The Ultimate Guide to Project Management
A detailed guide to help ‘occasional project managers’ succeed when managing a project for their organization.
Should such a level of demand even surprise us, when we know that an overwhelming amount of employers across industries want employees with project management skills?
Let’s face it: we live in an era where we’re made to manage projects on the daily. Regardless of your industry and the skills listed on your resume, you’ll find yourself managing projects sooner or later.
And to help you get ready, we’ve prepared the ultimate, step-by-step guide to project management for first-time, occasional, and accidental project managers.
What Is Project Management?
According to the official definition, project management is “the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements.”
A project is an endeavour that satisfies the following criteria:
- It has a start and end date
- It requires resources such as time, people, and money
- Results in new products, services, or changes that meet business needs.
When we think of projects, we often think of huge construction work; building bridges and houses.
However, a project can be something as simple as creating a content strategy for your marketing agency’s clients, or organizing a company event. It can also be planning an expedition to the North Pole, or creating an app for your own company.
Does that sound familiar?
Why Is Project Management Important?
The main benefit of using project management to complete projects is having a road map to success.
When you have processes for creating, executing, and controlling projects, you’ll reach the finish line in time, and your end results will be successful.
Other benefits of project management include:
Increased productivity and efficiency, with reduced costs
We want to create excellent goods or services with half the cost (both in terms of time and money).
Improved client satisfaction
If your clients (even if they’re your top management) get top-notch products without spending a lot of money or wasting time, you can bet they’ll be happy!
If you and your team members know what needs to be done, and you have the right tools to share knowledge, completing the projects in time will become a piece of cake.
Fewer obstacles in your path
Project management practices help you identify and evaluate risks early on.
Finally, using project management to deliver excellent products/services/results is the only sure-fire way of thriving in the market.
And we don’t just mean your company. If you show yourself to be a great project manager, you’ll be a professional every company wants to retain.
If you want to experience these benefits, you’ll need a structured process. It’s time to read on. We’ll show you exactly what you need to do, every step of the way.
What Are the Key Project Management Skills and Roles?
Let’s talk about your role as a project manager. You will be expected to:
- Successfully plan and execute projects
- Manage risks, issues, and changes
- Communicate with stakeholders (team members, clients, top management, contractors, etc.)
- Manage scope, resources, time, and budget
- Manage your project team and organize work.
For that, you’ll need the following project management skills:
- Critical thinking
- Time management
- Task management
- Risk management
- Quality management
- Technological proficiency.
Ultimately, as a project manager, you will be the person responsible for the success of the project.
1. Initiate the Project
The project initiation phase of the project life cycle is dedicated to gathering all the documentation and requirements you’ll need to successfully plan out your projects.
The golden rules for successful project initiation are:
- If you’re not sure, ask
- Tie up all loose ends
- Don’t accept vague requirements and criteria
Make things as clear as possible.
2. Create a Project Scope Statement
After you’ve received a project proposal from your client (again, this can be an external client or simply your top management), review it to understand their requirements, goals, and expectations.
Your project scope statement should contain:
What is the client hoping to accomplish with this project? What are their short-term, medium-term, and long-term goals? (E.g. Attract more customers / Implement a legislative change).
What will be accomplished with the project and deliverables? You can use the SMART goal-setting method.
What should the final product look like? (E.g. An app for 10,000 users, a brand awareness marketing campaign, an improved recruiting process).
Criteria that will define whether the project was successful or not (E.g. You created an app that can successfully serve up to 10,000 users at a time – Successful. / You created an app that doesn’t have basic features the client requested – Unsuccessful.)
The things that the project will not produce. (E.g. The project will not produce a sales campaign.)
The resources you will need to complete the project. (E.g. Ten team members, independent contractors, funding, etc.)
Time, scope, and budget. (E.g. You have three months to complete an app for only 10,000 users, and you can spend $10,000.)
Risk and change policies
How will you discuss potential changes during the project? (E.g. Changes are acceptable, and subject to additional negotiation, or changes are unacceptable.)
Which metrics and KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) will you use to monitor project performance, progress, and success?
3. Create a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)
Once you have defined the scope of your project, it’s time to structure your work.
Create a work breakdown structure:
- Start from the overall project goal/end product, and then divide the work into tasks (work packages)
- Each work package/task should last between 80 hours and 10 days
- Add information on resources necessary for the completion of each task
- Identify important milestones (e.g. The completion of a very important app feature).
Focus on deliverables and outcomes, instead of actions. This will help you stay within the scope, while keeping your eyes on the prize.
For example, if you were to create an app, you would likely divide the work into front-end and back-end work. From there, you could divide it even further.
Your WBS is done when you can no longer break down tasks into smaller tasks.
Consult Your Team
When it comes to determining the feasibility of the project, and defining the necessary resources, it’s good to gather your team and discuss it with them.
If you’ve worked on similar projects in the past, you can create a baseline and estimates.
When you’ve prepared the project scope statement, have other stakeholders (for example, clients and/or top management) sign off on it. This will confirm that you are all on the same page regarding the project.
4. Choose a Project Management Methodology
When you fully understand the shape and scope of the project, you can choose a project management methodology to follow.
It will give you and your team the structure you need to successfully complete the project.
Some of the most popular project management methodologies today are:
Traditional/Waterfall Project Management
Your project is completed in distinct phases:
- Execution & Testing
- Monitoring & Completion.
There are very few possibilities for additional iterations once you’ve completed a certain stage.
However, traditional project management is one of the most thorough approaches.
This approach is best suited to: simple projects where all the expectations and goals are clear from the very start., projects where goals and scope aren’t likely to change.
For example, if you were working on a internal project to adapt your company’s processes to new legislative change (e.g. GDPR implementation), you could select the Waterfall project management methodology.
Agile Scrum Project Management Methodology
Scrum is one of the most popular frameworks for the Agile, iterative, project management methodology.
Originally designed for software development, it’s still a great methodology if you’re building software, or if you often need to make changes to your project and products.
With Agile, you break down the entire project work into smaller work batches.
For example, if you’re building an app, you’d separate the work into features.
Then, you’d work on them during sprints.
Each sprint consists of the following phases:
Product backlog creation
List all the main product features/deliverables the client expects from the project.
Plan all the sprints necessary to complete the stipulated features. Establish the goals for each sprint.
Create a sprint backlog
Add all the tasks which will be covered in that particular sprint to your sprint backlog.
Ready, set, go! The sprint shouldn’t last longer than 4 weeks.
You’ll hold daily Scrum meetings (What was done since the last meeting?
What do the team members plan to do today? Are there any issues?).
Add any additional tasks irrelevant to the current sprint to the backlog for future reference.
After you’ve finished your sprint, test out the features / deliverables, and discuss your performance.
Review the backlog, as well as any additional tasks that might have appeared during the current sprint.
Demonstrate or implement the feature created during the sprint.
Compare with acceptance criteria, and get feedback from the client.
Plan the next sprint.
This methodology emphasizes communication.
You should get in touch with the client after completing every sprint, and modify project scope statement / project requirements accordingly.
Kanban Project Management Methodology
Kanban is one of the simplest methodologies for organizing your project work.
It’s a great fit for teams who have to juggle multiple tasks at once, and who can’t work in sprints.
It’s also great for long-term projects, and even separately, as a task management tool.
Every Kanban board has three columns:
You and your team will simply add tasks to the appropriate column, and then shift them accordingly as you complete them.
Kanban is best suited to teams that need to limit their work in progress, and simply get things done.
However, if you’re working on more complex projects, you can implement Kanban as a task management method.
Learn more about task management in the “Planning the Project” section of our guide.
Lean Project Management
If you and your team frequently work on similar projects, Lean project management can help you standardize for consistent excellence.
It also works great for projects in industries and sectors that struggle with redundant activities (e.g. banking, legal, administration).
With Lean, you will complete project work in the following phases:
- Define customer value – What does the customer expect out of this project, and why does that matter for them?
- Measure capability to meet customer needs – Can you deliver the value your customer wants?
- Analyze process for improvement areas – Analyze your current process to identify areas for improvement in order to deliver value. Identify redundant activities, resources, and obstacles.
- Improve and innovate process to meet customer needs – Improve your process to meet customer needs. Remove redundancies and automate whatever you can.
- Control process and sustain performance.
You can also combine Lean with Agile and Kanban to create a turbo-charged project management process.
The Critical Path Method
The Critical Path method is one of the oldest and yet, most efficient project management methods:
- Define all the tasks that need to be completed in order to wrap up the project
- Identify task dependencies (Task B can’t be completed until Task A is completed)
- Connect those tasks with their dependencies in mind
- Identify parallel tasks
- Estimate the time and resources needed to complete each task
- Calculate the duration
Et voila! You’ve found your critical path!
The main benefit of this methodology is much more accurate scheduling.
If there’s a delay with one task, you’ll easily understand how that will reflect upon your entire project timeline.
The Critical Path method is a great fit for project teams that are struggling with resource constraints.
If you don’t have all the team members at your disposal, or if you don’t have a lot of time to complete the project, CPM will work great.
You can also use CPM as a tool, not as a standalone project management methodology.
The PMBOK / Project Life Cycle Method
Finally, you can simply use the life cycle method to structure your projects and processes:
- Execution and monitoring
While not generally considered a separate methodology, the PMBOK method consists of four stages natural in the project life cycle, and it’s frequently used by occasional project managers.
Other project management methodologies
For more complicated methodologies such as Prince2 and Extreme Programming, please consult our full guide to project management methodologies.
5. Create a Project Communication Plan
One of your roles as a project manager is to communicate and engage with stakeholders, namely:
- Team members
- Top management
- Contractors and vendors.
The best way of approaching this new duty is by creating a project communication plan:
- Outline the objectives of your project communication plan (E.g. Obtain stakeholder approval, increase their engagement, keep everyone informed on changes and progress, etc.)
- Identify communication requirements and preferences – Who needs which information? When and where should you communicate that information?
- Create a matrix that contains: stakeholder names, role titles, communication frequency, channels, and notes on preferences (E.g. You should inform your team members of changes daily, get in touch with clients after reaching a significant milestone, etc.)
You can also create a RACI matrix with more details about stakeholder responsibilities, consultations, and engagement.
6. Choose Project Management and Project Tracking Tools
Finally, it’s important to find the right project management and project tracking software.
Some of the benefits of project tracking include:
- Real-time information and reporting
- Problem and risk identification
- Team motivation.
The best tools incorporate the following features:
- Project management
- Task management
- Team management
- Team collaboration
- Analytics and reporting
- Project tracking
- Adjustable permissions for stakeholder engagement
- Visual tools and multiple view options (e.g. Gantt charts, calendar view, etc.).
Project management tools will help everyone stay in the loop regarding project progress, as well as increase transparency across your team.
If possible, find one tool that covers all of your needs.
This way, your entire project will have a central knowledge hub for collaboration and knowledge-sharing.
Avoid having to switch between different tabs.
Make sure that the tool offers analytics and reporting, as that will allow you to automatically send reports to stakeholders.
7. Create a Project Plan and Project Schedule
Some of the tasks you and your team will complete are going to be dependent on one another.
You can use the following methods to create a project schedule:
Critical Path Method
Consult section 4 on project management methodologies.
- Add all your tasks to your PM software
- Add start and finish dates
- Create links to define task dependencies
- Set constraints
- Assign resources
Resource-Oriented Project Scheduling
If you’re tight on resources and they’re your most problematic constraint, set up a diagram in your project management tool that shows:
- The amount of resources at your disposal
- Required tasks to complete the project
- Duration of each task
We recommend creating a critical path, and then using your project management software to create visual representations of your project schedule with a Gantt chart.
This way, you’ll know how any extensions affect your general project schedule.
Additionally, tools increase transparency, allowing every team member to know what they need to do.
8. Risk Management
Every project comes with a certain risk attached.
As a project manager, you’re expected to manage and mitigate all the possible risks.
The main three risks you’ll come across are risks related to:
Fortunately, there is a 5-step risk management process you can follow to identify and plan for risks early on:
- Identify potential risks in the project planning phase
- Create a risk management policy
- Measure the likelihood and the impact
- Deal with the risk if the worst happens: notify stakeholders, accept risks, or come up with alternative solutions for mitigating them
- Monitor the risk.
Common Risks and Issues During Projects
1. You are running out of time!
Respond to this risk early on by creating a project plan, schedule, identifying milestones and deliverables, and using a project management software to help you monitor performance and progress.
2. The project scope increased!
Respond to this risk early on by working with your team and clients on the project scope statement.
Include a change policy and a section on constraints.
What kind of changes are you able to accept?
Create a realistic work breakdown structure, and chart your critical path.
If the project scope increases despite preparation, communicate with your clients to increase the budget or set a different deadline.
You can also use Agile methodologies to mitigate risks with projects where estimates can’t be accurately calculated.
3. Your team isn’t performing as well as expected!
Make sure you’ve identified responsibilities early on in the planning stage.
Assign tasks to their owners, and leave no room for confusion.
Make the role of every team member as clear as possible.
We recommend using a PM tool to increase transparency.
4. The clients aren’t sure of your performance!
Some clients are more hands-on than others.
Make sure you acknowledge their needs in the stage where you’ll create a communication plan.
Keep them updated, and use project tracking metrics that will make project progress visible.
5. No one is communicating!
If your team isn’t communicating, consider integrating team building activities and practices in your day-to-day routine.
If you’re having trouble communicating with other stakeholders (clients, top management), create a thorough communications plan, use a PM software for reporting, and implement stakeholder management and engagement practices..
9. Task Management
Completing your project is a hefty endeavour. It’s much easier to look at it in terms of tasks.
When you have clearly outlined all the tasks you need to complete in order to finish the project and deliver the required product or service, it’s time for task management.
How to Prioritize Tasks
- Prioritize with the “Getting Things Done” method
- Do/Delegate/Drop: When approaching new tasks, consider which ones should be done, which ones should be delegated, and which ones should be dropped entirely because they’re not crucial.
- Create action items: Turn your to-do list items into structured activities
- Use the Eisenhower Matrix: Identify the urgency and importance of your tasks
Old-School Task Management Methods
- To-do lists: Still incredibly effective. Especially if you complement them with PM software that gives every team member their individual to-do list, and allows them to collaborate on tasks.
- Whiteboards and sticky notes: If you and your team work in an office, there’s nothing like a whiteboard to tangibly visualize your progress. You can even use it to motivate your team and celebrate whenever they successfully complete a task.
Visual and Modern Task Management Methods
- Kanban boards: While Kanban is a project management methodology, it can also be an incredibly efficient way to organize your tasks and prevent multitasking.
- Scrum boards: Similarly to Kanban, you can use Scrum as a methodology, or simply as a way of completing contextually connected tasks at the same time.
- Gantt charts
- Task management tools: The majority of project management tools come with task management features. They offer different ways to visualize your tasks; from calendar views to Gantt charts, and much more.
If you want to get things done in time, it’s important to track the following factors:
- Team member assignation (Who is doing what?)
- Task status and project progress
- Task follow-up (Task dependencies and tasks that have to be completed after)
Choosing a Task Management Tool
You can manage tasks with a to-do list. However, if you have a lot of tasks and task dependencies, it’s best to use a spreadsheet or project management software.
Pay attention to:
- Ease of use
- User adoption.
Include your team in the process of choosing your task management tool to increase user adoption.
You should also provide them with guidelines on how to use the tool (For example, when should they update?
Should they use it to collaborate with other team members?).
10. Project Management Metrics
If you want to make sure you complete the project in time and stay on track, pay attention to project management metrics.
Once you’ve established SMART goals, use some of the following metrics to monitor your progress and performance across projects:
- Milestones completed
- Billable and unbillable hours
- Return on investment
- Project cancellation and change rate
- Customer satisfaction
- Net promoter score
- Number of errors and customer complaints
- On-time completion and planned hours vs actual time spent
- Number of time and budget changes
- Resource conflict.
However, even if you just pay attention to project status and progress in your PM tool, you’ll have done plenty to improve your project success!
You can also use micro metrics such as:
- Tasks completed (in general and per team member)
- Time it took to complete tasks
- Milestones completed.
Your metrics also depend on the project management methodology you choose.
For example, if you opt for Scrum, you might want to track some of the following:
- Goal success
- Sprint velocity
- Sprint burndown.
11. Effective Project Team Collaboration
In ideal conditions, you would always work with people who are both highly-skilled and highly-communicative.
However, being a project manager often means having to manage your team more than you manage risks and constraints.
And no two team members are alike.
Here’s how you can improve team collaboration:
Offer advice, but don’t micromanage – Be there for your team members and coach them, but avoid the need to constantly check up on them if they don’t need help.
Decentralize knowledge sharing – Have a central tool that team members can turn to for information. Don’t make everyone report to you. Instead, create a process of knowledge-sharing, where the right information go directly to the right people.
Clarify roles and responsibilities – Every task should have one clear owner who is responsible for its completion. If the task results and information have to be handed over to another team member after completion, make that clear.
Encourage honesty and feedback – Hold frequent feedback sessions, and create a safe brainstorming space for your team. It’ll boost their creative thinking, ensuring that you handle obstacles smoothly.
Resolve conflicts – If a conflict arises, don’t ignore it. Instead, talk to the relevant team members, and help them resolve the conflict by steering their discussion, not simply closing it.
Make sure everyone is on the same page – Your team should primarily be on the same page regarding goals and priorities. This is especially important when it comes to cross-functional team collaboration.
12. Wrap It Up!
Finally, when you’ve completed all the tasks and finished the product, there are a few other things to take care of:
- Quality assessment – Reference the project initiation documentation to make sure that the end product/service meets the acceptance criteria.
- Wrap up the paperwork – Dot the I’s and cross the t’s regarding billing, release, and general project documentation.
- Conduct a post-mortem meeting – After you’ve completed the project, get your team together in one room and review your process. Identify areas for improvement. This is especially important if you’ll be working together in the future.
And, of course, don’t forget to celebrate!
Project Management Is Not as Complicated as It Seems!
If you follow all the steps we’ve outlined in this guide, you’ll successfully complete your project (even if this is the first time you’re doing it).
At the end of the day, project management is all about communication.
Communicate with your clients and your team members. Make sure you understand what it is that they really want. If needs be, put your Sigmund Freud hat on to get everyone on the same page.
And once you’ve understood your clients and your team members, the project itself will be a piece of cake.