An Overview of Project Management

Posted by Jarren Long at 2011-05-02 10:40:26

In our modern world, project management has evolved from a rough concept of managing resources into a refined art and science. Today, the role of project managers is to facilitate the process of performing a project, managing resources, and to interface with project stakeholders. Project managers must be able to perform these roles efficiently, while maintaining a consistent collective work effort amongst his or her team (be it assigned or hand-picked). Without them, a project manager is nothing more than a figurehead without any real authority.

The processes behind project management can be segregated into four broad, interlinked categories, or phases: Initiation, Planning, Execution, and Close Out. The initiation phase marks the period in time when the project purpose is defined and the team is gathered. The planning phase comes next, where the project begins to take shape. When all of the necessary documentation and resources are gathered, the project is executed. Finally, the project "deliverable" is sent to the customer, and the project is brought to a close. Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg. In reality, project management is a much more complex process that involves several tasks that must be completed in order for the project to be successfully completed.

Before we delve into the inner workings of project management, it is important that we discuss the formal roles of project managers. Because you will have the most responsibility in your team, there are a variety of skills that must be mastered to be a successful manager. It is regrettable to say that having responsibility does not necessarily mean that you will have any authority. More often than not, you will have no power to authorize big decisions, or to discipline unruly team members. To compensate for this lack of power, you will have to master the art of persuasion. This is just one of the potential problems that you will encounter as a project manager. There will be many other challenges that will need to be faced during the life of the project, which will have a direct impact on the final outcome of your product.

Now that you have a feel for the role and responsibilities of a project manager, it is time to discuss the processes involved in successfully completing a project. As stated earlier, there are four "phases" to every project. During the first (Initiation) phase, the project first begins to take shape. As a project manager, your first task will be to identify what the customer really wants, not just what they say they want or think they need. As Gary Heerkens, author of "Project Management" states, you will be judged by your ability to solve the original problem (Heerkens 52). This is where you will develop your Project Scope Document, which describes the problem in detail and outlines the impact of not solving the problem.

The next step in the Initiation phase is to identify the best solution to the original problem. It is very tempting to jump right into the first solution that you think of, but this is never a good idea! To properly identify the best solution, a fair amount of research on each potential solution will be required, including both financial and non-financial analysis', to weigh the potential benefit of the solution. These analysis' may include profit vs. cost comparisons, decision matrices, prototyping, and testing, all of which can be used to measure a solution's overall benefit. The information gathered during this task will be compiled into the Project Definition Document, which describes the best solution to the problem, and a process that can be used to implement it.

The third and final step in the Initiation phase is relatively simple. All you have to do is answer two major questions: is the proposed solution justifiable? Is it feasible? These are the two questions that your superiors will be asking when you present your proposal to management. The Project Management Proposal consists of a presentation or report that summarizes the information found in the Project Scope and Definition Documents, and includes information concerning the project itself. This document should cover the benefits and risks involved with the project, as well as a proposed project schedule, stakeholder list, and success criteria. All of these topics (and many others) will be combined in a proactive effort to secure approval from your superiors to begin work on the proposed solution.

When you have received permission from your superiors to begin on the project, you will have officially entered the Planning phase. Here, your primary objective will be to build a list of tasks and activities to complete, a cost vs. budget analysis, and most importantly, a preliminary execution schedule. This phase usually takes somewhat less time than the Initiation phase, at a cost. The workload involved is quite a bit larger than you might be expect. There is a plethora of documents that must be created in order to complete the three objectives, including a Work Breakdown Structure, Network Diagram, Responsibility Assignment Matrix, Cost and Schedule Estimates. These documents all have different purposes, and are combined at the end of the planning phase to create a road map through the Execution phase, called the Baseline Project Plan. Much like the end of the Initiation phase, you will probably need management to approve the project plan before you will be allowed to begin executing the project.

The Work Breakdown Structure (or WBS) can be described as a list of the actual tasks that you will need to complete throughout the project cycle. This list can be used to track the progress of your project later on much like a grocery list. The next step in building any decent grocery list is organizing it into the most logical sequence. That is exactly what the Network Diagram is designed to do: organize the items on your WBS in the most logical sequence, showing how they are interdependent. This document is generally a flow chart, designed with containers and arrows showing the order of the chain of events. After the WBS and Network Diagram documents are completed, each task and activity item is assigned to different team members, and a deadline is determined for when the task is expected to be completed (thus creating the Responsibility Assignment Matrix and estimated schedule documents). These four documents can be combined into a specialized "Gantt Chart", which can be used to track project execution in a much more intuitive way.

After management approval is once again secured, you will finally be ready to start work on your project. Congratulations! From a project manager's prospective, this is where you will have entered the Execution phase. Here, you will be leading your group while you will start executing the tasks created in the last batch of documents, schedules, and plans you created. At this point, you will have to be careful that you don't start losing your head over problems and minor setbacks. Doing this will not only cause stress to yourself and your team members, but will also greatly impact the outcome of the final deliverable. This is a critical point in the project where your project is the most vulnerable, and it needs to be protected using skillful planning and proper use of your available project interfaces.

Let's detour for a moment and discuss these interfaces. Some of the interfaces that your project will have will be team members, management, stakeholders, organizational, and legal policies/regulations. These are going to be the people and programs involved (in any way) with your project, or will benefit from it's completion, and are essentially the project's "life line". Many of them, such as regulatory agencies, will just be there to make sure you are doing everything properly and legally. Cooperation with these interfaces is recommended, as they may have the power to bring your project to a grinding halt. Be sure to keep in contact with all of these interfaces using regular status reports (and meetings, when necessary). This will give you an opportunity to avoid some problems, and prepare for others that may arise. Keep documenting this information as you receive it, so that you can use it later to compile a punch list (a To-Do list) and the final Close-Out report when the project deliverable is ready for delivery. Yes, this means you will have to get management to sign off on the final project deliverable before it is implemented/delivered to the customer, and the project is completed.

The Close Out phase of a project is the shortest of the four. This is where you will compile all of your closing reports, notes, documentation, and performance evaluations for the deliverable (and team members) into some form of Project Portfolio. This will probably be accompanied by a presentation to the customer, at which they, along with your management and stakeholders, will judge your final product and accept it. With their acceptance, your project will officially be deemed complete.

As you gain experience in the field of project management, you will learn the art and science behind executing the four major phases of managing a project. The science of project management can only be learned with practice. Don't be afraid to fail; it is inevitable that it will happen eventually. Use the skills that you have learned to deal with these issues, and you will always be a successful project manager! In the end, I believe that I myself would be a qualified project manager. While it's hard to rate yourself, I am willing to throw modesty out the window and say that I am experienced enough in project management to be able to execute all of the phases of a project. I have always been a leader who is open to new ideas, but willing to make tough decisions when necessary. Problem solving has always been one of my strengths. Sadly, I know that I can be overly dominant and "pushy" when deadlines start to approach, which oftentimes leads to a drastic drop in group morale and productivity. While I have been working to water down my "do it right, do it yourself" ideology, there are times when it can still be a strong asset. To conclude, the art of project manager is learning how to incorporate your strengths and weaknesses in the most efficient manner possible to satisfactorily complete the project.

Sources: Heerkens, Gary. Project Management. McGraw-Hill Companies., Madison, Wisconsin, 2002.