Project Management: A Comprehensive Overview

by Christos Mitsis, on Nov 5, 2021

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Consistently successful project managers are exceptional communicators.

Competent project managers are familiar with the standards and practices of project management. But only the ones who have mastered their communication skills succeed in their role again and again.

In this article, we’ll discuss the following topics:

  • What is project management?
  • The Basics of project management:
    • The 5 phases of the project management lifecycle
    • What are project management milestones? 
    • Project management stakeholders: the 3 groups
    • What are the responsibilities of a project manager’s role?
    • What are the most common project management methodologies?
    • What are the 4 key skills of a project manager?
    • The role of a project manager: examples
    • What a project manager doesn’t do
    • The 2 worst-case scenarios of project management
    • Strategic Project Management: How to avoid the worst-case scenarios

As a project manager, that’s precisely what you want to achieve, repeated successes. The demand for exceptional project managers will only increase in the coming years. So, understanding how advanced communication skills distinguish project managers gives you a competitive edge.

What is project management?

Here is a simple definition to project management:

Project management is the process of coordinating a team and its resources to successfully execute a specific task from start to finish. It includes planning the activities, measuring the progress, allocating resources, identifying constraints and completing the task respecting those constraints.

Here is what the definition isn’t telling you:

A huge part of “coordinating” in project management is communication. Most project managers struggle with this because they underestimate how important (and difficult) it is to communicate the right information to the right people at the right time.

People are at the core of project management. The sole purpose of project management is the successful completion of the project by facilitating people’s work.

Thus, the project manager isn’t responsible for the completion of the project. He is responsible for the people who are going to complete the project. This is a distinction that separates the great from the good project managers.

Similarly, all the project management tools, methodologies, software and techniques serve this one purpose. To make people’s work easier. NOT to do the work for them.

Since we have a reliable understanding of the definition of project management, let’s dive into its most fundamental concepts and key players.

The Basics of project management

The 5 phases of the project management lifecycle

The Project Management Institute introduced this project management life cycle as an overlay to create a unifying and formalized way of structuring and organizing the various elements of projects.

Essentially, these five phases establish a roadmap to a more consistent, successful completion of projects.

Let’s take a brief, focused look into the five phases of project management:

project-management-lifecycle-diagram

Initiating

This is the first phase of the project management lifecycle and the one most people like to skip, often to their detriment.

It is where projects are born. The importance of this phase is that it provides context. It aligns projects with strategy. Explore this strategic planning template to understand where projects fit inside a strategy plan.

This phase might include brainstorming to come up with several project ideas. Then, each project goes through its “initiation” process where you determine its key aspects like:

  • The scope
  • The deadline
  • The risk
  • The resources
  • The people needed

This should not be an exhaustive planning of the project (this comes later), but a detailed estimation of whether it’s worthy of the time and resources it requires to achieve your objective.

In this phase, the owner of the project (the project manager) is also determined.

Planning

This is the phase where most people start their project management process. However, only the projects that have successfully gone through the initiation phase should progress to this one.

Why?

Because you don’t want to end up abandoning a project midway through.

Or, even worse, end up with a product that is unrelated or damaging to the business. 

The planning phase is where you build a schematic of the project. You break down the project into smaller tasks and milestones, each with its respective deadlines.

Responsibilities are distributed to people and if the organization doesn’t have the necessary people to complete the project (and has decided to commit to it), it includes recruitment as well.

The metrics that will determine the team’s progress are also defined at this phase, as well as the details of the reviewing habit that will be installed.

This is crucial for the successful completion of the project.

Determine the nature of your reviewing habit at the start of the project management life cycle - will it be a meeting, a report? - its frequency - daily, weekly, monthly - and the exact metrics and topics you’ll be reviewing.

The actual cycle of the project management cycle might start here. It depends on the nature of the project and the methodology the project manager chooses to use.

Executing

As soon as the planning phase is over and people start attending to their tasks, the executing phase starts.

The execution phase is where the magic happens. People make progress towards the final goal and the project manager manages unexpected developments and supports their people.

Executing and monitoring are not two distinct phases in a project management life cycle. They support and complement each other.

The execution phase includes:

  • Building processes
  • The Development of the product 

Monitoring

Monitoring and controlling the project’s progress is a crucial responsibility of the project managers because it enables them to stay on top of the production and proactively manage it to meet the requirements.

Even if the project’s estimations weren’t accurate in the planning phase, a practical monitoring practice has a patching effect. It spots the inaccuracies early, providing the opportunity to recalibrate the rest of the project.

That is exactly why it’s so essential to decide at the start of the project your reporting needs and commit to them. Although your reviewing practices might evolve over time, they should never decline or be treated as optional.

Even a simple update in a conversation can go a long way in maintaining velocity and focused execution. Use this KPI template to simplify your reporting and save time.

Closing

The closing is the final phase in the project management lifecycle. It’s where the team “delivers.”

Two reports should be prepared with the completion of the project. One for the Supervisors (the receivers of the project) and one for the team’s performance, a post-mortem if you’d like.

Along with the deliverables, the team provides a report on the outcome of the project that includes:

  • Requirement: which were met and which weren’t
  • Key decision points where certain trade-offs happened. What was the reasoning behind them?
  • Goals met and unmet

The post-mortem includes:

  • What went wrong
  • What went right
  • Wins to celebrate
  • Lessons to be learned

To sum, the project management lifecycle is an effective high-level framework that provides structure and formalizes the various phases and processes a project goes through.

It provides clarity and a basic structure to organize the work of each project.

There are, however, more specific and less high-level methodologies that offer more detailed instructions to follow in the mess of the real world. Before we discuss those methodologies, let’s highlight two crucial elements of project management: the project’s milestones and the project’s stakeholders.

What are project management milestones?

project-management-milestones-infographic

A project could be anything. It could be the development of an article, the planning of a wedding, the construction of a new building, the search for a new job or the development of a marketing strategy.

No matter the nature of the project, starting the project and completing it in one go is rarely the case. More often than not, you break it down into smaller, less daunting milestones. Why?

Firstly, because you’re not intimidated by the size of the project and the amount of effort it needs to be completed. You organize the work and move one step at a time to reach your final destination.

And secondly, because each time you reach a project milestone, you can celebrate. Give your team (and yourself) a pat on the back and give credit where due. Replenish their will and lift their spirit.

Every small victory you celebrate boosts the morale of your team and refocuses their efforts.

Milestone Examples

Constructing a building:

  • Secure the budget
  • Find and secure a suitable site
  • Create a detailed architectural design
  • Hire a construction company
  • Lay the foundations
  • etc

Developing a marketing campaign:

  • Conduct market research
  • Decide on your marketing channels
  • Craft your message
  • Develop the ads
  • etc

For large projects, every milestone could also be treated as a new project with its own sub-milestones.

Pro tip: Milestones signal the project’s progress, not progress towards the project’s objective. For example, your team might be completing the tasks on time, but your marketing campaign doesn’t necessarily perform against its objectives.

Pair your milestones with the proper metrics to make sure you’re doing what matters most. Use this metric template to craft leading measures that help you shift through the noise.

Project stakeholders: the 3 groups

project-stakeholders-map

Every project has three groups of stakeholders. Every single group is invested in the outcome of the project but at different levels. Simply put, the stakes aren’t the same for each project manager stakeholder group.

Managing the communication between the stakeholders is the project manager’s responsibility.

The Supervisors

Supervisors don’t directly run a project. Their main focus is hitting higher-level objectives and moving metrics tied to multiple projects. For them, the projects are the “activities” that drive the metrics and the progress to their respective objectives.

Projects populate the operational plan. So, Supervisors are essentially project portfolio managers. As a result, if a project isn’t contributing substantially to a specific metric or objective, they easily discard it. 

Typically, Supervisors are the senior leadership, the C-suite, the Board of Directors or program managers.

The Managers

A Manager is more narrowly focused. They are leading the team that has undertaken a specific project. Resource management, people coordination and making sure to meet the project’s specifications are all the Manager’s responsibilities.

A Manager is highly invested in the project and must have a tight grip on the communication between stakeholder groups.

Managers are the most important group in the project management process.

Typically, the Managers group includes roles like the project manager, the team leader and the project coordinator.

The Executioners

The Executioners are the people who bring the project to life. They are the people in the trenches, the people who execute and do the work. These individuals are responsible for the day-to-day progress of the project.

Executioners are focused on delivering the project’s milestones. They are invested in the completion of their own tasks as well as the project overall.

Typically, Executioners are the team members.

What are the responsibilities of a project manager’s role?

Project managers are the most invested stakeholders in the outcome of the project.

Although a project manager’s success or failure is usually determined solely by the outcome of their project, they can’t succeed if they only care about the progress of the metrics.

A very large part of a project manager’s role is administrative tasks, organizing and passing on information. They succeed by making the team members’ work easier, not by doing the work themselves.

Consistently successful project managers recognize this. That’s the reason they focus so much on improving their communication skills and processes.

Let’s see the most important responsibilities of a project manager:

Project integration management

project-integration-management-list

Project integration management is the set of decisions that the project manager takes when they consider all the project’s components and objectives holistically.

It includes the core responsibilities of the project manager that cannot, and should not, be delegated.

These decisions don’t occur at a specific phase of the project management lifecycle. Integrating processes and activities come up repeatedly from the start of the project until its completion.

Some of the project integration management responsibilities include:

  • Aligning the project’s objectives and constraints with the organization’s strategic initiatives.
  • Developing a plan to achieve those objectives
  • Monitoring and managing the activities and tasks of the project
  • Collecting and communicating the relevant information to each stakeholder group
  • Making trade-offs between conflicting objectives

Complex requirements and expectations can easily skyrocket the difficulty and the convolutions of the project integration management.

Because of that, project managers use various tools to make their work (and life) easier, such as:

  • Automated tools to collect, organize and analyze information
  • Visualization and Communication tools to present the information quickly and effectively
  • Frameworks and methodologies customized to the project’s needs and specifications

At almost every phase of the project management lifecycle, the project manager will be forced to make decisions on conflicting matters like quality versus deadline, budget versus quality, safety over speed and many others.

These trade-offs are a big part of project integration management.

For example, a marketing project manager might have to deal with questions like

“Do we fix the brand inconsistencies in the video ad and miss the deadline or not?”

“Do we target a very small but better-converting audience or a much bigger one with medium conversion rates?”

To answer these questions, the project manager needs to have a deep understanding of the project’s components and, at the same time, how it fits in the organization’s overall strategy.

For this reason, knowing how to write a strategic plan is hugely beneficial. There’s no need to go too deep, this free strategic planning template provides all the context a project manager needs. 

Communication

project-manager-role-description-chart

Communication is something most people underestimate. They underestimate the effort that goes into it and how big a part is of the project management process.

It’s the reason so many project managers are frustrated and inconsistent in their roles.

For better or worse, the smooth flow of information between all stakeholder groups falls into the project manager’s responsibility.

As such, they use tools and processes to collect and display relevant information.

The Supervisors

Supervisors don’t need to get deep into the details of every project. This is what you, as a project manager, should communicate with them:

  • The level of effort and resources that each project requires
  • The objective that each project ties with
  • How critical the project is for the business
  • The phase the project currently is on
  • The project’s scope
  • The benefits or outcomes that the project will realize
  • The status of each the project

Automate this process with a KPI report that focuses on capturing only the most essential information.

The Managers

Project Managers are near and dear to everything regarding the project they’re leading. They need to have a good understanding of every task their team is working on so they can provide the necessary support and organize the work.

Managers also have administrative responsibilities, so they need to have a clear overview of the project. Basically, Managers know and understand almost everything about the project, including:

  • Everything Supervisors and Executioners know
  • Who owns what
  • The abilities and  limitations of each team member
  • The project’s requirements and objectives
  • The risk factors

The Executioners

The Executioners are in the front line. The project’s progress relies almost entirely on them completing their tasks. Thus, they need to have every piece of information that will make their work easier, simpler and achievable.

This could include:

  • The milestones of the project
  • The deadline of every deliverable
  • The constraints and requirements of every deliverable
  • Their performance metrics
  • Passwords and keys to tools and resources

Now that we have gone through the fundamentals of project management, let’s have a look at some of the tools that project managers use to succeed in their roles.

What are the most common project management methodologies?

Project management methodologies are like vision statements.

Every organization has its own version of it. Below we’ll discuss the two most common methodologies that work more like two big distinct categories of project management methods.

The Waterfall Method

The Waterfall project management methodology focuses on two primary conditions.

First, it emphasizes the planning phase of the project and secondly, it proceeds from process to process linearly. This means that until a process has been successfully completed, the next one cannot start.

Typically, the Waterfall methodology follows the five following stages:

  1. The Requirements Stage is where all the necessary requirements and specifications of the project are collected and recorded.
  2. The Design Stage is where the detailed outline of the project’s final deliverable is formulated, including the milestones and their respective deadlines.
  3. The Implementation Stage is where people execute the designs and build the product.
  4. The Verification Stage is where the product is tested for defects and whether it meets all of the requirements.
  5. The Deployment Stage is where the project’s final product is delivered or published.

If, after its deployment, the final product requires constant support and attention, then there is one more stage in this methodology, the Maintenance Stage.

When to choose the waterfall method

The Waterfall project management method has low adaptability once the project has moved to the execution phase, but high predictability, fast pace and respects the requirements best.

Thus, it is ideal for projects that have clear, concise requirements and deliverables with explicit properties. If there is clarity, then the Waterfall model works wonders.

Software development projects, construction projects, system development projects like supply chain systems or healthcare systems are all examples where clear-cut requirements and sequential processes are more common or necessary.

It’s when an organization conducts a gap analysis and decides on its top strategic priorities that most projects with high predictability are born.

The Agile project management methodology

The Agile approach to project management is a much more responsive model to changes in the specifications of the project’s deliverables. It’s mostly applied to software development projects, but the agile method in non-tech businesses finds a lot of application opportunities.

It’s an iterative approach where the team works in small sprints, distinct bursts of focused work according to current requirements. Each iteration is followed by new feedback and specifications, so the next iteration improves. 

When to choose the agile methodology

The Agile methodology is ideal for projects that have ambiguous requirements, deliverables with undefined qualities or any of these are expected to be changed before the final product is completed.

The iterations allow the team to conserve resources, adapt to the changing specifications and at the same time meet other requirements like deadlines and budget constraints.

The Agile method has sparked the development of many specific agile project management methodologies. For example:

  • Scrum methodology
  • Kanban methodology
  • Extreme programming methodology
  • Adaptive project framework methodology

There are several other widely used methodologies, but generally speaking, few people apply a methodology intact.

Every team, project manager or organization uses a hybrid method that combines parts of various methodologies.

What are the 4 key skills of a project manager?

project-manager-skill-tree

The project manager is a leadership position.

Specifically, it’s a lot like a middle manager’s position in the sense that a project manager has to connect the high-level strategic intentions to the reality of the front line.

Consequently, every project manager needs to have 3 distinct sets of skills to succeed in the role:

  1. Industry-specific knowledge
  2. Proficiency in the common project management tools
  3. Expert-level ability on two certain soft skills: paranoia and communication

Industry knowledge

Specialization in project management happens in this aspect. The knowledge of a particular industry enhances a project manager’s skills on almost every level of their responsibilities.

Industry-specific knowledge enables a deep understanding of the scope of the project, the accurate estimation of the effort and the time of each milestone, as well as the needs and the budget of the project.

It’s what allows the project manager to make the best trade-offs that align with the company’s strategic initiatives.

This knowledge is the least transferable but also the stronger asset of a project manager because it multiplies the effectiveness of the other two sets of skills.

Proficiency in project management tools

The larger the project or the more people involved, the bigger the need for project management software.

There is a plethora of project management software out there, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. When the project manager tracks a lot of details with complicated relationships, then he needs to be proficient in various sophisticated tools.

However, that’s rarely the case.

Most project managers track the higher-level parts of their projects.

They want to be able to have a quick overview of the progress and share it easily. When, for example, project managers have update meetings with the Supervisors, they need digestible bits of the team’s current tasks and status updates. Not any painstaking details.

It’s more useful to link the projects to the company’s strategic initiatives to demonstrate the project’s contribution than to go into which team member owns each task.

For example, in Cascade you can have every part of the project accounted for by a specific person, but also create reports that don’t get those details. Instead, your reports focus on exactly the information you wish to share.

Soft skill: Paranoia

The most consistently successful project managers are paranoid. They obsess over all the ways the project might go wrong and the processes in place fail.

Let’s see two of the best practices that you can apply as well:

  1. Remove bottlenecks.
    Think of information and process bottlenecks. If, for example, your team needs constant approval and authorization by you to execute their tasks, then you’re putting a huge drag on the whole project (and yourself).
    Push authority to your people and stop being an information bottleneck.

  2. Eliminate single points of failure.
    Analyze your project and your processes. Is there one thing that if it doesn’t work as intended, the whole project collapses? Eliminate it. Put consistencies and alternative measures in place to create backups.

As a project manager, you have a responsibility to protect your team’s work and progress as well as the investment of resources to your project.

Soft Skill: Communication

This skill is intentionally broad because it is the core of several soft skills that, when highly developed, distinguish great project managers from the rest.

It’s also the most transferable of all the project management skills.

Let’s see on which specific instances a project manager benefit the most from exceptional communication skills:

Providing on-point instructions.

When a tourist asks you for directions to get to a place, it’s your fault if they get lost. Your instructions weren’t specific, clear or concise enough (assuming they followed your instructions to the letter).

Providing context to your team members.

Team members are more transparent and adaptive in their approach when they understand exactly how their work contributes to the bigger picture.

Providing an overview to the Supervisors.

Project managers that lack the skill to shift through the noise and communicate exactly what the Supervisors want to know, nothing more and nothing less. fair much better than their colleagues.

The role of a project manager: examples

project-manager-examples-list

Although every project is unique, it’s typically beneficial for a project manager to specialize in industry-specific projects or develop skills applied to particular projects.

Here are a few examples of more specialized project manager roles:

Creative project manager

A creative project manager has a deeper understanding of the creative process. They are better equipped to give more accurate instructions to their team, perceive the project’s requirements clearly, oversee the creative process and offer meaningful feedback.

A creative project manager might be a creative themselves (writer, designer etc.) or have a creative background. There is a high demand for this role in marketing, where a campaign might involve a set of creative products (video, copy, article, ad etc.).

Marketing project manager

Marketing project managers come in all shapes and sizes. That’s because every industry has its own way of doing marketing and every project has different needs.

A marketing project manager has many traits of a creative project manager and knowledge of marketing principles and practices.

Depending on the project, the manager might have to do market research, design a marketing campaign with a timeline and budget, decide what to outsource, or even be involved with crafting the marketing message and design of ads.

Digital project manager

A digital project manager is a terrible title because it’s so broad, it’s nearly indistinguishable from a “simple” project manager. The discerning factor is that all the work, processes and tools of a digital project manager are, well, digital.

In addition, all communication with team members might also be digital and the whole project takes place mostly in the digital space. As a result, the skills of a digital project manager involve proficiency in various online tools and software, besides project management.

Engineering project manager

The engineering project manager is one of the most demanding project manager roles. Usually, the complexity of engineering projects is humongous and requires deep and specialized knowledge of the project’s specific requirements.

An engineering project manager has a rich academic background and ample hands-on experience on various aspects of the project to be able to comprehend, organize and keep up with the work.

Healthcare project manager

Healthcare project manager roles are typically more process-oriented and can get fairly complex. Healthcare projects range from infrastructure and commercial to leading business initiatives with complex analysis and high expertise.

A healthcare project manager usually has a relevant background in the health industry (e.g. administrative or managerial) and could have specialized in certain healthcare processes and procedures.

No matter the industry, a project manager needs to understand how the project contributes to the company’s overall strategic plan to have a clear context for every decision.

What a project manager doesn’t do

There is a lot of confusion on where a project manager’s responsibilities end and where the responsibilities of other roles begin.

Program manager vs project manager

program-manager-vs-project-manager-comparison-infographic

What’s the difference between a program manager and a project manager? First of all, they belong to different stakeholder groups.

A program manager is a Supervisor. They are responsible for a program, a collection of related projects and activities. A project manager is responsible for their project only.

For example, a business has the strategic Focus Area of “Increasing Brand Awareness”.

One of the programs that will contribute to that is “Increase our Brand Impressions”, which will include multiple projects, like “Launch a TV ad campaign”, “Launch a social media campaign”, or “Get featured in several major publications”.

Each one of these projects might have a specialized marketing project manager that organizes the work while a program manager oversees the successful outcome of all the components of the program, i.e. the projects.

Another way to distinguish between a program and a project is that the former focuses on achieving a specific strategic objective while the latter on delivering a specific product or service.

Project coordinator vs project manager

project-coordinator-vs-project-manager-comparison-infographic

A project coordinator takes away a lot of the administrative tasks from a project manager’s plate. His role is of an assistant to the project manager.

A project coordinator is responsible for the day-to-day progress of the project. He facilitates the communication between stakeholders and removes friction from processes and workflows.

Usually, a project coordinator has a clear and accurate understanding of all aspects of the project and undertakes many executive tasks. However, he’s not limited to those.

A lot of project managers went through the role of project coordinator before leading their own projects.

The 2 worst-case scenarios of project management

Two scenarios keep project managers awake at night. An abrupt end to the project - a cancellation. And a failed delivery.

Let’s see each case separately.

Canceling the project

This is an immediate danger for projects that skip the initiating phase of project management. Projects that are not aligned with the company’s higher-level objectives might get canceled at any time.

Here is what it looks like. You’ve spent, collectively with your team, countless hours of work and resources to bring the project to life. You have overcome serious obstacles and the team is ready to reach a great milestone.

Instead, you receive a message that tells you to discard your project because it doesn’t contribute significant value to the business or doesn’t align with the company’s strategy.

This is what happened to so many developers in 1997 when Steve Jobs decided to abandon OpenDoc technology. Some developers saw years of work being dumped with one single decision.

Failing at delivery

The ultimate responsibility of a project manager is to deliver the final product within the project’s requirements. Every decision, trade-off and tool contribute to that exact goal.

Although every project has its own failing requirements, some common requirements matter more than others, like deadlines, product specifications or certain quality traits.

This is why industry-specific knowledge and alignment with the business objectives are so important. They ensure that the project manager can make the right decisions that will adapt the project to have the desired outcome.

Early signs of delivery dangers are scope creep and feature creep.

Strategic Project Management: How to avoid the worst-case scenarios

You can prevent these worst-case scenarios by applying a strategic lens to your project management process.

The strategic project management proactively deals with questions about alignment and impact. It manages projects at a portfolio level and at the same time, it ensures that every project is properly resourced and contributes to at least one strategic objective.

Strategic project management examines the project’s scope and goal in the broader context of a company’s strategy. It prevents the investment of time and resources to low yielding projects.

Key Takeaways

Consistently successful project managers have these common traits:

  • They’ve mastered the fundamentals of project management
  • They’ve specialized in a specific industry
  • They’re proficient in the most relevant project management tools and techniques
  • They align the project’s objectives with the company’s priorities
  • They are paranoid and mitigate danger constantly
  • They support their team and focus on their success

If you’re looking for a tool to track your project’s progress, update it easily and automate reporting on the most essential metrics, start a free trial of Cascade or book a demo!

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