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Managing Project Management

Recommended Reads | By Joseph Phillips | Read time minutes

Business strategy and planning chart

Oooh - project management. Everyone talks about project management but what is it? Isn't project management just organising your little work to get the big work done? Isn't project management really just a series of events to create some thing, by some point, way off in some hazy future? Not really.

To define what project management is we first need to define what projects are. A project, technically, is a short-term endeavour to create a unique product or service. A project, in practical terms, is an assignment or undertaking to create a deliverable that satisfies the mission of the project customers.

A project is a set of activities to create something that is outside of your day-to-day operations. A project creates a unique deliverable. For example, if your organisation develops game software the actual creation and development of the code is a project. The manufacturing of the CDs, the Internet delivery, and the technical support you provide to your customers is part of maintenance and operations.

The difference is that one set of activities creates a unique deliverable while the other centres on organisational process, day-to-day business, and support of the organisation's mission. This is true in disciplines other than IT: consider designing a car versus manufacturing a car. Consider writing a book versus printing a book. Consider building a skyscraper versus maintaining a skyscraper.

Projects have budgets, deadlines, and an agreed set of requirements for the deliverable to be accepted by the customer.

The United States of Project Management

In my project management seminars I like to say that this point in the room represent our current state; this is where our organisation is today. We have some opportunity that we'd like to seize. We have some problem that we'd like to solve. Or there's technology that has leapfrogged our current equipment so we need to improve our technical attributes. Where we are now is our current state.

Then I'll stroll to a distant part of the room. This new location represents where we want our organisation to get to. This describes our desired future state. Can you imagine how great our organisation would be once we reach this destination? Can you imagination the problem solved, the seized opportunity, or the new technology and how it makes our business better? This spot represent our desired future state.

The only way we can get from right here, our current state, to our desired future state, which is way over there, is through project management. Project management is about planning, doing, and ensuring that we've followed our plan. Here's a key thought: the only way we can do project management, effective project management, is to know where our desired future state exists.

Effective project management is built on a solid foundation of planning. Then the project team must execute the work according to plan. And the project manager must control the work to ensure that the project plan was followed. Plan. Do. Check. React. Project management, quite simply, is knowing where we're going, planning on how we'll get there, and then delivering on the promises within the plan.

Projects, all projects, have constraints. Have you every inherited a project that had to be done by a given deadline? Remember the Y2K scare that turned out to be the Y2-OK yawn a few years ago? It was real tough to move that deadline. January 1, 2000 was coming ready or not.

Or have you ever managed a project that had a preset budget? Regardless of how long it took your project could not, must not, spend more than $750,000. Or else. A pre-set budget may be calculated on how much cash is in the bank account, the expected return on the project investment, or some other magic formula like the time value of money. The point is, a pre-set budget is constraint.

Finally, you may have faced a project that had some very steep requirements. Are you a public company? Then you've dealt with the Sarbane-Oxley Act. Or if you're in health care you've dealt with HIPAA. Or the regulations you may have to follow in pharmaceutical, construction, manufacturing, and countless other industries.

You may also have worked with a customer that said, I don't care how much it costs or how long it takes. I need the product to do this. (Those are my favourite kinds of customers, by the way.) These steep requirements are part of the project scope and in order for the project to be successful the project scope has to be met.

You've just read about the triple constraints of project management: time, cost, and scope. The triple constraints of project management are collectively called "The Iron Triangle." Imagine an equilateral triangle. The bottom of the triangle represents scope, another side represents cost, and the last side represents time.

In order for the project to be successful the project must remain an equilateral triangle. In other words, you can have a gigantic scope, and puny budget, or a weak schedule. For a project to be successful each side of the Iron Triangle must remain in proportion to the other sides. If your customer wants a scope that's so big (hold your arms out real wide). And their budget is only this big (now bring your arms in real close together). A big ol' scope and tiny little budget means just one thing: it ain't gonna happen.

The same is true with the schedule. There must be enough time to plan and execute the project in order to achieve the project's scope. Unrealistic expectations on the schedule usually leads to waste, rework, frustrations, and a decline in morale. In some instances this may also lead to cheap tequila.

Capturing The Picture

I like photography. I like to look at pictures, take pictures, and mess with filters, lenses, and light metres. In order to really capture a good photo, I've learned, you have to see the developed photo in your mind's eye. You have to look at your environment and see how it'd look once the film's been developed or the image is printed on your colour laser printer. You have to see into the future in order to capture the present in your camera. You must have vision. Being a project manager really isn't that different. A project manager must have vision for what the project is to create. The project manager inherits the vision from the key stakeholders, the project sponsor, or even management. In order to plan for the project work the project manager must envision what the end result of the project will be. Like taking a photo, a good photo, the project manager has to study, observe, and see the end result of the efforts before the work begins.

Another way to look at your new friend the Iron Triangle is to imagine the photographer's tripod. If you've ever worked with a tripod (hopefully with a camera on top) you know the secret is to have the tripod balanced and level. In fact, some camera tripods have a level built into the head so you know when it is level. A level tripod ensures that the photo's horizon is flat; it makes a goofy picture when the ocean is slipping down to South America.

Now imagine that one leg of the tripod equates to scope, another to time, and the last is cost. We agree that the tripod has to be balanced to take a good picture, just like a project has to have balance to be successful. If any leg of the tripod is extended more than the others the tripod is off-balance - just like your projects.

Some tripods are nice and heavy. A heavy tripod helps when you've taking a photo in the middle of a river or you're fighting a wind storm. The trouble with heavy tripods is someone has to carry them. What some photographers do is carry a light tripod and then suspend their camera bag under the tripod to fend off any shakes. A neat trick.

In project management what's keeping your project sturdy? Imagine that the area within the three legs of the tripod represents quality. If any leg of the tripod is out of balance then quality is likely to suffer. Quality is in proportion to the amount of time, cost, and scope available for the project deliverables. When one angle of the project suffers so does quality.

What good is a project's deliverable if the project is finished on time, but the product or service doesn't work as promised? Or if the project manager has spent all of the money but didn't create all the promised deliverables? Quality is affected by the balance of time, cost, and scope.

Following this snappy analogy of photography, what kind of camera would you like to put on top of your tripod? If you're like me, I bet you'd like a digital SLR, capable of 12 megapixels, and a few gigs of memory for your digital photos. Of you could rely on a manual 35mm camera, with slide film, and a nice set of filters.

But wouldn't you have better photos with the 12 megapixel digital camera? Not necessarily. Just because you have a fantastic camera doesn't mean your photos will be fantastic. It's not the camera that takes the pictures - it's the photographer.

The camera, in our project management analogy, are the mechanics of project management. The person behind the camera is the project manager. Just as the photographer has to know how to adjust the camera to capture the perfect photo, so does the project manager adjust the controls within project management to deliver on the project's demands.

Good photographers and good project managers have much in common: experience, a foundation in the fundamentals, and a willingness to learn. At the core, I believe, is an ability to capture a vision - and then process that vision for others to see.

Projects Tell a Story

If you don't like photography maybe you'll like stories. Projects, like a good story, have a beginning, a middle, and a satisfying end. Think back to any project you've managed or worked on. Can you recall the beginning, middle, and a Hollywood ending?

The story for all projects is that they move through five process groups to get from start to finish. Within each process group there are key activities which help a project move along.

Initiate a Project

This process group starts all the fun. In this group the business need for the project is identified, some initial solutions may be proposed, and the project manager is selected.

The most important document to come out of this group is the project charter. The project charter authorises the project work and assigns the project manager the power to complete the project on behalf of the project sponsor. The project sponsor is typically someone high enough in the organisational hierarchy to have power over the resources that need to be involved in the project. (Having a weak sponsor for your project can also, unfortunately, lead to cheap tequila.)

Planning the Project

In order to plan the project manager must know what the project will create. The project manager and the project stakeholders - the people that have a stake in the project outcome - have to determine what the desired future state is. A dreamy wish list won't work. The project demands exact requirements. If you don't know what the project should create how will you ever get there?

Once the project requirements have been agreed upon then the project manager, the project team, and in some instances the project stakeholders will create a plan on how to achieve the project objectives. This isn't a one-time process. Planning is an iterative process that happens throughout the project duration. Planning is a cornerstone of project management - skip planning or do it half-heartedly and the project is doomed.

Executing the Project

Ever hear the quip, "Plan your work and then work your plan?" This is the working part. The executing process group is the project team executing the project work according to plan - and the project manager working with any vendors that may be involved in the execution or support of the deliverables needed for the project completion.

Controlling the Project

Control freaks need not apply. Controlling isn't about micromanaging - it's about compliance with the project plan. There's balance between execution and control. The project manager works with the project team, not over them, to ensure that they're doing the work as it was planned. And if not? Then the project manager makes corrective actions to get the project back in alignment with the project plan.

Controlling is also about balancing the time, cost, and scope constraints as the project moves along. The project manager has to measure, compare, and adjust controls within the project to ensure project success. If we do not measure we cannot improve.

Closing the Project

Aaah - closing. This process group centres on closing out the project accounts, completing final, formal acceptance of the project deliverables, finalising any time, cost, or quality reports, completing the project's lessons learned documentation, and finalising any financial or procurement audits. The project manager may have to complete a review of each team member, a review of the vendors, and a review of their own actions in the project.

Project closure also involves some rewards and recognition. For some, this means bonuses, vacation time, or other rewards. If this isn't appropriate or available in your organisation the project manager should at least verbally reward the project team for their hard work and a job well-done (assuming the project was done well).

Putting It All Together

As you know projects are short-term endeavours to create a unique product or service. Projects are out of the normal duties you do as part of your operations. Projects are constrained by time, cost, and scope - and other constraints such as regulations, resources, or even vendors.

The Iron Triangle of project management posits that all projects are constrained by time, cost, and scope. If one angle of the project is out whack the whole project suffers.

Projects, and technically even project phases, move through five process groups: initiating, planning, executing, controlling, and closing. Each process group has key activities that lend to a successful project. I believe the most important group is planning. Without planning the project is destined for failure.

What we've discussed in this intro to project management is a good foundation for how projects are to operate, their constraints, and a some challenges every project manager faces. On top of this strong foundation there are nine knowledge areas which also affect a project's success:

  1. Project Scope Management
  2. Project Time Management
  3. Project Cost Management
  4. Project Quality Management
  5. Human Resources Management
  6. Communications Management
  7. Project Risk Management
  8. Project Procurement Management
  9. Project Integration Management

For each of these knowledge areas I've written an article which explains their characteristics and how they contribute to your projects.

For now know this: projects are successful based on the ability of the project manager to lead, manage, and motivate the project team to complete the project plan. The project plan supports the vision the project manager has inherited from the project stakeholders. If the project manager and the project stakeholder don't have the same vision of the desired future state the project is doomed.

Projects fail at the beginning, not the end.

Joseph Phillips is the author of five books on project management and is a PMI Project Management Professional, a CompTIA certified Project Professional, and a Certified Technical Trainer. For more information about project management training, please visit


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