Project Management - What's It All About?

Project Management is the planning and management of a range of tasks, particularly where there are complexities either within the tasks or within the teams working on the project, in order to achieve a deliverable at the end of the project. A deliverable can be many things; it may be a physical thing such as a new product, it may be an intangible thing such as a new process within an organization or it may be a new software system.

Whatever the end result of the project, it will involve some type of change within a business. The change could be a modification to the existing status quo or it could be introducing something completely new, so change management is also an element of project management.

A project that is going to be formally managed within an organization could be in any area of the business, but the most common areas in which project management tools and techniques will be useful are:

• IT
• customer services
• product manufacture
• new business development
• premises
• administrative tasks and processes
• financial, legal and professional procedures
• health and safety requirements
• research and development

If the desired final outcome cannot be accurately predicted with certainty, then project management techniques will be required to plan and organise tasks, assess the risks and ensure the resources are available to deliver a successful outcome.

So what exactly are the stages of managing a project? Listed below are the fundamental stages of managing any project; each of these may contain many sub-stages, particularly for more complex projects:

Document the Business Requirements
The business requirements document should accurately, and in detail, describe the purpose of the project. It states what is needed to achieve that goal i.e. what is in-scope, what is out-of-scope, any assumptions that have been made, any constraints that have been imposed and expected timescales. The document will form the definitive description of the aims of the project and, as such, can be used to manage the expectations of the stakeholders. It will also include acceptance criteria that will ultimately be used to judge whether the project was a success.

The production and agreement of the business requirements is a substantial part of the overall project schedule and may take many iterations before it is finally approved.

The project manager usually works with other departments or teams to put the document together. They will probably use Brainstorming and Interviewing techniques to help with this process and may even build a prototype.

Document the Functional Specification

The business requirements state what is required but do not specify how the deliverable will actually work. So in many projects with a tangible and technically sophisticated deliverable, it is very common to produce additional documentation about the look and feel of the end product. The functional specification describes not only how the end product will look but also how an end-user will actually use it and what the user-experience will be like.

This document should contain sections that specifically relate to each of the requirements in the business requirements document so that every functional item can be tracked back to an original business need.

Create the Project Plan

The project plan will include details about the various tasks required to complete the project, the people and equipment involved, time estimates, dependencies, milestones and the overall timescales.

The tasks need to be scheduled in the correct order and dependencies between tasks factored in. In complex projects several tasks will be performed in parallel to maximize the total project time. The plan will also take account of the project budget.

There are many project management techniques and tools available, some of the most common being Critical Path Analysis Flow Diagrams and Gantt Charts.

A Critical Path Analysis diagram uses a linear timeline to identify dependent tasks and is particularly used on large, complex projects which may have hundreds of dependent activities. These diagrams highlight dependent tasks that overlap and, therefore, require adjustments to the schedule.

A Gantt Chart is an excellent project management tool for the scheduling, budgeting and reporting of a project. The easiest, but perhaps not the most useful, tool for creating Gantt Charts is MSProject. Each task is listed on the left-hand side of the chart with a timeline shown on the right. Milestones can be easily marked and the schedule and costs can be easily updated where necessary.
Every project should have a contingency allowance for both time and budget as there is always a tendency to under-estimate tasks, particularly when under pressure to deliver as soon as possible. Indeed, in practise, many project managers are not given the luxury of estimating the total time required but are likely to be given a fixed end date and the project tasks have to be fitted into the time available.

Project management also includes identifying and managing potential risks as well as managing the change associated with most projects.

Assign Project Tasks

All of the tasks listed on the project plan need to be assigned to an individual or team. The person or persons responsible for a task will need to know in detail what the task involves and also the dependencies and timescales, which can be clearly communicated to them using the Gantt Chart. The timescales must be realistic and, in practise, the project manager will probably have discussed timescales with the team before the schedule was finalised. They will also need to understand the criteria by which each task is determined as complete.

People Management

The role of a project manager is very diverse and one of the most vital skills is good people management. The most carefully planned projects will go awry if the team is not motivated, encouraged and kept informed. Regular scheduled meetings provide a formal way of doing this but do not overlook the casual conversations that are often more informative for the project manager and easier opportunities to encourage individuals at a more personal level.

Review Progress

Regularly review estimates, deadlines and milestones to check they are still on schedule. If necessary, update the plan with new estimates and tasks and ensure that remaining tasks are necessary and estimates are still valid. Circumstances can change during a project but question every change and always refer back to the original business requirement as a cross-reference.
Notify stakeholders of project progress at regular intervals and gain their approval for any changes that substantially impact the deadline, budget or deliverables.

Project Acceptance, Implementation and Follow-Up

Once the final product has been fully tested, staff have been trained (where necessary) and the stakeholders have signed-off the project then it can be implemented in the working environment. It is probably a rare project that is 100% successful but whatever the final outcome of the project always aim to find some element that was a success and make sure you reflect positively on the successful parts. Hold team reviews to learn from both the successes and the mistakes and take the time to write a report documenting any remaining issues that need to be followed up...

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