Project management guide: Tips, strategies, best practices

Project management plays a crucial role in enabling companies to transform business and execute strategy effectively. Here is a look at project management and all the key elements that have made it a necessity for businesses of every size, and industry.

Project management: Tips, strategies, best practices
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Managing any project can become a slippery slope when your organization doesn’t have a solid grasp of all the moving pieces. Project management can be a complex discipline to understand and navigate. After all, there are enough key phases, knowledge areas, and project management-specific terms to fill a glossary.

To simplify the key components of successful project management, CIO has put together this guide to understanding project management — the phases, knowledge areas, tools and more. First, it is important to identify why the formal application of project management skills and knowledge should be a necessity for organizations: because far too many projects fail.

Project management definition

Project management is the application of specific processes, knowledge and skills, techniques and tools, as well as inputs and outputs that project managers and teams utilize to successfully meet project goals and deliverables.

Project management goals

As a high-level strategic body, project management professionals first and foremost help drive, guide, and execute company-identified value-added goals. These goals should include:

  • identifying and executing high-impact, high-visibility initiatives
  • building a framework that shows how the PMO or EPMO aligns with strategic enterprise objectives
  • acquiring the right people, knowledge, and skills
  • providing senior managers with simple, unambiguous information
  • reporting on what the business really cares about
  • highlighting PMO or EPMO achievements
  • ensuring the PMO or EPMO continue to evolve to support bimodal IT and digital business

Project management vs. change management

Change management and project management are often thought to be the same thing. They aren’t. Here’s how they differ: Change management involves people, processes, and tools to effectively help organizations manage all the changes that occur, whether as a result of project initiatives, or other factors that might impact the business. Project management also involves the use of people, processes and methodologies to plan, initiate, execute, monitor and close activities. But it is designed to meet an organization's project goals, and hopefully overall strategic objectives.

Project management methodologies

Choosing the right project management methodology to execute your project is a vital step for success. There are many different and, in some cases, overlapping methodologies and approaches to managing project complexities. Here are some of the most popular project management methodologies (PMMs) in practice today, but it’s important to know more than one methodology (a hybrid) can be adapted to a project:

  • Waterfall
  • Agile
  • Hybrid
  • Critical path method
  • Critical chain project management

One of the most utilized methodologies is agile. It uses short development cycles called sprints to focus on continuous improvement in the development of a product or service. Originally it was adopted primarily within the software development industry. Today agile is being utilized in virtually most industries.

PMO vs. EPMO

Successful organizations codify project management efforts under an umbrella organization, either a project management office (PMO) or an enterprise project management office (EPMO).

A PMO is an internal or external group that sets direction, maintains and ensures standards, best practices, and the status of project management across an organization. PMOs traditionally do not assume a lead role in strategic goal alignment.

An EPMO has the same responsibilities as a traditional PMO, but with an additional key high-level goal: to align all project, program, and portfolio activities with an organization’s strategic objectives. Organizations are increasingly adopting the EPMO structure, whereby, project, program, and portfolio managers are involved in strategic planning sessions right from the start to increase project success rates.

The benefits of a PMO or EPMO

PMOs and EPMOs help organizations apply a standard approach to project management. In setting standard approaches, PMOs and EPMOs offer the following benefits:

  • ground rules and expectations for the project teams
  • a common language for project managers, functional leaders and other stakeholders that smooths communication and ensures expectations are fully understood
  • higher levels of visibility and increased accountability across an entire organization
  • increased agility when adapting to other initiatives or changes within an organization
  • the ready ability to identify the status of tasks, milestones, and deliverables
  • relevant key performance indicators for measuring project performance

Project management roles

Depending on numerous factors such as industry, the nature and scope of the project, the project team, company, or methodology, projects may need the help of schedulers, business analysts, business intelligence analysts, functional leads and sponsors. Here is a comparison of the three key roles within the PMO or EPMO, all are in high demand due to their leadership skill sets.

Project manager Program manager Portfolio manager
Plays the lead role in planning, executing, monitoring, controlling, and closing of individual projects. Organizations can have one or more project managers. Oversees and leads a group of similar or connected projects within an organization. One or more project managers will typically report to the program manager. This role is at the highest level of a PMO or EPMO and is responsible for overseeing the strategic alignment and direction of all projects and programs. Program managers will typically report directly to the portfolio manager.

Project management skills 

Effective project managers need more than technical know-how. The role also requires a number of non-technical skills, and it is these softer skills that often determine whether a project manager — and the project — will be a success. Project managers must at least have these seven non-technical skills:  leadership, motivation, communication, organization, prioritization, problem-solving, and adaptability.

Project management training and certifications

Successful projects require highly skilled project managers, many with formal training or project management certifications. Some may have project management professional certifications or other certifications from the PMI or another organization. Project management certifications include:

  • PMP: Project Management Professional
  • CAPM: Certified Associate in Project Management
  • CSM: Certified Scrum Master
  • CompTIA Project+ Certification
  • PRINCE2 Foundation/PRINCE2 Practitioner
  • CPMP: Certified Project Management Practitioner
  • Associate in Project Management
  • MPM: Master Project Manager
  • PPM: Professional in Project Management
  • PMITS: Project Management in IT Security
  • Certified Project Director

Project management steps

At the highest level, and before jumping into a project, project managers can help organizations set expectations and achieve on-time, on-budget, and goal-based project delivery by following seven steps. By aligning all of these areas, organizations can increase the likelihood of developing a sustainable competitive advantage:

  • align company-wide strategic goals through an EPMO
  • practice benefits realization management
  • bridge the gap between strategy formulation and execution
  • gain (and maintain) executive sponsorship
  • hire (and retain) the right talent
  • adopt agile practices
  • tackle technology and business disruption

Project management phases

The five project management phases, or life cycle as it is sometimes referred to, intersect with 10 knowledge areas. The knowledge areas include integration, scope, time, cost, quality, human resources, communication, risk procurement, and stakeholder management. The phases and associated knowledge areas provide an organized approach for project managers and their teams to work through projects.

  1. Initiating phase
    • 1. Integration management: developing a project charter
    • 2. Stakeholder management: identifying stakeholders
  2. Planning phase
    • 1. Integration management: developing a project management plan
    • 2. Scope management: defining and managing scope, creating a work breakdown structure (WBS), and requirements gathering
    • 3. Time management: planning, defining, and developing schedules, activities, estimating resources, and activity durations
    • 4. Costs management: planning and estimating costs, and determining budgets
    • 5. Quality management: planning and identifying quality requirements
    • 6. Human Resource management: planning and identifying human resource needs
    • 7. Communications management: planning stakeholder communications
    • 8. Risk management: planning for and identifying potential risks, performing a qualitative and quantitative risk analysis, and planning risk mitigation strategies
    • 9. Procurement management: planning for and identifying required procurements
    • 10. Stakeholder management: planning for stakeholder expectations
  3. Executing
    • 1. Integration management: directing and managing all work for the project
    • 2. Quality management: performing all aspects of managing quality
    • 3. Human resource management: selecting, developing, and managing the project team
    • 4. Communications management: managing all aspects of communications
    • 5. Procurement management: take action on securing necessary procurements
    • 6. Stakeholder management: managing all stakeholder expectations
  4. Monitoring and controlling
    • 1. Integration management: monitoring and controlling the project work and managing any necessary changes
    • 2. Scope management: validating and controlling the scope of the project
    • 3. Time management: controlling the scope of the project
    • 4. Costs management: controlling project costs
    • 5. Quality management: controlling the quality of deliverables
    • 6. Communications management: controlling all team and stakeholder communications
    • 7. Procurement management: controlling procurements
    • 8. Stakeholder management: controlling stakeholder engagements
  5. Closing
    • 1. Integration management: closing all phases of the project
    • 2. Procurement management: closing all project procurements

Stakeholder expectations

Stakeholders can be any person or group that has a vested stake in the success of a project, program, or portfolio. It can be individual team members, functional groups, sponsors, vendors, and definitely customers. Expectations of all stakeholders must be carefully identified, communicated, and managed. Missing this can lead to misunderstandings, conflict, and even project failure.

Once the project is confirmed and before it is executed, there are steps that can be taken to set realistic stakeholder expectations around achieving identified goals. Here are just some steps.

  • Assembling the right team that is specific to the project goals. The team members should have the skills and knowledge to deliver.
  • Leave sufficient time in advance of a project for key individuals to delve into and discuss issues and goals before the project begins.
  • Ensure the project timeline, and scheduled tasks are realistic.

Project scope

Within the planning stage of a project, all project details need to be solidified, including goals, deliverables, assumptions, roles, tasks, timeline, budget, resources, quality aspects, terms, and so on. The customer and key stakeholders work together to solidify and agree on the scope before the project can begin. The scope guides the project work and any changes to the scope of the project must be presented and approved as a scope change request.

Project budgets

Budgets play a large role in whether a project progresses, or if it can be completed. Few companies have an unlimited budget, so the first thing project stakeholders look at in determining whether a project succeeded or failed is the bottom line. This fact fuels the pressure project leaders, and their teams face with each passing day. As such, effective budget management is a primary area of focus for project managers who value their careers. The following are five strategies for maintaining control of your project budget before it succumbs to whopping cost overruns:

  • understand stakeholder’s true needs and wants
  • budget for surprises
  • develop relevant KPIs
  • revisit, review, re-forecast
  • keep everyone informed and accountable
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