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What Is Project Management? Everything You Need To Know

The thing about project management is that everyone thinks they know what it is, but when you start to scratch the surface, you realize that most folks only have a general understanding of the job.

Even when I talk to seasoned project managers about how they describe what they do, they still tend to simplify it down into vague metaphors: it’s “herding cats” or “making sure the work gets done” or “keeping the plane from crashing into the mountain”.

But when it comes to planning a career in managing projects, you’ll need a bit more information than that. So in this article, I’m going to shed some light on:

  • What project management is, really
  • What a good project manager does
  • Why project management is important, especially in a digital world

Along the way, I’ll also cover:

  • Some popular project management techniques and methodologies
  • Some project management tools and what they’re for
  • Some recommended best practices in project management
  • The nuances of the job, and why no one seems to be able to define it consistently ?
In this article

What Is Project Management?

In the simplest of terms, project management is the process of organizing, deploying, and orchestrating company resources to successfully complete a project.

By company resources, what I mean is the personnel, the finances, and the equipment or technology required to achieve the project goals within the specified constraints of scope (what we agreed to do), time (when we need to do it by), and budget (how much money we have to get it done).

By project, what I mean is a focused investment of effort and resources to deliver or enable a business outcome within a timeframe that has a clear starting point and end point.

But project management is also a leadership-oriented and goal-based craft that is not only critical to the value and outcomes delivered by the project, but also to the overall well-being of the teams of people involved.

Why Is Project Management Important?

Though it may seem that teams can be briefed and set to work more quickly and affordably without a project manager, the truth is simple: project management is so important because it brings alignment, leadership, clarity, and focus that is difficult to achieve as a secondary responsibility tacked onto another role within the project team.

It also provides a perspective on project-wide quality, product cohesion, and how well the project achieves its objectives and the expected return on investment.

This is especially true in a digital world, where project teams are highly specialized and technology and ways of working are constantly changing. In this world, project managers are the specialists at leading, facilitating, and managing collaboration.

They work as a servant-leader, connecting disparate teams together, translating complex requirements and concepts for stakeholders and team members, balancing expectations as risks arise, and empowering individuals to do their best possible work within the project constraints—even if those constraints are constantly shifting.

What Is The Role Of Project Managers Within Their Organizations?

Besides all the responsibilities mentioned above, project managers also often create and systematize processes and unified visions within their organizations. These processes and visions help hold individual team members and resources together and keep them accountable. Without them, teams may go over budget or take too much time—or generally lose track of goals, motivation, and team morale.

A good project manager will understand that projects that take more time and resources than planned can impede an organization’s ability to move forward on other initiatives and limit the organization’s ability to operate profitably and grow.

Likewise, a good project manager will understand that casting a clear vision for the team, creating a psychologically-safe and supportive working environment, and advocating for the needs of individual team members will drive team performance and the quality of the work.

In other words, project managers provide both logistical and emotional support—both of which are essential for any project to succeed. Whereas teams may be laser-focused on their individual responsibilities, a project manager keeps the big picture in mind for all involved.

What A Good Project Manager Does

Though there are many roles that involve some degree of project management, there is something to be said about having a designated project leader that ties everything together—someone who can act as a bridge and a translator across diverse teams and stakeholder groups.

To this end, a good project manager works directly with teams, stakeholders, executive sponsors, and clients to manage logistics, drive proactive communications, lead prioritization efforts, and look ahead to remove or manage barriers to success.

Where a great project manager delivers the most value is understanding the balance of the project objectives versus its constraints, and managing the collaboration process to achieve those objectives within those constraints.

In order to orchestrate the effort from a bird’s eye view as well as a tactical perspective, a project manager may use a specific project management tool or project management technique to help guide project control.

This will help them create and update the project plan, stay on top of task management, record and manage identified risks, and plan team capacity to ensure the smoothest path towards project success.

In addition, the project manager may need to define and manage the project processes to streamline the way people work together. These processes may be directly drawn from standardized project methodologies or may be tailored specifically for a team or an organization.

Because of all of these elements, the broad nature of project management requires a diverse skill set relating to communication, organization, data analysis, process management, risk management, and more. A good project manager embraces that breadth and aspires to grow in any area they feel will help them deliver value.

Roles And Responsibilities Of A Project Manager

While project managers have many different responsibilities, the most essential part of the project management process involves coordination and communication.

In support of that, the responsibilities of a project manager can include any or all of the following:

  • Creating a project plan and breaking the work down into smaller and more specific tasks
  • Gathering project requirements
  • Outlining and briefing deliverables for the team, overall task management, and adjusting the brief as needed
  • Setting and directing time frames per task, as well as the overall timeline
  • Proactively approaching difficult conversations with clients, executive sponsors, stakeholders, and the team
  • Becoming fluent and governing the usage of the organization’s project management tools
  • Building strong rapport with the project team, partners, and suppliers
  • Making all the puzzle pieces fit through strong project integration management
  • Communicating with project stakeholders and the project sponsor
  • Assessing risk and owning the risk management plan
  • Handling any internal or external issues that arise
  • Directing budget and adjusting as needed throughout project progress
  • Creating the work breakdown structure
  • Maintaining composure and having a back-up plan in case the project goes awry
  • Evaluating the team’s capabilities and optimizing team performance
  • Communicating and clarifying project scope, including activity, sequence, and duration
  • Conducting resource management and determining the available resources, assigning tasks, and providing realistic schedules
  • Providing consistent updates and communication to stakeholders and the project sponsor or client
  • Creating and presenting comprehensive reports with analysis of expenditures and performance
  • Managing through influence and exercising the authority set forth in the project charter

Project Management Techniques & Methodologies

Because project management involves both technical organization as well as personnel management, different project management techniques will depend on different aims. Ultimately, a good project manager must have a consistent yet flexible strategy for handling projects that the team is familiar with, as well as projects they might not be familiar with yet.

Project Management Methodologies

There are many methodologies used in project management. The specific approach will depend on the size of the company, the team makeup, the project requirements and goals, and the nature of the project itself. There’s a plethora of resources available on each project management methodology, so rather than attempting to be exhaustive, I’ve provided a simplified summary below.

Sequential Methodologies

Gantt Chart Diagram

Sequential approaches are best when the future is more predictable than not.

A sequential approach requires advanced foresight and involves scheduling static phases—like requirements analysis, design, testing, implementation, and maintenance—in a predefined, specific order.

Some examples of this approach include the waterfall methodology, the critical path method, and critical chain project management.

Agile Methodologies

Kanban Board Diagram with cards and columns to-do, doing, and done

Agile approaches are best suited for collaborative projects that may need to respond to change.

An agile approach is driven by the principles of the Agile Manifesto and typically leverage short delivery cycles or “sprints” that don’t claim to know the future, embrace change, and allow for rapid adjustments throughout the project.

Some examples of this approach include Scrum Agile, Kanban, eXtreme Programming (XP), and the Adaptive Project Framework.

Hybrid Methodologies

Because of the unique requirements of each project and each organization involved, many teams will tailor their methodology to be a bit of a blend of different methodologies.

The most common hybrid is a blend of waterfall and agile project management, approaching project planning and requirements analysis using the Waterfall method, and approaching the execution phase for development and evaluation using an Agile methodology.

Other Methodologies

Given that project management as a craft and specialization has been around for some time now, it’s perhaps unsurprising that there are other methodologies that don’t belong to the categories above. One example is Lean Six Sigma, which is a business process optimization methodology that originated in more of a manufacturing context.

When selecting a methodology, it’s important to recognize that a project manager generally sets the direction and maintains standards and status of the project—but they may also have the additional goal of aligning all projects with an organization’s strategic objectives, which might involve a different set of tools for managing project portfolios or business processes more broadly.

Modern Project Management Skills & Techniques

Traditionally, project management techniques revolved around project planning and scheduling skills, including:

  • Setting budgets and aligning them with time frames
  • Allocating resources to tasks and keeping track of capacity and output with progress reports

That is still true today, but more recently it has become more widely recognized that project management also revolves around communication skills, people leadership skills, and a strong business sense.

With that in mind, here are six project management techniques that every modern project manager should be familiar with:

1. Breaking A Project Down Into Tasks

Also known as “project decomposition” this technique is about organizing work into small, manageable, and often hierarchical chunks. The goal here is to get to a task level view to drive accurate cost estimation, realistic timelines, and an understanding of task dependencies from the bottom up. The output is typically a work breakdown structure.

2. Visualizing The Project Schedule

At some point, a project manager will need to share a high-level view of the project plan to an executive sponsor, a client, a project stakeholder, or their project team. The best way to do this is to visualize the work in a way that shows the durations, priorities, dependencies, and/or level of effort involved. This can take the form of a Gantt chart, a PERT diagram, or a project roadmap.

3.Measuring And Managing Project And Team Performance

A project likely won’t go perfectly to plan, so tracking how the project is performing in terms of costs, timeline, and adherence to scope—as well as how the team is performing in terms of velocity, collaboration, and morale—are key to making crucial adjustments to reach success. Some techniques within this include earned value management, creating a requirements traceability matrix, gathering team feedback, conducting sprint retrospectives, and creating a psychologically-safe working environment.

4. Risk Management And Problem Solving

Risk management helps a project manager make a plan for unwelcome surprises that might happen or might not. Problem solving helps a project manager deal with issues that have come up.

Both are critical for a project manager to understand. Managing risk is often supported by a risk register or risk log that helps teams capture, track, and plan for risks collaboratively. Problem solving can be supported by techniques like root cause analysis, which may involve creating a fishbone or Ishikawa diagram to get the heart of the problem.

5. Prioritization

In terms of delivering a project, not everything can be the top priority. Prioritization helps a project manager assess and communicate what needs to be done in what order, what tasks are critical, and what change requests should be worked into the current project versus recommending they move to the next phase. Some prioritization techniques include MoSCoW prioritization or creating a prioritization matrix.

6. Leading With Emotional Intelligence

In truth this is much more than just a technique, but I believe it to be the cornerstone of modern project management. This involves tailoring communications to a specific audience, having the awareness to assess and manage relationships and social dynamics, using empathy to find a balance between people’s needs, and managing your own emotions effectively to lead the project team, client, project sponsor, stakeholders, and partners through the peaks and valleys of projects.

Best Tools For Project Management

Project management tools come in many varieties for all types of applications. For example, a project manager may use a task management tool, a costs and timeline management tool, a communication management tool, a tool for business requirements tracking and prioritization, a tool for time tracking, a change management tool, a tool for business intelligence and analytics, and more.

Some project management tools are offered as a suite and are positioned as an all-in-one solution. Others focus on a specific area of project management with the ability to easily integrate into an ecosystem of complementary tools.

Many software solutions also provide a library of useful forms and templates to get you started.

Project management offices at small businesses may look for a different set of tools than a larger corporation running multiple projects. Nimble organizations looking to get to a minimum viable product quickly may be more inclined to use an agile project management approach and may benefit from agile-optimized tools like Jira and Trello. Organizations that tend to involve stakeholders and partners in a shared ecosystem may benefit from a flexible and customizable solution like ClickUp or Asana.

Ultimately, finding the right project management tool is a matter of identifying specific project needs.

When choosing the best tools for project management for your org, you should focus on usability and integration as much as price and functionality. This means that looking at a project management app might be more user intuitive than a complex new software or the latest specially designed project management tool.

It also means understanding what different teams are used to and looking for in their specific work and comparing it with what the client is used to and looking for.

Start with our list of the best project management software, which also includes more info on key features and functionalities to look for, pricing, integrations, and more.

While a project management tool can seem like a glorified task list, color-coding and other visualization features may prove to be extraordinarily useful for promoting creativity and collaboration.

Learn more about the tools for project management here.

Nowadays, there are countless project management tools and techniques out there that can help project managers and teams improve their project management processes and project outcomes. However, there are a few project management skills and best practices that are globally applicable to the craft—whether you’re managing a construction project or a digital transformation project.

Create Clear, Realistic Project Plans

For starters, developing a clear brief and a realistic project task plan at the outset will help you achieve the project goal and keep to the project life cycle. Clarity is absolutely key for a good project manager, who must concisely delineate scope and objectives, deliverables, project life cycle, milestones, and success criteria. Once that gets off the ground, consistent communication will help troubleshoot any variance, risk, and corrective action you might need.

Track And Communicate Proactively

The data around your project controls helps you identify where your project may need some course-correction, but you will also need to combine that with an instinct and willingness to proactively have the difficult conversations about changes to the project.

This starts with defining and communicating concrete requirements and clear steps to meet them. Then it moves to monitoring project progress and providing status updates to the project team and to key project stakeholders.

Allowing the team insight on any variances overall and collaboratively tracking issues will help develop an understanding of why things are not going to plan so that issues don’t recur.

Understanding Strengths And Capacities

Knowing the roles and responsibilities of team members is critical for strong project management, but so is an understanding of their current workload.

Equally important is identifying dependencies between tasks that need to happen in order—sometimes, the reliance and connection gets lost in the major to-dos, so prioritizing the firsts and seconds will often help to plan the timeline and team capacity… and avoid frustration from the team!

Awareness Of Scope Creep

Lastly, recognize when there is scope creep—or when those clear starter boundaries become more vague in the execution phase in a way that puts the budget, timeline, or deliverables at risk. Project managers should always be vigilant against any risk, but a shift in scope is one of those subtle things requiring special care.

Becoming A Project Manager

It is not uncommon for project managers to be “found” and promoted from a different role within an organization. This decision is often driven by that team member’s experience working with a specific project team or general experience within that company.

However, company and team experience aren’t the only things that make a good project manager. Individuals in this situation should be encouraged to grow into their role by getting formal project management training as well as by developing their relationship management and people leadership skills.

Many certification programs such as The Project Management Institute’s Project Management Professional (PMP®) certification or our Digital Project Management certification can supplement management experience with knowledge and skills specific to project management, meaning that becoming a project leader is fairly accessible. But depending on experience, education, and career goals, the critical path to become a project manager can take anywhere from a few months to years.

Of course project managers are also hired into an organization for their skill set and for the fresh perspective that outside hires often bring. In these scenarios, some employers will place more emphasis on demonstrated skill than a formal education in project management.

Others will be looking for candidates who have a certification in project management and possibly even a Masters of Business Administration (MBA).

Is Project Management In Your Career Path?

Thanks for sticking around to the end of the article! So what do you think, after reading this are you still considering a career in project management? Or if you’re already a project manager, do you agree with how we’ve framed our profession and craft?

If you have any insights or comments on project management, feel free to reply below. I’d love to continue the conversation. And don’t forget to subscribe to The Digital Project Manager newsletter!

Related Read: What Is Project Management Software Used For?

By Galen Low

I am a Client Services Professional and Business Development Specialist with over a decade of experience delivering human-centered digital transformation in government, healthcare, transit, and retail. Today, I help professionals lead teams and deliver projects ahead of the digital curve as the Co-Founder, General Manager, and Podcast Host of The Digital Project Manager. A few of my specialties: digital strategy, agile web application development, project management, human-centered design, design thinking, innovation & growth, digital government, career coaching, professional development.

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