Project Management Made Simple

Project management is a term that in some respects appears ubiquitous, yet in practice, it seems to still be relatively confined to big business. While this may be the case, the underpinnings of project management are actually quite simple and can be adapted by virtually anyone. But, before we get too far down this path I think it is important to look at what project management is…and what it is not.

First, project management is a methodology. At its core is a framework that allows for efficient use of time, but more importantly this methodology/framework helps ensure that the goal of the project is actually achieved. Second, it must be understood that to be considered a project, there has to be a specific “start date” and “end date.” If the project has no official beginning or specific date to end, by definition it is a process. It is important to differentiate between the two. A project is undertaken to meet a specific goal or requirement, within a specified time frame. For example, if you are planning a wedding you would want to use a project management methodology. This is because if certain things aren’t pulled together by the wedding day, proverbial heads are going to roll. A process, however, could be thought of as a repeatable group of activities and tasks that will be done over and over again. Making coffee would be a good example of a process. Coordinating everything to pull off a successful wedding, however, is a project.

There are a few project management methodologies, but for our purposes we will look at the basis of good project management. Our goal is to apply the principles of solid project management, rather than try and memorize a particular methodology.

In my experience, it is often thought that projects need to be somewhat complex in nature in order to use project management. The beauty of project management though is that even if there is little complexity to deal with, these principles will still be of great value to the individual applying them. At its core, project management is as much about efficiency as it is about bringing to fruition something that does not currently exist. Let’s get started by defining a few things.

There are typically 5 phases to any project. Some phases may only have a couple of things that happen within them, but there are about 5 phases nonetheless. The phases are Initiation, Planning, Executing, Controlling and Closing. We’ll take them one at a time, and remember, it’s more about the methodology than anything else. Effective project management always seeks to break down the enormity of the project into manageable parts. These manageable parts are called phases.

One more thing before we begin…sometimes it’s easier to apply a scenario or hypothetical situation to help us understand a concept. We will use “Planning a Wedding” as our scenario to help us understand various points or concepts.

The Initiation Phase

Project Charter

This is a very important component of the project that is often overlooked. Think of the Project Charter as your “Permission” to continue. Why do you need permission you may ask? Because 80% of project failures occur from a lack of communication. Have you ever had your boss tell you what they needed from you and then ask you to something completely different? I’ll bet that not only did you clarify exactly what they wanted, but you spent an enormous amount of time creating it. Only in the end to have them tell you that you must have misunderstood. A Project Charter is really your protection against this type of mismanagement and miscommunication.

What you put in the Charter is essentially the objective of the project, the scope of the project, what things will be done to complete the project, and who it is that needs to formally authorize the project. And, the best part of the Charter is that if it isn’t in the Charter, you can’t do it. This keeps your boss and others from continuously changing their minds and not letting you finish what you started.

So far as the mechanics of the Charter, here are some definitions. The “objective” is really just stating what the project should accomplish. The scope of the project is simply defining the parameters or boundaries of what will be done to accomplish the project. The things that need to be done to make the project a success are called deliverables. These are packages of work that need to be done, either individually or collectively, for the project to move along as planned. Finally, the authorizers are the ones that have the authority to say yes or no to the project and ultimately the ones that are going to pay for it. The authorizers are also called Stakeholders…not because they love beef, but because these are actually the people that have the highest “stake” in the project being done right. Sticking with our wedding planning theme, the stakeholders might be the Bride, Groom, Parents and the minister.

The Planning Phase

This is the very beginning of the project where you begin to brainstorm about what you think will need to happen in order for the project to come together. For example, using our wedding planning theme, we know that there are several things that need to occur in order to make this wedding come together seamlessly…so you begin listing them. There must be somewhere to have it, someone to open and close the facility, catering must be determined, what is the anticipated budget or cost that the family is looking to spend, etc. In fact, this can just be a list of items or bullet points that you know will need to be broken down more granularly later. Remember, this is just brainstorming to see what the main “things” are that need to occur for the project to be done correctly. This is where we look at how to begin adding shape to this wedding. We need to somehow bring it from conceptualization to reality, from thought process to paper. This is the rough framework of what we know will happen or at least what we think needs to happen. The planning phase is critical for getting started, but not critical for being 100% correct. We will refine as we go.

The planning phase is really just getting the major people together that will own part of the project work and planning how they will do it and what they will need to get it done. In the business world, these are the Subject Matter Experts. A project manager does not need to be an expert in everything, but the project manager does need to find those that are and get those Subject Matter Experts on their team. This phase is also where you assign starting dates and ending dates to particular tasks. This is crucial to the project’s success. There will be tasks that can happen at the same time that may or may not be related. But, some of those tasks will end later than others because they will simply take longer to complete. Start and stop dates also give you a way of ensuring that everything gets completed on time. This makes sense because the project has a specific stop date (otherwise it’s a process), so all tasks have to end sometime. A word of caution, you are still in the “planning” phase here. Don’t get overwhelmed with the lack of details. Every home needs a frame before it can be built. But, before the frame is constructed there is a rough idea of the total square footage of the home, how many rooms, bathrooms, etc. that there will be. That’s what the planning phase if for…to determine how this thing should look.

Activities and Tasks

Project plans are created to track activities and tasks. It may be easier to think of a project plan as an Excel spreadsheet with as little as 4 columns (Task Name; Start Date; End Date; Assigned To). This gives each activity and task the ability to be formally tracked and completed. You may be wondering what the difference is between an activity and a task. Simply put, an activity is the culmination of 1 or more tasks. As an example, let’s take drinking a cup of coffee in the morning. If you like coffee, drinking a cup in the morning is an activity you enjoy. However, for that activity to occur, you must complete several tasks. For example, you need to clean the coffee maker; put in the coffee filter; scoop in the coffee; fill the coffee maker with water; get a clean cup…you get the idea. Now, just because there are numerous tasks in making a cup of coffee doesn’t mean that you need to include them all in a project plan. You need to go deep enough into the activity to ensure it gets completed on time, but you don’t need to list all 15-20 tasks to make a cup of coffee. Remember, these are tasks and not procedures. The final rule of thumb is that tasks should always be able to be accomplished…yes or no items…did you do it or not? This means that tasks are intentionally named using action verbs. So, the activity is making a cup of coffee. The tasks that make up this activity we’ve already discussed. We could name one of these tasks “Scoop the coffee into the filter”. Now we have a task that is action oriented and can be tracked.


This is a way of rolling up or categorizing activities and tasks into their highest component. For example, maybe coffee is actually a part of a milestone named Provided Beverages for All Age Groups. The milestone is there to ensure that all of the beverages are bought and ready for when the guests arrive. Within the “Provided Beverages for All Age Groups” milestone then, you may have activities and tasks for Water; Punch and Soda, Iced Tea, Coffee, and Ice. Together (once purchased, delivered, and ready to be served to the guests) they complete the Provided Beverages for All Age Groups milestone for the project. Milestones give you the ability to track project completion at a higher level. This makes it easier for both reporting and tracking purposes.

The Execution Phase

This is where the activities and tasks are being completed according to the start and stop dates. You have moved out of the planning phase and into the executing (doing) phase. Here is where you, as the project manager, track others progress in completing their assigned tasks. Remember, even though you are not responsible for completing the tasks themselves, you may need to do some hand holding to help ensure that others are completing their tasks accordingly. Completion of the tasks, activities, milestones, and ultimately the entire project falls on you.

The Controlling Phase

Once you have begun to execute the project tasks and activities, you will begin controlling the work and the times it takes to complete it. Controlling the project is not as difficult as it sounds if you have good management support. Again, try and remember that your resources (those doing the work) are responsible to the stakeholders and management to ensure that they are completing their assigned work, on time. Your role is to ensure that everyone knows what tasks and activities they are supposed to be working on and tracking that completion on the project plan. From there, at regular intervals, you need to report progress to management. Management won’t typically want to know every task that is being done, but they will need to be apprised of what tasks are behind schedule. You always need to have a “point of escalation” plan in case things go south. It is a good idea to also set up a weekly meeting with all of your resources to discuss tasks, completion, issues and other items affecting the project. This becomes your leveraging tool for managing people not in your area and not under your direct management. This also allows a forum to be in place so that everyone is on the same page when issues or questions arise about tasks and activities.

The Closing Phase

Think of this as the winding down phase. Tasks, activities, and milestones are almost all completed. The project is officially coming to an end…maybe there are some tasks still being performed to ensure that everything is running accordingly, but for the most part the project is coming to a close. This will usually be a fairly low resource constraint for you. You will be updating any necessary project materials and making sure that the deliverables match the Charter that you defined this project by. This is also where resources will go back to their usual daily activities as was normal before your project began.

No project should end without a close out meeting where people are praised for their efforts and thanked for their project dedication. This is a tag-team effort and everyone deserves credit.

Lessons Learned

Other than the Charter, lessons learned is probably the other most neglected part of a project. It is reasonable to think that since projects are new there will be unanticipated obstacles that you run into. Those obstacles, no matter how small, will somehow be resolved. Lessons learned is your opportunity to capture what the Subject Matter Experts learned to resolve or look out for when working on the project. These should be documented and given to management, as well as kept for yourself. From a reasonableness perspective, you may manage a project in the future that has similar characteristics of the project you just finished. How inefficient would it be to drive a project team into the same issues and obstacles that you already encountered and make the new team come up with their own resolutions? Lessons learned becomes the project FYI that can help a new project team plan better and be more efficient because they are aware and have planned for certain obstacles ahead of time. All this because you were wise enough to capture this information from past experience.

In conclusion, while there is much more to formal project management and the memorization and application of proven methodologies, it is the author’s hope that this will benefit you to some degree and that maybe you will even have a take away to apply to your own project. I wish you all the best in your project management endeavors.

Copyright (c) 2010 Michael A. Miller