Project management is a way of organising and managing resources in order to successfully complete a project, in the most effective and efficient manner possible.
Projects are separate, unique and temporary pieces of work undertaken to achieve specific objectives in business. The management of such work often requires the application of special types of skills, tools and techniques. However, certain basic principles of project management apply universally.
This guide outlines the essential best practices that are specific to each of the five stages of project management. These phases include initiation, definition and planning, implementation, monitoring and project closure.
Advantages of project management
Project management is a powerful business tool that can deliver many advantages to businesses of all sizes. It gives you repeatable processes, guidelines and techniques to help you manage the people and the work involved in your projects. It can increase your chances of success and help you deliver projects consistently, efficiently, on time and budget.
Benefits of project management
The main advantage of project management is that is helps you to manage your projects effectively, enabling you to resolve problems more quickly. It takes time and money to manage a project, however following good practices can help you:
- improve your chances of achieving the desired result
- gain a fresh perspective on your project, and how it fits with your business strategy
- prioritise your business' resources and ensure their efficient use
- set the scope, schedule and budget accurately from the start
- stay on schedule and keep costs and resources to budget
- improve productivity and quality of work
- encourage consistent communications amongst staff, suppliers and clients
- satisfy the various needs of the project's stakeholders
- mitigate risks of a project failing
- increase customer satisfaction
- gain a competitive advantage and boost your bottom line
Not having a process to manage your projects can result in lost time, wasted money, inconsistencies and poor performance. Find out more about the benefits of following a project management method.
What is a project?
A project is a temporary effort, which has a defined:
- scope - size, goals, requirements
- resources - staff, equipment, material
- time - start and end, task durations, dependencies, etc
- money - costs, contingencies and profit
Project management oversees the planning, organising and implementing of a project. Read more about the basic principles of project management.
Most projects have five basic stages, with distinct project management processes in each. See more on five stages of project management.
While every project will be unique and may need specific solutions to succeed, some basic project management templates and tools can help you manage your projects.
Basic principles of project management
While every project is unique in its own way, there are certain project management principles that apply to most projects. These are:
- project objectives
- project constraints
- project life cycle
These basic principles will give your project management process a solid foundation, help you to use tools and resources in an efficient way, and increase chances of successful project completion.
Project management objectives and goals
The main point of any project is to achieve specified business goals and objectives. You should establish from the start what it is that you want your project to accomplish. For example, if the project's aim is to increase sales and profit, boost staff productivity, improve product or service quality, or something else.
To be effective, your objectives should be as specific as possible. Something as vague as 'improving customer relations' is unlikely to be measurable. A better objective would be, for example, 'to reduce customer complaints by 50 per cent'.
You may express your objectives as:
- outputs - eg a new building
- outcomes - eg staff relocating to a new building
- benefits - eg reduced travel or simplified facilities management
- strategic objectives - eg increasing the organisation's share price
Once the project fulfills its objectives, it ends. In most cases, after project completion the work moves into normal operations. It is therefore vital to any project that its goals and objectives are clearly defined, measurable and achievable.
Without this, your project may lack focus, you may not be able to measure your results accurately, and the project may fail to meet your business goals. See how to set business performance targets.
Project management constraints
A constraint is any restricting factor that can impact or limit the delivery of your project.
The three most significant project management constraints are:
- costs - how much money is available to achieve an outcome
- scope - what exactly is the expected outcome
- schedule - the timescales for delivering the output
Schedule, cost and scope are sometimes known as the triple constraint, or the project management triangle. Impact on either one of them may have an impact on the quality of your project, or even delivery.
Other common constraints include:
- quality - does the outcome match your project expectations
- resources - who will carry out the work, with what materials/resources
- risks - potential pitfalls and how to mitigate against them
See more on project constraints.
Projects that do not work within their constraints tend to incur a significant cost and often fail. If you need to change elements of your project, you may need to manage this carefully.
Even if all the constraints are balanced, issues can occur. You can apply some common change management principles to your project to minimise risks and potential for failure.
Project life cycle
Projects have a definite start and finish point within which you should fulfil their objectives. This is known as the project life cycle. While this is usually defined by a start and finish date, the life cycle of a project can also be defined by a finite resource available to the project, such as money or fixed amount of staff time.
Any successful project will deliver its goals and objectives within the constraints and the life cycle of the project. Read also about the five stages of project management.
Five stages of project management
Project management process is usually broken down into separate phases that take the project from the beginning to the end. These stages include:
- monitoring and control
These phases often overlap with the project life cycle. They can help you determine the right flow and sequence of operations to bring your project to conclusion. Our project management checklist can further help you segment the tasks for each of the project phases.
1. Project initiation
Initiation is the formal start of a project. It usually begins with the issue of a project mandate which briefly describes the purpose of the project and authorises budget spend.
At this stage, you should define the project at a broad level. This often begins with:
- a business case - justifying the need for the project and estimating potential benefits
- a feasibility study - evaluating the problem and determining if the project will solve it
If you decide to undertake the project, you should then create a project initiation document (PID). This is the foundation of your project and a critical reference point for the next stages. Key components of your PID should be:
- your business case
- project goals, scope and size
- project organisation (defining the 'who, why, what, when and how' of the project)
- project constraints
- project risks
- project controls and reporting framework
- the criteria for closing and assessing the project
2. Project definition and planning
Project planning is key to successful project management. This stage typically begins with setting goals. Two most common approaches include:
- the SMART method (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely)
- the CLEAR method (collaborative, limited, emotional, appreciable, refinable)
At this stage, you will also define the project scope, and develop a project plan and work breakdown schedule. This involves identifying:
- time, cost and resources that are at your disposal
- roles and responsibilities for the project
- baseline performance measures
- progress checkpoints
- risk and resources for resolving unforeseen issues
During this stage, you may also want to develop a communication plan (especially if you have external stakeholders), as well as a risk management plan.
3. Project launch and implementation
Implementation (also called project execution) simply means putting your project plan into action. It often begins with a project 'kick-off meeting'.
During this phase, you will carry out the tasks and activities from your project plan to produce the project deliverables. For example, if you are creating a promotional pack for a trade show, early deliverables might be to gather product information and prices, and complete all of your product photography and get it signed off by the customer.
Project managers may direct this work by:
- overseeing a team
- managing budget and resources
- communicating to stakeholders
Careful monitoring and control at this stage can help you keep the project plan on track. You can use a range of tools and processes to help you manage things like time, cost, quality and risks, or to communicate progress and manage customer acceptance.
4. Project monitoring and control
Monitoring and control often overlap with execution as they often occur at the same time. They require measuring project progression and performance, and dealing with any issues that arise from day-to-day work.
You can use key performance indicators (KPIs) to determine if your project is on track. Things you could measure include, for example:
- if your project is on schedule and budget
- if specific tasks are being completed
- if issues are adequately addressed
During this time, you may need to adjust schedules and resources to ensure that your project remains on track. See how to measure performance and set targets.
5. Project close
During this last phase, you will complete your work and dissolve the project. Closure does not necessarily mean success, but simply the final point of the project - eg closure can happen when you cancel projects that fail.
Project closure often involves things like:
- handing over the deliverables
- releasing staff and resources
- archiving or handing over any relevant project documents
- cancelling supplier contracts
- completion of all activities across the project
- preparing the final project budget and report
- handover into business as usual if this applies
After closure, you can carry out a post-implementation project review (sometimes referred to as a 'post mortem' meeting). This is an opportunity to evaluate what went well and what didn't. Understanding failures, if there were any, can help you learn lessons and improve the way you carry out future projects.
See also project management templates and tools.
Project management templates and tools
While every project is unique in its own way and may need specific tools to succeed, there are some basic templates and processes which are commonly used to manage projects.
Project scope template
The scope of a project is everything that the project team will change, deliver and is responsible for. The processes of delivering the project scope should be factored into a project plan. The scope is usually clearly defined by the planning and development phase of any project. Download a project scope document template (DOC, 36K).
Project plan sample document
A project plan is a detailed proposal for achieving the objectives and goals of a project. It should detail the 'what, when, how and by whom' of any project and is a key resource to successfully managing work. Project plan templates can vary depending on what you are trying to achieve, but there are many examples available for free or from professional bodies.
You can also use a software program to compile a project plan, although this is probably best suited to large or complex projects. A simple tool such as a year planner or calendar can be effective for working out the timeline and showing the requirements for a smaller project. Download an example of a project plan for a premises move (DOC, 191K).
Project risk register template
Risk or issue registers are common tools for identifying, analysing and managing risk (something which has not yet occurred) and issues (something which has already occurred). Using these registers, project teams can estimate and adjust their planned activities, taking into account risks and issues, thereby managing their impact. Download a project risk register template (XLS, 22K).
SWOT analysis example
A strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) analysis is a commonly used strategic tool to evaluate a project or a business. In relation to a project, the analysis can be defined as:
- strengths - factors within the project or organisation that are helpful to achieving objectives
- weaknesses - factors or constraints to the project or organisation that are harmful to achieving objectives
- opportunities - external conditions that are helpful to achieving objective
- threats - external conditions which could hinder achieving objectives
See a SWOT analysis example.
Importance of a project library
Without a proper, centralised system of logging and storing of information about a project, important data can become lost or inaccessible very quickly, with a risk of poor version control. This can cause duplication of effort and conflicting iterations of project documents in circulation, and can be particularly problematic in lengthy projects or those with a greater number of people involved.
It is worth considering creating a project library so that everyone has easy access via a single point to the most up-to-date information. You should make sure that these documents will be accessible in the future - eg in a shared file rather than on an individual's computer.
Project review template
At the end of a project, it's always worth carrying out a project review to look at lessons learned. It's worth asking the opinion of everyone on the project team and can help to structure these opinions under a set of headings. You could use the 'KISS' approach:
- keep - ie this was effective and you should definitely use it again
- improve - this was good but there were areas that could be done better
- start - things you didn't do but now realise you could do in future projects
- stop - things that should not be repeated
Advantages of having a project manager
How to choose and work with a great project manager, or develop project management skills in-house
Project manager is the focal point of any project. They act as a vital link between staff, stakeholders and the project steering group.
What is the role of a project manager?
The project manager is responsible for making sure that a project is planned, developed, implemented, controlled and closed. A project manager will:
- build a project team
- outline a project plan with details of specific tasks and activities
- understand the dependencies between the project and its tasks
- schedule project activities and group dependent tasks into larger processes
- define the objectives of the project
- devise a strategy and map out the inputs, resources and outputs of the process
- keep detailed project records
- control the implementation of the project, including change requests
- respond to changes through the involvement of staff, stakeholders and customers
- identify and mitigate project risks
- communicate to all those involved in the project
- hand over the deliverables to customer or clients
What skills does a project manager need?
Effective project managers usually have a long list of abilities and skills. As well as having generic management skills, a good project manager should have:
- good planning skills
- ability to think strategically and understand the project objectives
- ability to manage change and minimise disruption if unexpected circumstance arise
- ability to work within often conflicting constraints such as time, quality and cost
- good leadership skills that can inspire, organise and manage collaborative teams
- ability to manage risks, prevent them from occurring and minimise their impact
- communication expertise and ability to build relationships both internally and externally
- confidence, diligence and organisational skills
Who should manage your project?
For small projects, it is common for existing managers to take on the temporary role of a project manager, either as a time-limited secondment, or alongside their day-to-day role.
If you lack project management skills in-house, you can hire a professional project manager either for a specific project or on a longer-term basis. This could be on a freelance or fixed-term contract if you're not likely to require a full-time position. See recruiting staff on fixed-term contracts.
How to choose a project manager?
When looking to appoint a project manager, you should consider the needs of a project, including the time and resources needed to manage it. A project manager does not usually directly participate in the activities that produce the end result, but drives progress and manages the processes of the project instead. Therefore, a gifted designer may not be a good choice to manage a design project, as this may not be where their strengths lie.
Project management checklist
Use our checklist to help you improve project planning and execution, and manage your project successfully
Checklists are useful tools for building consistency in work practices. A project management checklist can help you whether you are starting your project from scratch, or taking over one that's already underway.
Quick project management checklist
This checklist focuses on top-line items grouped under a number of main headings. You will need to consider all of these, ideally before you start your project, to ensure that you can deliver it successfully.
- consider all stakeholders
- consider mandate, brief and business case
- check the 'lessons learned' from previous projects
- consider cost, resources and budget
- draw up project scope and objectives
- agree outputs or outcomes with all parties
- define a project approach
- identify project weaknesses, constraints and risks
- build a project team, project group or a steering group
- consider appointing a project manager
- identify and assign clear roles and responsibilities to all involved
- consider staff training and management support
- agree milestones
- create a resource allocation plan
Project plan and execution
- set down a clear project plan
- identify key tasks and activities
- factor in time and effort needed to achieve these tasks, and create a timeline
- consider scheduling, task co-dependencies and critical path of the project
- monitor progress against milestones, schedules, cost, resources available
- respond to change and revise plan according to the changing needs
- use tools to help you present and keep track of the plan, eg charts and calendars
- log, monitor and report expenditure against budget
- assess against risks and plan how you will mitigate/minimise impact
- consider the need to document or audit trail the project
- devise the project document library, if needed, and assign responsibility to manage it
- hand over work, responsibilities and deliverables, if appropriate
- identify relevant people and tell them 'what, when and how' they will inherit
- carry out a project review or 'lessons learned' exercise
To find out more on how to manage the different stages of a project, see five stages of project management.