negatively affect your project. May or may not arise but will cause problems if they occur.
  • Identify stakeholders: Project customers fund the project, influence the project and customer approve deliverables. Sponsors are responsible for the project, have authority, champion the project, prioritize objectives, suggest improvements. Functional managers achieve team goals and manage team members. Team members perform tasks.  Also very important to know what motivates stakeholders.
  • Draft a project charter: outlining responsibilities, purpose, authority, sponsor support, project name, and the name of project manager.
  • Plan the project: direct, correct, communicate, project schedule, track and communicate progress.
  • Work breakdown structure: Divvy up project work into bite size pieces to track, manage the project effectively. Add a corresponding deliverable to track complete tasks.
  • Build a schedule: turn the tasks into a schedule specifying which tasks to finish first. And which tasks start and finish at the same time. Also, specify risks. The length of task dictates overall project finish time. Overestimating and underestimating will cause problems.
  • Role and responsibilities: create a responsibility matrix (RICA- responsible for doing, informed, consult, accountable). The project organisation chart identifies the chain of command. A skills matrix is also a tool that would determine skills project members will require. Also, create a matrix for tasks to manage resources. 
  • Identifying risks: identify risks, both known and unknown. E.g. of risks, geographically spread team members can increase risks such as delays, miscommunication due to different languages or team work. Rare skills in demand increase risk, lack of options. Talk to experts and project managers to identify risk. Contingency funds are used to respond to small risks. Create a risk management log and a communication plan to get the right information to the right people in the most efficient way possible.
  • Quality management plan: identify the quality of deliverables e.g. no more than 3 out of 1000 defective products. Quality should conform to standards. Also, it is important not to produce quality higher than the expected as it would hinder scheduling or costs expanding. The quality assurances plan should document quality should be managed. Inspect Peer review, walkthrough and audit the work. Tools for quality improvement such as cause and effect diagrams or the fishbone diagram identify factors that could lead to problems identification which in turn helps teams to figure out problems.
  • A change management plan: what items to control such as project scope, requirements or the entire project plan. Versions you control are called baseline documents. For changes, use the change request form, then move to the evaluations, the result is a change request impact form. If the board approves the request, it moves to the project plan. 
  • Estimating: time and cost determine whether it makes sense to run a project. If estimates are too high project might not be approved. If costs are too low, meeting expectations is impossible. Calculate work and cost based on some model. The programme evaluation and review technique (PERT) uses the best, worst and most likely results to estimate a project. The Delphi technique counts on several heads being better than one: ask a pool of experts and keep results anonymous. In critical chain projects, include time buffers to help deliver projects in less time than you could otherwise. Tell management to set aside contingency funds to be proactive to resolve any problems.
  • The critical path: the critical path is a sequence of a critical task in your schedule with the longest duration. It is important because any delay on the path delays the project to finish. With a critical path, you could deliver a project earlier than expected. You can also shorten a schedule through crashing and fast tracking. However, crashing increases the cost of your project and risk.
  • Task dependencies: a task dependency is one task is when one task controls the timing of another task. Types include; finish to start dependencies, – e.g. you have to finish a flight reservation before you get on the plane. Start to start dependencies. Finish to finish dependencies (finish of one task controls the finish of the other task). Start to finish. You can figure out a dependency by asking a few questions such as which task controls the other.
  • Understanding work, duration and units: by understanding the three you can assign people tasks to get schedule the way you want. Work is also called effort is the number of days someone works on a task.
  • A realistic schedule: assign people to tasks based on actual work hours. Activities such as attending meetings chew up time, training and time off. Assign part-time workers using the time they are available (this means increased task duration). Don’t assign work to someone working on more than three tasks at a time.
  • Document the baseline: a baseline is a collection of approved documents, budget and schedule. It is important because you can compare and see how your project is doing. Everything you change is under the change control process.


Executing a Project

  • Execution starts when a project plan has been approved. The first step in executing a process is usually procurement. In-house team equals easy procurement outside procurement equals additional steps such as, solicitation, evaluation, contracting and ongoing management.

Types of contracts include:

  1. Fixed price contracts
  2. Time and materials contract
  3. Cost plus contract
  • Once all the team is assembled hold a kick-off meeting to introduce all players. The project customer and sponsor can describe the mission and get very motivated. Review the project plan with the team and explain how things will work. During execution, a designated repository called a project notebook is created. As projects produce a mountain of information.
  • Understand team dynamics of forming, storming, norming and performing.
  • Manage resources through communicating roles and responsibility clearly and give people specific and achievable goals.
  • Communicate regularly with the team, find out what people are doing and how well they are doing it. Handle people problems quickly if they come up and provide feedback quickly. If it turns out that someone isn’t qualified to perform his or her assignment, consider adding more time or money or find other people and reset stakeholder expectations. Communicating effectively begins with
  1. why it is important,
  2. get to the point- fill in the details
  3. Be positive and pro active
  4. No humour


Monitoring and Measuring 

  • Once work begins, information on what’s been done needs to be gathered to see if the project is progressing the way it should. Especially things like schedule, budget spend (hours worked and hours spent). Tracking hours is more effort but you get the picture of task progress and labour costs associated with work. If possible automate the data tracking through a web form or email.
  • Evaluating progress: the project schedule because delays can cause problems. Compare your original schedule with the current plan using the Gantt chart. Baseline vs real schedule.
  • Use earned value analysis helps to determine the financial worth the project has earned. A project earns value by completing work baselined on planned value, the amount of money finished after work and budgeted cost of work performed. You want earned value to be more than planned value.
  • Reporting on progress can be done through weekly reports of work completed, work scheduled, variance, problems, and solutions. If your audiences request changes or additional information, adjust to meet their needs.
  • Other financial measures include capital budgeting analysis to determine whether a project is worth long-term investments. Normally look on the return on invested project. The payback period.
  • Getting a project back on track. Consider your solutions within your authority, ask approval, present your options with pros and cons, go beyond the stakeholders e.g. if you need people from other projects.
  • Managing changes and risk quality. Add every change request to the change request log. Update the risk log regularly, review processes if you can achieve quality more easily.

Closing a Project

  • Obtain acceptance from customer
  • Document lessons learned
  • Close out report: What the project did, how it went, how well it went.
  • Close the contracts
  • Archive project information