A quick guide to project management

Effective project management is an important element in the success of any large organisation and it also has important applications within businesses of any size, in any industry. SMEs can use project management techniques to streamline their business practices and complete tasks in a more timely and efficient fashion. Ensuring that you and your staff have a basic knowledge of established project management techniques can result in a more agile, successful organisation.

In the first instance, it is useful to understand what, exactly, constitutes a project. The term is being used to cover an increasingly broad range of company activities, but it is important to distinguish between projects and processes. A project has a specified start and end date, and a specific goal that will produce some benefit for the business. As such, projects might include, for example, the development of a new website. In contrast, a process is a repetitive task that performs an intrinsic function within the business. Adam Smith provided the classic definition of a process, pointing out in 1776 that the manufacture of a pin required “about eighteen distinct operations”, each of which constitutes a process.

At its core, project management attempts to provide a framework within which a project can be completed, and the goal successfully attained, without exceeding the resources available. These resources might include people, money and time.

There is a vast range of project management frameworks, with new approaches being designed all the time. Many of these frameworks are designed for specific business requirements; indeed, many are designed specifically for software development. This article will concentrate on a ‘traditional’ framework that can be adapted for virtually any use.

A traditional project management approach divides every project into a number of distinct phases. These are:

1. Initiation 2. Planning or design 3 .Execution 4. Monitoring 5. Completion

As can be seen, loops may occur within this framework. It is possible, for example, that your observations in phase 4 may lead you to return to phase 2 in order to make corrections or adjustments. However, reliance on these five phases is generally insufficient; this is more of a description of the ways in which a project would generally pan out. As such, there are other aspects to consider.

Your first step should be to comprehensively define the project. This definition will act as your ‘baseline’ against which progress will be judged over the course of the project. It should give a clear explanation of the goals and objectives of the project, and the benefits to your business that will result from its completion. Your definition should also highlight any potential risks associated with the project. These will differ depending on the nature of your business and the project itself, but they may include, for example, financial risks to your organisation or health and safety risks. You should consider ways in which you can mitigate or eliminate these risks, and develop policies to deal with those that remain.

You may need to create subdivisions within some or all of the five phases detailed above. These subdivisions should break up larger tasks into manageable chunks, each of which can be assigned to a suitable member of the team. If you are operating in this way, it is vital that every member of the team is given a distinct role of which they are aware, and which is understood by all. Furthermore, it must be made clear to whom each team member is accountable - this may be the overall project owner, or lower-level managers with responsibility for individual aspects of the project. Alternatively, if the ‘team’ consists solely of you, these chunks can be assigned to different time periods so that you can plan your time effectively.

Your project definition should have provided criteria for success, and these should be applied throughout the process. These become particularly important, however, in the monitoring phase. By the beginning of this phase you will have a ‘prototype’ of whatever it is that you have been designing, although this need not be a physical object. The monitoring phase requires that you test your creation in the environment in which it will ultimately be used. Throughout this phase you should constantly refer back to your project definition, and ascertain whether or not the aims have been met. You may also wish to perform usability testing, whereby members of your organisation who have had no prior involvement in the project give their input on the ease of use and general success of the product. If it is found to come up short, you will need to return to the planning and design phase.

The planning/execution/monitoring cycle can continue for some time. While it is important that the goals of the project are attained, it is also vital that the resource constraints are honoured. As such, you must include contingencies in your plan that will allow you to deal with an unexpectedly long development cycle.

The basic phases described here have been extended and altered to create a huge number of more specialised frameworks. You may wish to investigate some of these to find a method that suits your specific project. However, this ‘bare bones’ approach is highly flexible and, with sufficient planning, can ensure that your next project is completed on time and within budget.