Welcome to our complete guide to project management, where we’re going to give you all the information you need to formulate, organize, and execute a project management strategy to achieve your desired goal.
Here’s what you can expect to find in our guide:
As we go through each of these points, we’ll also provide links to supporting materials where you can fact-check any claims we make, so you can be confident that you’re getting the facts.
Through those links, you’ll also find more information that was beyond the scope of this guide yet useful to individuals interested in project management solutions.
Before we go into details, perhaps it’s best that we establish what project management is for those of you who are new to the idea.
Put simply, project management is exactly what it sounds like – the means by which professionals create a plan and stick to it to get the job done.
This could be done in any number of ways but, through centuries of industry, there are practices that have consistently worked better than others, which are the ones that project management professionals focus on.
By applying knowledge and experience with proven methods, project management seeks to establish an objective for your project to meet and pace that project with a timescale and a budget so that its success criteria is met in time.
It is this focus on the end goal, called the final deliverable, and the finite time span in which the objective must be completed that differentiates standard management from what we call project management.
As you can imagine, this can require collaboration between a lot of people with a lot of skill sets, particularly those invested in business management and human resources management.
Technical skills often play a part too, since any project endeavor requires software to keep all the moving parts in line.
Naturally, if the project is taking place in a technological-heavy industry, there will be an even greater reliance on those with technical skills.
Here’s what you can expect from the project management experience:
Project management is important for those of us who don’t want to waste time and money, which will be almost everybody you ever meet.
If the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry, then a project without a set plan is almost guaranteed to fail.
Even if you do succeed with minimalistic planning, you’ll succeed having spent more time and resources than you would have if you’d set up a project management plan beforehand.
Project management plans intend to save three things:
True to its name, a project management plan is a sustained effort that spans a period of time, meaning that it goes through several stages before coming to fruition.
The whole process can be divided into about four phases, each with distinct considerations that you should keep in mind. Let’s go through them.
Predictably, the first steps of your project management plan are often called the initiation phase.
This is where you get an idea, flesh it out, and start thinking about how you’ll reach the desired end goal.
Now, before you fire up a Word Doc or an Excel spreadsheet, it’s worth browsing online for resources that the real project management professionals use.
Perhaps the most useful in this initial stage is the project charter, a template that you can use to plan out the project in a way that’s easy to read and conceptualize.
It’s easy to find charters used by professional institutions online, and if it’s good enough for universities and government resources then it’s probably good enough for whatever you have planned.
Once everything is laid out, it’s best to gather all the parties that are interested in the project.
In this meeting, everybody agrees on the plan laid out in the charter through negotiation, with potential changes to the goal, schedule, and working practices of the plan.
After everybody agrees and stakeholders are happy, it’s time to move into active project management planning.
Now that you’ve ironed out the details that you’ll need to start the project plan, it’s time to actually get started.
You’ve got the beginnings of a plan but this is where the real planning takes place, hence the name of this phase.
This is best done by breaking the entire process down into manageable pieces.
Once you’ve done this with your project, it’s also a good idea to take a guess of how long each of these segments will take and add these up to get a vague estimate of how long the entire project will take.
A great way to simultaneously map out each task and process while establishing an easy-to-read roadmap for your entire project is to use a Gantt chart.
Using one of these, you can see everything that needs to be done and how each task relates to others.
If data-wrangling isn’t your thing, you can find guides for making Gantt charts online.
At this point, you’ve identified the goals of your plan and have established a roadmap of individualized tasks and processes that, when all completed, will result in your project’s aims being complete.
Now it’s time to execute your plan.
That’s easier said than done, of course, since the executing phase is where the majority of project management work takes place.
It’s no good to rush ahead with reckless abandon, however.
You’ll want to make sure that the progress you’re making is in line with the plans you’ve made.
Staying on track is important, so make sure that the project doesn’t go over budget, ignore deadlines, or neglect quality for the sake of saving time and money.
It’s a balancing act between these three features and a good project management professional knows when to prioritize one over the others to keep the entire project balanced and on-schedule.
If there are any issues, you’ll want to identify them earlier than later.
Once an issue has been identified, you’ll have to change certain aspects of the plan to prevent any risks, or at least mitigate them if some damage has already been done.
Assuming that the project has been a success and your goals have been met, it’s no good dropping everything and walking off into the sunset.
Part of good project management is closing the entire process in a way that isn’t disruptive and is beneficial to everybody involved.
First, since you’ll know the final deadline of the entire project, you’ll be able to wind down the process to a gradual stop.
If you’ve paced the project properly, there should not be a last-minute crunch to get the job done.
The chaos of a crunch scenario practically guarantees that resources will be misused or money will be inefficiently spent.
As the closing phase ends, you need to finalize any paperwork that’s related to the project and have the work you’ve done accepted by whoever you’ve organized the project for, if applicable.
If there’s any material or literature that needs to be transferred to a separate team, like the team that’ll run the project once it’s established, for example, then that will also have to be done.
Above we’ve divided the typical project into four different phases, and these are the phases you’ll see used across the project management industry too.
There’s more to each phase than we’ve explained above, however, so we’re going to walk you through the process in more detail. So far, we’ve got the following steps:
But each of these can be expanded into sub-steps that are useful for beginners to learn from.
Be advised that our step-by-step rundown of the project management life cycle isn’t concrete, so you’ll have to add or remove certain steps if the example we have here doesn’t gel with the specific project you have in mind.
Remember, a project management plan needs to be tailor-fitted to the nature of the project itself, there’s no one template you can draw from, and knowing what to add is part of the skills that project managers need to develop.
Inside the initiation phase, you generally have three things to do:
1. Create and gather documents in relation to the project. There’s probably going to be a lot, so having the means to archive them.
Project management software is great for this and we’ll be recommending some of them later in this guide.
Some examples you’re likely to come across are business case documents and feasibility studies.
Business cases are where you demonstrate that the project is likely to yield a return on investment that justifies the project’s go-ahead.
Feasibility studies are similar but instead justify the project’s existence to an organization that will contribute resources.
Think of it as a gauge on how possible the project is for the petitioned organization.
2. Gather a team of capable individuals. They need to have the right skill sets to execute the project plan, so they need to be chosen wisely.
To attract the right people, you’ll need to be clear in the job descriptions and what their responsibilities will be regarding the project.
3. Once you’ve got the relevant documents and a team assembled, you’re going to need a location to base your project office at.
You’ll need a physical space where the project managers and the rest of the team can assemble and strategize their approach to the project.
The infrastructure needs to be enough to house your team, so a bigger team will naturally demand a larger space with more equipment for the team to use.
As for the planning phase, it’s best to do these five things:
Along with a Gantt chart, work breakdown structures can be used and implemented into your project management plan.
These diagrams help you visualize the process and make it more evident if you’ve missed anything out.
The same can be said for Gantt charts, hence why they’re the favorite of industry professionals.
Once you’ve used a work breakdown structure to figure out what needs doing, you’ll want to put them in a scheduled order using a Gantt chart.
By combining a spreadsheet format with a timeline, you know exactly where and when you stand with a Gantt chart.
Factor in staff, resources, and any materials or technological items you may need to complete the budget evaluation.
Remember that it will be an estimate, so don’t worry about sticking to it to the last digit.
This is done via a risk management plan that allows you to respond quickly to any hiccups that you may face along the way.
Not everything is under your control, so even the most experienced project management professionals can’t have every project go smoothly.
Instead, knowledgeable project managers have a rigid risk management plan to mitigate any issues.
Any group undertaking lives or dies based on the quality of communication between its members, and this only becomes truer when that group is collaborating toward a shared and clearly-defined objective.
Assign tasks based on skill and experience which, if you’ve built a suitable team, shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
Make sure everybody knows what they’re doing, ready for the execution phase to begin.
Likewise, the execution phase can be broken down into five phases just like the planning phase, with an extra one for general logistics and maintenance of your project management plan.
Both standard team members and product managers need to keep the task management plan in mind when working to a deadline.
The utilization of a Kanban board is a great way to organize this information.
Now that you’ve hammered out a schedule in the planning phase, execution should be undertaken with a conscious concern about how long everything will take.
The project should make progress as fast as possible to maximize productivity but without sacrificing quality or wasting valuable resources.
Money disappears and it can disappear fast if the project is a big undertaking, so try to control costs and resist the temptation to throw more money at seemingly small additions because they will add up.
Measure your spending against the budget and have contingencies established.
For example, if you go over budget have secondary budgetary caps that you will absolutely not go over.
Your Gantt chart should track your spending if you’re doing it right.
It’s no good saving money and completing the project fast if the results are subpar, that’s what we call an unsuccessful project.
Always try to deliver the best quality, of course, but also know the expectations of your stakeholders to ensure that nobody is left disappointed.
In the same vein as quality concerns, you should also have an idea of how any changes to your project will take place.
Ensure that there are people managing potential changes to the project and, if the changes are beneficial, implement them in as least disruptive a way as possible.
If you’ve planned everything out well, the team should fall into place during the execution phase so that everyone knows their position and what’s expected of them.
Team-building exercises and other HR tools can be used to solidify team relations if you’re working with a disjointed staff.
It’s rare that you’ll have enough resources in-house, so most projects require you to rent or work with contractors who can bring additional resources to the scene.
This is what is called procurement in the industry, and you should arrange some resource reinforcement to make up for any shortcomings in your own stock.
Try to see every angle of your project and, where appropriate, rein in certain aspects of the job if they fall under performance standards.
Exercising too much control without justification can be just as harmful as not enough control, however, so you need to know when to intervene and guide the project towards success without smothering it.
Part of this monitoring process relies on the ability of your team to report to you and then the ability of your managers to report to stakeholders.
The first allows you and your managing team to get an accurate read of the staff and how the project is continuing.
The second allows your stakeholders to see data related to the project, which gives them confidence and facilitates their funding of the job.
Assuming that all of the above has been taken care of, it’s now time to enter the closing phase of the project.
All projects aim at hitting certain objectives to achieve an end-goal, usually referred to as a deliverable.
You need to have all of your deliverables mapped out before you start and, as they get completed, make sure they’re marked off so everybody knows where they stand.
This means making sure everybody at every stage of the project, from advisory stakeholders to the staff on the ground, knows that the project has met its goals.
This will also mean a lot of sign-offs so that managers have the relevant paperwork to properly close the project.
Having a paper trail for any agreement regarding the project is important.
Larger operations have dedicated people for this job, of course, but if you’re a small to medium-sized enterprise then it could fall to you as the project management planner.
If everything was managed in-house, you’ll need to release and reallocate these resources towards the next big project.
To avoid complications, a notification process that lets people know when they get paid is a good idea to weed out problem transactions so that you can sort them out now rather than later.
Think about what worked and, if there were any substantial problems, how they came about and what could be done to prevent or mitigate them should they arise again.
A team celebration is always welcome, too.
In the industry, the triple constraint is three things to keep in mind at virtually every stage of project management. In the above steps, you may have noticed that they’ve already come up a few times.
Time pertains to your schedule and, once you’ve got everything planned out and your Gantt chart set up, it’s simple enough to ensure that the project moves along in time.
The scope can refer to size but also the quality of the project, so we’ve already talked about this too to some extent.
Cost is something that any business person is intimately familiar with and, needless to say, it’s best to keep costs down.
So why bring up the triple constraint if we’ve mentioned them individually already? Because each third doesn’t exist in a vacuum, that’s why.
If one of these factors changes, it’ll affect the other two and so your triple constraint plan will need to be adjusted accordingly.
As an example, having subpar quality in a part of your project will likely see that part redone, which draws out the schedule and, in turn, increases operating costs.
Spinning all three of these plates is the key to success in project management.
If one falls, the other two won’t be far behind it and they’ll be hell for you to manage before the project as a whole fails.
We’ve talked a lot about theory so far, so we think it’s valuable to go over some proven methodologies that project managers often swear by.
If successful project managers have already found that the below methodologies have helped them, there’s no need to try and find your own path.
We’ll start with the most linear, the waterfall model.
This is the best model for those who strategize ahead and expect very little to change.
This means you’ll want your deliverables to be very clear-cut so that you have a definitive win state at which your project ceases.
Waterfalls work best when led by smaller teams of project managers who can draft up the requirements, the solutions, and go about bringing those solutions into reality one after the other, hence its reputation as a linear system of work.
Needless to say, if you haven’t planned ahead or expected that large changes could come to the project, the waterfall isn’t the methodology for you.
Even under a skilled professional who can roll with the punches, the whiplash that a project sustains when sudden and unexpected curveballs are thrown at it shouldn’t be underestimated.
For many years, agile was the favorite methodology of those working in digital spaces, like building software for example.
You probably have an idea of what it is if you’ve ever heard the word “sprint” in a business context.
It’s where there are time windows in which the team works and works and works until they reach the desired goal, but not the final goal of the project.
After hitting that point, they stop.
There may be a period of break or some lax work on maintenance of the project, until the next time window where the next great hurdle is overcome.
This strategy has bled into the real world, particularly real-world projects that may have an intangible component to them, such as marketing.
Because of their fast nature, agile project strategies are best for iterative thinkers who like to feel their way around a problem instead of tackling it from a distance by planning ahead.
It can also be great for morale since it breaks large undertakings into celebrated small victories after periods of intense work.
That said, it’s a non-standard form of working and very much requires initiation into the style.
You can’t pluck traditional workers off the street and expect them to fall into an agile working pattern without problems.
True to its name, lean project management is all about keeping potential waste trimmed down so that a team, usually a small one, is working in tandem towards an established goal.
It can only feasibly work on one project at a time but, when it does work, you can expect another iterative work style that streamlines the process and allows everything to be done by a smaller but multi-capable squad.
Since you’re a smaller team tackling everything, feedback becomes even more important with lean models.
This is usually done via end-user feedback who get hands-on experience with what you’ve built, sourcing first-hand criticism of the project so that any major problems can be ironed out at the end of the development process.
Let’s talk more about the management processes that underpin the project life cycle.
In taking you through the step-by-step of a project, we’ve mentioned some of these in passing, but some deserve more explanation for those who are learning.
This is arguably the most important one.
Murphy’s Law exists and it will rear its ugly head if you haven’t planned ahead and factored in potential mishaps and disruptions to your project.
Defining what those threats are and keeping them in the back of your head isn’t enough, however, you need to have contingency plans set up in case they actually happen.
As you’d expect, the larger the project, the more at-risk it is of suffering from risk.
That’s why the larger projects usually have more rigorous risk management contingencies in place so that the entire ship doesn’t go down if a small part of the hull is breached.
Any contingencies need to be fully communicated with relevant team members too. A contingency plan is useless if the people who can most effectively execute that plan are oblivious to it.
Expanding from risk management, you also need to think about issue management.
What’s the difference?
Well, you can’t have risk managers solely dedicated to stopping risks that have already happened, that’s best relegated to its own issue management team.
It can comprise some members of risk management but it’s best that your project has the versatility to both foresee future problems and stop problems that have already happened all at once.
You don’t want your risk management team busy helping with issues that have arisen, only to fail at spotting another risk that’s barreling towards your project.
Every project is bound to have its changes, that much is a given.
Planning for a project that doesn’t change at all is planning for failure, so you need to not only anticipate changes but have a process whereby you can implement those changes.
This can be an error in what your exact deliverables are or when you expect them and having a management team for the change process is ideal for keeping the triple constraint in mind.
Remember that any change regarding schedule, budget, or deliverables will affect the other two factors in the triple constraint and potentially bury your project if not implemented correctly.
We briefly touched upon procurement when writing about the resource management that’s needed during a project, but it’s important that you don’t treat procured resources the same as in-house ones.
When working with suppliers and staffing agencies, you want everything to go smoothly so that you maintain good relations and both parties can exit the project with their reputations intact.
The best way to do this is to be very transparent.
The same goes for your staff, of course, but acquired staff and materials must be transparently contracted so that everybody knows who they are, why they’re here, and on what conditions they leave the project and get paid for their participation.
Almost all of the above processes hinge on a very important but often overlooked aspect of project management – communication.
Having processes set up whereby relevant peoples can get the messages dedicated to them, preferably as fast as possible without being disruptive to their workload, is paramount in allowing everyone to know what they are doing.
Short of establishing a messaging system, it’s also handy to have frequent meetings.
These can range from smaller, duty-based meetings of relevant individuals to large meetings where multiple topics are on the agenda, just make sure that there’s ample opportunity for those who have questions to find the information they need to work confidently.
When it comes to management, you just need to do these five things throughout every stage of project development:
There’s not much more we can do except recommend some of our favorite project management software.
Here are our five most popular examples of project management software and, if you want more, you can find our full directory here.
It can’t be understated how useful these are for planning out project tasks while forming a schedule that can be seen at a glance.
When looking for a platform for Gantt charts, what better option is there than GanttPro?
Trello is the textbook definition of a puddle that hides more under the surface.
It’s incredibly easy to understand with its card format yet it has so many customization functions that make it great for tailoring.
This is because transparency is the main feature of Zube, integrating seamlessly with GitHub Issues, and providing an interface where the entire team can see what each other are doing.
It has many secondary features, however, such as shared notes and documents that everyone can access and even a team wiki that’s great for onboarding people new to the project and explaining what it is that needs to get done.
Along with the confidence that you get from working on a renowned company’s platform that has been painstakingly maintained for years, Project has seamless integration with Microsoft Teams, allowing you to meet, chat and share files while working.
That’s about it from us. After reading everything in this guide, you should have a good foundation of knowledge on what project management is and the concepts that go into a successful project.
As with many industries, the real learning starts by doing, but in project management, your chances at success are helped by meticulous pre-planning and you should be in a better position to do that after having read that guide.
All that’s left is for you to start. If you run into problems, you can always refer back here and to the linked materials provided for guidance. Good luck with your project!
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