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It's one simple word, but it’s not always well-understood in the business world. The word 'project' has a specific meaning when managing projects.

If you're a new project manager, understanding what a project is, its characteristics, values, and phases ensure that you can accurately define projects, establish realistic expectations for stakeholders, and position your teams for project success.

What is a Project? Basic Project Definition

A project is a temporary endeavor with a fixed start and end date. It's an initiative with a unique product or service that has specific goals and objectives that a project manager and their team fulfill.

Project teams follow specific frameworks or methodologies, such as The Project Management Institute's (PMI) Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK), to meet project tasks, milestones, and goals.

Projects are best managed using project management software

What is Not a Project?

Projects aren't ongoing or repetitive tasks without a defined timeline. Its goals don't continuously change. Day-to-day operations and ongoing processes like these are not considered projects:

  • Managing manufacturing processes
  • Administrative functions
  • Leading operational teams
  • Repetitive marketing and sales activities

Characteristics of a Project

Projects have some common elements or characteristics that project managers are responsible for throughout the project life cycle.

A project manager should identify, analyze, document, and communicate these characteristics with stakeholders, including project teams. This will ensure everyone is on the same page and help prepare project teams to complete work within the project's scope. 

Constraints

Project constraints don't limit a team's options. They serve as motivation to become more creative and expand their capabilities in pursuit of greater achievement. 

(That's how I see constraints, anyway).

Accepting that project constraints will crop up, whether linked to resources, stakeholders, budget, goals, objectives, or timelines, is essential. Potential constraints require immediate attention because one characteristic will inevitably have a ripple effect. 

Risk management strategies like building backup plans for resourcing shortages or alternate options when constraints might jeopardize any characteristic or aspect of your project are also required. 

This is where your expertise and training as a project manager can set you apart as an effective leader. Identifying constraints at the start of your project and creative strategies to reduce potential problems can put you and your team on a path to achieving a successful project and a solid return on investment (ROI) for customers.

Resources

Project resources (human resources) can be one of the most difficult to manage due to their impact on all facets of efficient project management. They impact everything from collaboration and communication to the timeline and quality of projects. Having the right resources when needed is critical to successfully meeting dependencies. 

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Example:

For instance, if a company has high employee turnover in its product marketing department and difficulty hiring new team members, it severely hinders plans to launch and market a new product, even if other departments are well-staffed, capable, and ready to go.  

As a project manager, you'll need the proper project management tools for resource planning, allocation, and tracking to quickly identify potential resource gaps and make adjustments before they become problematic. 

Stakeholders

Project stakeholders can be anyone impacted by a project or impacts a project's goals or desired outcome. 

Here are just a few examples:

  • Customers
  • Project sponsors
  • Project team members
  • Internal functional departments
  • External groups or individuals (government, legal, or legislative bodies)

Whether internal or external, stakeholders must be on the same page and up-to-date on progress. A project manager is responsible for timely, clear, and accurate communication with all stakeholders. 

Budget

Gaining approval for your project budget is the go or no-go point. The initial approval is only the start. Many projects with approved and sufficient budgets have been at risk when economic or other conditions have changed. 

Example: 

Let's say you're opening a restaurant. You have everything in place to open the doors—or so you thought. Your head chef has suddenly backed out due to changing economic factors prompting salary decreases. You don't have an option for additional funds. The lack of contingency will delay the timeline for the restaurant's opening.

As a project manager, you must monitor and control project spending in relation to budgets, calculate potential risks, and build risk management strategies. It's helpful to stay in close contact with project sponsors about the potential for budget changes.  

Goals & Objectives

Project goals and objectives should remain the north star. But what happens with the north star shifts? Internal and external factors pose challenges and risks that impact project objectives, and customers may also request changes to goals. 

Tracking a project's many moving pieces and elements can be complex and even daunting. Managing this and potential risks requires comprehensive project management software and tools capable of capturing everything in one place. 

When the goals or objectives change, the project should be re-evaluated, and a scope change is required to ensure the team's success. 

Timeline

To be considered a project in the true sense, it should have a definitive timeframe. It should outline all the required tasks and a project schedule outlining the baseline, duration for each task, milestone, and resource assigned to it. Project managers typically use tools like Gantt charts to track project timelines

It's like using a Global Positioning System (GPS) while driving to your desired destination. The GPS should tell you how long it will take to reach the destination and show you all the stops (tasks) you need to take and which towns, gas stations, and restaurants (resources) are available to help you get there safely and on time. 

Example: 

A home builder has promised several customers that their house will be ready in ten months. As time draws near, roofer delays have extended the timeline, making it impossible to deliver the finished homes to customers on time. 

What could have been done to avoid this? As a part of the risk management strategy, the project manager could have built a buffer to the original timeline to ensure this didn't happen. As this didn't happen, the best recourse is to seek another roofer to keep things on track, be honest with the customer, and discuss options. 

All of the project characteristics play a vital role in the final outcome. No one is more important than the other because each can derail a project if it's absent or not given enough weight.

Types of Projects & Project Examples

Many project managers have led numerous types of projects. These are more common examples of projects you may have heard of or worked on.

Some common examples of projects include:

  • Manufacturing projects: Manufacturing a specialized piece of equipment
  • IT or software development projects: Setting up IT infrastructure or designing an app 
  • Business projects: A merger or acquisition
  • Construction projects: Designing and constructing a building or home

There are other types of projects—the key to fitting the formal definition of a project.

Now, let's get into the phases of a project that ensure project management processes go smoothly.

Phases of the Project

Regardless of the type of project, PMI's PMBOK guide defines five distinct project management steps that guide the work of project teams. Let's examine each one.

the five phases of the project management life cycle
There are five phases in a typical project's life cycle.

Phase 1: Initiating

Before you can plan a project, the organization develops a business case for why the project is needed and the goals. This is the project initiation phase, where the project has to be approved, budgeted, and defined at the organizational level.

Phase 2: Planning

In this phase, the project manager develops a project management plan outlining the project characteristics and the work to be completed. The project sponsor must approve the project plan before it can be executed.

Phase 3: Executing

The project execution phase is where project teams conduct the work necessary to deliver project goals and objectives outlined in the project plan. Project teams typically utilize a project management methodology such as agile project management. Some other common methodologies include waterfall, scrum, and Six Sigma. 

They also leverage the power of project management software to keep teams and stakeholders on the same page, monitor project progress, and complete projects within scope.

Phase 4: Monitoring and Controlling

Throughout the project management life cycle, the project manager ensures that the completed project activities align with the plan. They also analyze and identify variances, communicate with stakeholders, and adjust as needed.

Phase 5: Closing

In this last stage, the project is officially closed. Project teams go through a debrief process where they analyze and discuss how the project went and document its results and lessons learned to improve in future projects.

The Value of Project Management

Ben Aston, founder of The Digital Project Manager, says, "Project management unites clients and teams, creates a plan for on-time and on-budget delivery, and gets stakeholders on the same page." I couldn't agree more.

But that's not all. He shares at least a dozen other benefits when it comes to project management's ROI for businesses of all sizes and across all industries. 

Here are just a few:

  • More impactful project outcomes
  • On-time and on-budget delivery
  • Efficient resource management
  • Continuous learning and improvement
  • Improved team alignment and control
  • Consistent, high-quality deliverables

My thoughts? The purpose of a project is to deliver a valuable goal or objective. The need for a project rests on its feasibility, which means it must be strategic throughout its entire life cycle to be truly beneficial.

It's not about going through the paces or phases to complete the project on time and budget. Project management and project managers must be strategic to make the most impact—it's a mindset. 

The difference between merely managing projects and strategically managing projects requires establishing clear links between projects and a company's strategic objectives.

Whether you are working on a single project or a few projects, they shouldn't be siloed. It's about aligning all project goals and objectives to company-wide goals and objectives. With this in mind, each project can deliver a more significant ROI.

What’s Next?

If you’re interested in becoming a project manager, check out our training course for digital project managers, Mastering Digital Project Management. It covers the entire project life cycle from start to finish and common project methodologies and includes access to a variety of templates for important project documentation.

Moira Alexander
By Moira Alexander

Moira Alexander is a recognized thought leader and the founder of PMWorld 360 Magazine and Lead-Her-Ship Group, a digital content marketing agency where she helps companies create, market, and lead with engaging digital content. With over 25 years of business, information technology, and project management experience, she's been named one of the top global female thought leaders and influencers on project management, SaaS, and the future of work.