Project Management – What’s It All About?

Project Management is the planning and management of a range of tasks, particularly where there are complexities either within the tasks or within the teams working on the project, in order to achieve a deliverable at the end of the project. A deliverable can be many things; it may be a physical thing such as a new product, it may be an intangible thing such as a new process within an organisation or it may be a new software system.

Whatever the end result of the project, it will involve some type of change within a business. The change could be a modification to the existing status quo or it could be introducing something completely new, so change management is also an element of project management.

A project that is going to be formally managed within an organisation could be in any area of the business, but the most common areas in which project management tools and techniques will be useful are:

  • IT
  • customer services
  • product manufacture
  • new business development
  • premises
  • administrative tasks and processes
  • financial, legal and professional procedures
  • health and safety requirements
  • research and development

If the desired final outcome cannot be accurately predicted with certainty, then project management techniques will be required to plan and organise tasks, assess the risks and ensure the resources are available to deliver a successful outcome.

So what exactly are the stages of managing a project? Listed below are the fundamental stages of managing any project; each of these may contain many sub-stages, particularly for more complex projects:

Document the Business Requirements

The business requirements document should accurately, and in detail, describe the purpose of the project. It states what is needed to achieve that goal i.e. what is in-scope, what is out-of-scope, any assumptions that have been made, any constraints that have been imposed and expected timescales. The document will form the definitive description of the aims of the project and, as such, can be used to manage the expectations of the stakeholders. It will also include acceptance criteria that will ultimately be used to judge whether the project was a success.

The production and agreement of the business requirements is a substantial part of the overall project schedule and may take many iterations before it is finally approved.

The project manager usually works with other departments or teams to put the document together. They will probably use Brainstorming and Interviewing techniques to help with this process and may even build a prototype.

Document the Functional Specification

The business requirements state what is required but do not specify how the deliverable will actually work. So in many projects with a tangible and technically sophisticated deliverable, it is very common to produce additional documentation about the look and feel of the end product. The functional specification describes not only how the end product will look but also how an end-user will actually use it and what the user-experience will be like.

This document should contain sections that specifically relate to each of the requirements in the business requirements document so that every functional item can be tracked back to an original business need.

Create the Project Plan

The project plan will include details about the various tasks required to complete the project, the people and equipment involved, time estimates, dependencies, milestones and the overall timescales

The tasks need to be scheduled in the correct order and dependencies between tasks factored in. In complex projects several tasks will be performed in parallel to maximise the total project time. The plan will also take account of the project budget.

There are many project management techniques and tools available, some of the most common being Critical Path Analysis Flow Diagrams and Gantt Charts.

A Critical Path Analysis diagram uses a linear timeline to identify dependent tasks and is particularly used on large, complex projects which may have hundreds of dependent activities. These diagrams highlight dependent tasks that overlap and, therefore, require adjustments to the schedule.

A Gantt Chart is an excellent project management tool for the scheduling, budgeting and reporting of a project. The easiest, but perhaps not the most useful, tool for creating Gantt Charts is MSProject. Each task is listed on the left-hand side of the chart with a timeline shown on the right. Milestones can be easily marked and the schedule and costs can be easily updated where necessary.

Every project should have a contingency allowance for both time and budget as there is always a tendency to under-estimate tasks, particularly when under pressure to deliver as soon as possible. Indeed, in practise, many project managers are not given the luxury of estimating the total time required but are likely to be given a fixed end date and the project tasks have to be fitted into the time available.

Project management also includes identifying and managing potential risks as well as managing the change associated with most projects.

Assign Project Tasks

All of the tasks listed on the project plan need to be assigned to an individual or team. The person or persons responsible for a task will need to know in detail what the task involves and also the dependencies and timescales, which can be clearly communicated to them using the Gantt Chart. The timescales must be realistic and, in practise, the project manager will probably have discussed timescales with the team before the schedule was finalised. They will also need to understand the criteria by which each task is determined as complete.

People Management

The role of a project manager is very diverse and one of the most vital skills is good people management. The most carefully planned projects will go awry if the team is not motivated, encouraged and kept informed. Regular scheduled meetings provide a formal way of doing this but do not overlook the casual conversations that are often more informative for the project manager and easier opportunities to encourage individuals at a more personal level.

Review Progress

Regularly review estimates, deadlines and milestones to check they are still on schedule. If necessary, update the plan with new estimates and tasks and ensure that remaining tasks are necessary and estimates are still valid. Circumstances can change during a project but question every change and always refer back to the original business requirement as a corss-reference.

Notify stakeholders of project progress at regular intervals and gain their approval for any changes that substantially impact the deadline, budget or deliverables.

Project Acceptance, Implementation and Follow-Up

Once the final product has been fully tested, staff have been trained (where necessary) and the stakeholders have signed-off the project then it can be implemented in the working environment. It is probably a rare project that is 100% successful but whatever the final outcome of the project always aim to find some element that was a success and make sure you reflect positively on the successful parts. Hold team reviews to learn from both the successes and the mistakes and take the time to write a report documenting any remaining issues that need to be followed up.

Things to Ask When Interviewing a Project Manager – Overview

So you’re about to start a major project. And you’ve decided that you can’t get this done without a project manager. Maybe there’s too much risk with the project or maybe the project involves too many items to provide control. For whatever reasons, you’ve decided that you need to use a project manager — a PM — to manage the project. There’s just one minor problem.

You don’t have one.

So you need to go out and hire one. Cool. There’s only one problem. You’ve heard the term. You’ve got a rough idea of what one does. But interviewing? How are you going to come up with a list of questions to ask?

Not to worry, in this article, I’m going to guide you in the things to ask when interviewing a project manager. I’m not going to give you the exact questions. I’ll leave that for later articles. However, I’ll guide you along to some of the questions you should ask.

The questions you need to ask fall into six categories.

1. What do you really want?

You didn’t realize that you would have to answer the first set of questions, did you? The sad truth is that most hiring managers don’t really understand what they’re looking for when they hire a PM. I’ve seen ads for Project Directors which asked for current hands-on programming skills. When was the last time you saw any VP level or C level executive with current skills in their discipline. That’s not what they do.

You need to start by asking yourself what level of person you are trying to hire. Are you looking for a lead hand — meaning a working supervisor? Or are you looking for a senior manager who will co-ordinate the work of multiple managers and their teams? Or a senior executive who will co-ordinate and advise other senior executives?

Once you’ve answered that question, then and only then can you begin to answer the tools and skills questions. What skills are really needed? What skills can be developed on the job? What skills are someone else’s problem? What project management tools will the new person need? As you go through the list always ask yourself two questions. First, “Do I really need this?” Is there an alternative or can the project manager learn it after arrival? Remember the more senior the project manager the faster they will be able to learn. Second, always ask, “Would I expect someone of this level to have these skills if I wasn’t hiring a project manager?” Hiring a VP of Finance or any senior manager based on their ability to do the bookkeeper’s job isn’t very smart.

2. What are you offering?

Once you’ve decided on what you really need you should have an idea of what a person of that level will want. In salary, working conditions and other conditions. What would you do if you were hiring a regular manager at that level?

Pay is only part of the equation. But it’s one part that’s frequently done wrong. Don’t forget that the calculation of pay rate for an hourly employee is different from the calculation of fair pay for a contractor or consultant.

3. Qualifications

Once you’ve determined the type of person you need to hire you can decide what qualifications really matter. After all, if you’re hiring a lead hand asking for a PMP is somewhat overkill. Don’t forget that qualifications like the Project Management Professional (PMP) designation often have experience requirements. Asking for a PMP with less than five years of experience will eliminate 100% of the honest people in the world. And asking for a certification in a programming language from a VP level manager is just plain silly.

4. Tools

There are three sets of tools that a project manager may need to bring. Focusing on the wrong tools is as bad as focusing on the wrong qualifications.

The first are the tools that a PM uses to be a project manager. Things like work breakdown structures, risk management, and communications management. If you have an area of concern for the project, (e.g. it’s very risky or it involves delicate relations with stakeholders), you are going to have to ask a direct question about that area. Any qualified project manager will have experience in that area so it may not show in the resume. And the extent of their experience definitely will not show.

The second are the tools that a project manager uses to perform their tasks efficiently. Tools like MS Project or MS Word. Again, these are standard tools so they may not show on the resume.

Finally, are those tools which are unique to the project in question. For example, if you are installing Quickbooks you may be tempted to ask for experience in Quickbooks. Be careful with these tools. Depending on the level of project manager that question may reject the candidate with the best skills for the job. Generally, knowledge about these tools is needed in the people working for the PM. That’s why the title is project manager.

5. Processes, standards and fitting in

Do you have your own project management process or do you expect the project manager to bring and apply theirs? Many project management consultants are used to quickly assessing your methodology and then supplementing it where their own process is stronger. Others simply adopt yours. Either can be acceptable but you need to ensure that your candidate is capable of fitting into your organization.

6. Skills

The most important questions relate to the soft skills that a project manager brings to the table. And unfortunately, they don’t reliably show up on a resume. Your initial decision regarding the level of project manager you need will determine the level of soft skills you need. Asking a lead hand or first level supervisor to have CEO level presentation skills is not likely to result in a successful search. Equally asking a C-level project manager to have the detailed oriented nature of a programmer will also not lead to a successful search.