If you have natural leadership skills, are detail-oriented, and like clear expectations, chances are good you’ve found yourself managing projects for your team. But if you lack formal project management training, it can be easy to get overwhelmed with this new responsibility. We’re here to help you.
In this project management 101 overview, we’ll define common project management terms, tools, and techniques to arm you with the working knowledge needed to lead a project. We’ll also highlight some related resources in each section so you can dive deeper into the topics that you need.
Who this guide is for: Anyone who has been asked to lead a short-term initiative for a team, sometimes called an “accidental project manager.”
Who it’s not intended for: Those looking for help in passing the project management professional (PMP) exam and formalizing their role with a PMP certification. For that, we recommend visiting the PMI.org site.
Let’s kick things off with the most basic question.
What is project management?
Project management is the practice or discipline that involves planning, motivating, and controlling efforts in order to achieve a specific objective. The project objective (usually creating a product or service) is created and delivered within a defined budget, scope, and timeline.
Project team roles and structure
Now let’s get into who is involved in project management.
Project manager: The project manager is the sole person given the authority to manage a project. They are responsible for defining the processes used to manage the people, tasks, and delivery at every stage of the project from planning to close.
The project manager is responsible for defining the work/tasks, creating the project plan, maintaining the budget, managing the change order or change request process, managing the project scope, maintaining project documentation, and reporting and communicating to all stakeholders on the project’s progress and status.
Project team: The project team could be any mix of full-time or part-time employees or contractors assigned to work on the project. This team should be execution focused, working to ensure each task is done as defined and within the budget and timeline. They’re responsible for understanding the work to be completed, knowing when to escalate concerns or issues to the project manager, and proactively communicating task updates.
Project sponsor: The project sponsor is the person who requested the initiation of the project and has ultimate authority and final say over the project. They’re typically responsible for securing project funding, resolving high-impact issues and scope changes, and approving the major project deliverables. The project isn’t successful or complete until the project sponsor says so.
Project management 101: Documentation
A core responsibility of a project manager is creating and maintaining documentation for the project. From defining what the project’s purpose is before work starts to writing out the lessons learned after the project ends, project documentation ensures agreement on and transparency of expectations, serves as a guide for the team, and will help inform how to design future, similar projects.
Project plan: A project plan is the core project document: It defines the project objectives/scope, project schedule, and high-level requirements while also taking into account the budget and timeline. Sometimes called a project charter, this document is where you will formally state the project team and roles by name (don’t forget to include yourself as the project manager!).
Additional information to include:
- The communication plan, including the types of meetings and reports along with their occurence cadence.
- A definition of what the project’s success will look like.
- The task management plan or task tool to be used by the team.
- The approved project budget.
- The project management methodology.
Let’s further break down how to define the project scope and requirements, as they are critical in the successful planning for any project.
Project scope: The scope defines the ultimate goal of the project and the work that must be done to deliver it. The project manager works with the project sponsor to define the project scope before the project begins and also makes changes along the way as needed. The high-level scope and the project’s boundaries and perimeters should be documented in the project plan.
A clearly and plainly stated scope is the best setup you can have for a successful project.
For example, a well-defined project scope would be “to create a website for [business] for its marketing and online sales of products by Thanksgiving.” Whereas this same objective defined poorly would be “to get [business] online as fast as possible.”
Once the project scope is approved by the project sponsor, any changes that need to be made must go through a change order process, which we’ll get into below.
Project requirements: Requirements can come in many forms, but are essentially detailed descriptions of what the product or service should provide the user, what it should look like, and how it should perform.
The project manager should include the high-level requirements in the project plan, as part of the scope, and the detailed ones in a shared document where your team can readily access them. Each member of the team should be involved in reviewing the details in the requirements to ensure clarity and agreement on what needs to be done.
Just as with changes to the project scope, once the requirements are approved by the project sponsor, any changes needed must go through a change order process.
Change orders: As discussed above, once the project’s scope, requirements, and even budget and timeline are approved, any changes need to go through a formal change order process. This ensures that all requested changes are properly documented, reviewed, and then approved or denied. This builds trust in the project management process across all stakeholders and also forces hasty or ill-formed decisions to be fleshed out before action is taken.
A change order document can be a spreadsheet or any type of file that is visible to the team. It’s important to document all change requests, both approved and denied.
Status reports: Our last document type is the (in)famous status report. This is a recurring document stating project progress, major task updates, and project budget updates. This ongoing and transparent report helps you, your project team, and key stakeholders stay honest about the work, budget, and issues.
Project management tools
Let’s look at the most basic (as this is a only a 101 guide) project management planning tools and show how they function within project management software programs.
Gantt chart: A Gantt chart is a graphical representation of a project’s tasks along the timeline, used to track project schedules.
Work breakdown structure: A WBS, or work breakdown structure, is a hierarchical chart that outlines major project deliverables and then breaks those down into smaller, more manageable tasks. It’s useful for complex project work to help identify where your team needs more detailed requirements for that task, when you’re identifying the critical path, and/or when nailing down a realistic timeline for deliverables.
Critical path: The critical path for a project is the sequence and timing of tasks that must be completed in order for the entire project to be completed on schedule. A task belongs on the critical path when, for example, a one-day delay for that task would cause a one-day delay for the entire project. The critical path will be the longest duration of time needed for the project work to be completed.
Risk register: Every project has potential events that, if they occur, would have a negative impact on at least one project objective. These events are project risks and as the project manager, you should create a risk register document to track each risk event, the action needed to reduce or correct the risk, and its status. Every project manager should create a risk register so you can anticipate and address risk before it throws your project off course.
Popular project management methodologies
This section will define the most common IT project management methodologies designed for software development teams. Other industries, such as construction, may not benefit from the iterative building approach used in these methodologies. (In fact, I can only imagine the look on a construction manager’s face when asked to build a house with only a Scrum team of six people!)
Agile: Agile is an adaptive, flexible methodology for gathering project requirements, execution, and delivery, typically used for software projects with short bursts of work called Sprints. Essentially, you’ll start the project with high-level requirements, but not every detail will be worked out before the team begins work. Instead, the team will focus on blocks of work, show those to the project sponsor, and then either make changes or move on to the next block of work.
Scrum: Scrum is an Agile teamwork methodology delivering iterative, incremental segments of work and is typically used for software product development. The term Scrum comes from the game of rugby where the team leader, the Scrum Master, enables the Scrum team to work quickly and make decisions on their own. A Scrum team is an empowered team.
How to find the right PM software
The accidental, part-time, or informally trained project manager can greatly benefit from project management software. But odds are, if you’re reading to the end of this 101 article, you’re not looking for a full-blown enterprise project management system—and that’s perfectly OK! We’re here to help even the smallest of teams find the right software.