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Project Management Guide

Project Management Overview

Understanding project management

When most people think of project management, words like “scheduling,” “progress updates,” or “information sharing” might come to mind. But that doesn't really describe what project management is, nor does it give us a very good idea of what a Project Manager does day-to-day.

Let's make the meaning of project management as clear as possible. For this guide, we will use the following definitions:

Project: a plan to achieve an objective.

Management: the act of creating and maintaining an environment in which objectives can be achieved.

Therefore, project management is the act of creating and maintaining an environment in which an objective can be achieved according to a plan.

Simple enough so far, right?

Responsibilities

The responsibilities of a Project Manager can vary greatly from company to company. Some Project Managers stick strictly to task management and scheduling, while others are in control of financial planning and forecasting. Some even venture into certain elements of the creative process when they're needed.

Generally speaking though, most Project Managers need to be able to:

  • Understand the scope of the project and the current status of their teams at all times
  • Create realistic timelines that meet objectives by delivery dates
  • Allot appropriate amounts of work to team members who can perform that work
  • Determine causes for delays, find solutions, and keep projects on track
  • Propose realistic deadline extensions when unforeseen issues require the schedule to change
  • Develop and apply appropriate work processes, best-practices, and methodologies that benefit the teams and productivity

The above skills are essential to all Project Managers. How you go about performing those skills, though, varies greatly depending on the teams you're managing, the methodologies you're using, and the tools at your disposal.

Elements of a project

Every project is different, but all projects will have a few things in common. When planning any project, you'll need to determine the following.

Objectives

There is no project without an objective.

The first step for any Project Manager is to determine what the objectives of the project are based on information provided by the stakeholders.

The objectives determined at the beginning of each project will guide every decision moving forward.

As a Project Manager, you'll often find yourself faced with tough decisions. Your answers will always come down to determining which scenario best ensures the achievement of the project objectives.

Pro Tip: Be precise.

When it comes to objectives, the last thing you want is room for ambiguity. When possible, use measurable numbers and values.

At the end of the project, you'll look to these objectives to verify whether you and your teams were successful. If your objectives are ambiguous, so is your success.

Deliverables

Once you've set your objectives, you'll need to determine what your deliverables are.

Deliverables are the specific components created to fulfill your objectives.

When determining deliverables, be sure that you and your teams clearly understand how these deliverables achieve the objectives set forth by the project.

Deliverables that don't serve objectives are a waste of time.

Tasks

Tasks make up the individual pieces of work that need to be done in order to produce each deliverable.

We'll go into much more detail about task management in Part 2 of this guide. For now, you just need to know that every piece of work completed in a project will need to be tied to a task.

Pro Tip: Make your goals SMART.

Whether determining an objective, deliverable, or task, it's best to follow the SMART model for any kind of goal creation.

SMART goals are:

  • S - Specific
  • M - Measurable
  • A - Attainable
  • R - Realistic/Resourced
  • T - Timely/Time Bound

If each element of your project meets these five conditions, your project will be easy to understand, simple to track, and much more likely to be completed on time.

Execution

Project management isn't a “set it and forget it” kind of job. It requires consistent, active monitoring.

Think back to the definition of project management we created in the beginning of this guide: Project management is the act of creating and maintaining an environment in which an objective can be achieved according to a plan.

Once a project is underway, your role will be to recognize and predict problems, respond to changing conditions, and ultimately keep your project moving.

Your ability to accurately track your project's progress will heavily influence your success in these areas. Luckily, establishing your own processes and adopting useful tracking tools like Backlog can help you spot and respond to problems more easily.

Completion

Your project existed to achieve the objectives set in the beginning.

If all tasks are complete, your deliverables should be fulfilled. If all deliverables are fulfilled, your objectives should be met.

If any one of these statements is not true, you have a problem.

Throughout the project, continuously reflect back on the objectives and deliverables set forth at the onset of the project to ensure that no matter what problems arise or conditions change, that you are still meeting those core elements of your project by the date of expected completion.

Iteration

At the end of every project, reflect on what worked well and what needs improvement before moving onto your next project.

This type of continuous iteration will ensure that your work improves each time you and your teams take on a new project.

Common Pitfalls

As you take on greater responsibilities, you'll gain a growing appreciation for the number of moving parts that have to work together in order for a project to be successful.

Because Project Managers work across teams and stakeholders to deliver projects, the sheer variety of problems they address is unimaginable to the average individual team member.

Why do good projects go bad?

Projects can easily get off track, especially if you neglect them. Common problems projects face include:

  • Inexperienced team members
  • Ineffective work processes
  • Unrealistic project objectives or deadlines
  • Popular trends of the times being applied when they aren't what's best for the project
  • Uncommunicative or inflexible stakeholders
  • Poor team communication

Some of these problems can be traced back to poor project management; others have more to do with circumstance and or plain old bad luck.

Lucky for you, as a Project Manager, no matter what the reason is, it's your responsibility to react and recover the project as best you can.

Methodologies

In project management, a variety of methodologies have been devised to meet the needs of the times and the technologies surrounding various projects.

You may think that if you simply adopt a widely-used methodology and use it correctly that your project will run smoothly. But there is no one-size-fits-all in project management.

Rather than becoming fixed to a single methodology and its strict application, learn from a variety of methods. Apply only those processes that are appropriate for your specific project.

PMBOK

Strictly speaking, PMBOK (i.e Project Management Body of Knowledge) is not a methodology. It is a body of knowledge in project management that describes a set of standard terminology and guidelines.

It describes common inputs, tools & techniques, and outputs involved in various processes of project management.

PMBOK recognizes 47 processes that fall into five basic process groups and ten knowledge areas.

The five process groups are:

  1. Initiating: processes that define new projects or phases of existing projects
  2. Planning: processes that establish the scope of a project, including defining objectives, deliverables, and a plan of action
  3. Executing: processes that help complete the work to be done
  4. Monitoring and Controlling: processes that track, review, and regulate progress and performance
  5. Closing: processes that formally close the project or phase

The ten knowledge areas are:

  1. Project Integration Management: coordinating of the various processes and project management activities within the project management process groups
  2. Project Scope Management: ensuring that all the work required, and only the work required, is completed
  3. Project Time Management: managing the timely completion of each stage of the project
  4. Project Cost Management: controlling costs to match the approved budget
  5. Project Quality Management: determining quality policies, objectives, and responsibilities so that the project meets expectations
  6. Project Human Resource Management: leading the project teams
  7. Project Communications Management: ensuring appropriate management of project information
  8. Project Risk Management: conducting risk management
  9. Project Procurement Management: purchasing or acquiring resources needed outside the project team
  10. Project Stakeholder Management: engaging all people or organizations impacted by the project

The five process groups and ten knowledge areas create a matrix structure so that every process is related to an area of knowledge, and every area of knowledge is related to a process.

It would take a long time to discuss PMBOK in it's entirety, but these are the basic ideas behind the body of knowledge.

Waterfall

Waterfall entails following six phases sequentially:

  1. Requirements: capturing system and software requirements in a product requirements document
  2. Analysis: creating models, schema, and business rules to fit those requirements
  3. Design: creating the software's architecture
  4. Coding: developing the software
  5. Testing: systematically debugging defects
  6. Operations: installing, migrating, supporting, and maintaining of the systems

Each phase is completed before moving onto the next, rarely returning to a previous phase. Like a waterfall, you cannot return upstream once you have descended to the next level.

The Waterfall method used to be standard practice in tech, but it's become less popular in recent years.

This is due in part to its relative inflexibility when it comes to mid-project changes. The landscape of tech is evolving so quickly these days that teams need to be able to pivot their products to market needs at rates faster than the Waterfall method often allows.

New or adapted versions of the waterfall method have evolved to try to address these issues, but the success of those alternatives varies widely depending on who you ask.

This highly-structured method does have its advantages, especially in terms of organization, proper documentation, and ease of management.

Agile

Agile methodology has become a popular buzzword in the project management world, especially in tech.

Agile environments divide work into shorter stages, repeatedly cycling through implementation, testing, and release phases. The word “agile” was chosen purposefully to signify the quickness and adaptability of the method.

The key characteristic of this methodology, therefore, is to rapidly repeat a core cycle of processes in a project (planning, design, implementation, testing, and release) as many times as necessary.

The Agile Manifesto cites 12 core principles:

  1. Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.
  2. Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer's competitive advantage.
  3. Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.
  4. Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.
  5. Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
  6. The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.
  7. Working software is the primary measure of progress.
  8. Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
  9. Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.
  10. Simplicity--the art of maximizing the amount of work not done--is essential.
  11. The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.
  12. At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

The primary advantage of agile work environments is that they make it easy to respond to changes quickly. They keep projects and teams more flexible, and they encourage constant iteration.

The biggest disadvantage is that the role of the Project Manager is much more complex. It requires greater adaptability and quicker decision making to thrive in an environment of constant change.

There are a number of frameworks used to implement this methodology, including Scrum, Crystal Clear, Extreme Programming (XP), and Kanban (to name a few). These frameworks can provide more concrete rules and processes around how to apply the Agile methodology to your workplace.

Choosing a methodology

There are many more project management methodologies out there to explore, and chances are your teams will adopt a mixture of a few depending on the nature of your work, the skills of your teams, how your teams prefers to work, and even the popularity of certain methods at a given time.

Just remember, you cannot simply adopt an existing framework as-is; you must always be on the lookout for new methods that meet your team's needs. If you run into certain types of problems frequently, see if there's a methodology out there that specifically addresses that problem.