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Your step-by-step guide to great project management

Get more projects across the finish line (with less stress)

What is project management? Project management is the coordination of your processes, tools, team members, and skills so you can deliver projects that exceed your goals.

You and your team are getting ready to conquer a major project. It’s like a long stack of dominoes — it’s so cool when it works, but a big ol’ disappointment if a single piece is even slightly out of place. 

These types of projects can be both daunting and exciting, and you might be tempted to start as soon as possible. Do you cross your fingers that everything magically falls into place? Rub a lamp and hope a wish-granting genie arrives to lend a helping hand? 

Those would be nice (and let us know if you find a way to make them work!). But, in reality, the secret to success for your big, hairy projects is effective project management.

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What is project management, and why is it important?

Project management is the practice of coordinating processes, tools, team members, and skills to deliver projects that meet goals and satisfy requirements.

Successful projects don’t just fall from the sky. In fact, most organizations have an estimated 70% project failure rate — meaning projects don’t meet their original goals. 

Project management boosts your success rate. It empowers your team to complete projects by rallying them around clear objectives, increasing transparency and visibility, streamlining communication, and establishing the project scope. 

Pretty powerful stuff, right? It’s no wonder a PwC study found that 97% of organizations believe project management is critical to business performance.

The good: benefits of project management

But what makes project management worth the extra time and effort? Tackling work in this strategic and methodical way has many advantages, including:

1. Eliminates confusion

When you jump right into your project without any prior conversations or planning, things quickly fall apart. People aren’t sure who’s doing what, there are miscommunications about the project timeline, and everybody is confused about the project’s goal.

If this sounds familiar, you aren’t alone. One survey conducted by Geneca found that only 55% of respondents thought the business objectives of their project were clear to them. 

That inspires frustration, and it also wastes a lot of resources. We’ve all been in situations where we needed to revise or redo our tasks once we had more information or a better understanding. 

Fortunately, project management equips your team with clearly-defined goals and refined systems in place for completing work. That makes it a lot easier for everyone to stay on the same page and collaborate cohesively without having to revisit their pieces again and again. 

2. Manages scope and budget

Project overruns are frighteningly common. In the IT industry alone, McKinsey found that on average, large IT projects run 45% over budget and 7% over time. 

Yikes. Those types of overages stretch your budget and your bandwidth to the limit. Thankfully, effective project management helps bake in some flexibility.

The first steps of the project management process (initiating and planning) require you to map out realistic budgets, timelines, and scope before you actually start any project tasks. This helps you generate a project plan that’s rooted in reality.

The difficult: challenges of project management

But what makes project management worth the extra time and effort? Tackling work in this strategic and methodical way has many advantages, including:

1. Greater time investment

Your team is eager, and they’re used to jumping right in and getting started. Project management adds a layer that’s going to take up more time.

That’s because the project management process has numerous stages (which we’ll cover soon), a couple of which happen before your team ever gets to sink their teeth into actual work.

That can be an adjustment for a team that’s used to figuring things out as they go along.

Remind your team that while project management requires more legwork upfront, it will save plenty of time and headaches in the long run.

2. More rigid expectations

Effective project management means you’ll have clearly-defined goals, timelines, roles, and more. 

This boosts accountability, which is ultimately a good thing (particularly when you consider that 94% of employees say they fail to hold their coworkers responsible). 

However, having these types of established expectations can also feel somewhat limiting and rigid. Creative teams especially aren’t used to working within these types of constraints and may find it difficult to adjust.

Project management methodologies

Have you heard that old adage “more than one way to cook an egg”? There’s no one strategy for completing a kick-ass project. That’s where a project management methodology comes into play. It’s a set of rules, principles, and processes for managing a project.

Think of tying your shoes as a simple example. Maybe you use the one-loop method or you’re more partial to the rabbit ears trick. Regardless, you end up with tied shoes, but there are different steps you can take to get that end result.

Project management methodologies are a lot like that. It’s important to note that many teams and companies use a combination, rather than relying exclusively on one. Methodologies might sound formal, but you have some room to innovate here!

Waterfall project management

When you think of traditional, sequential project management, you’re picturing waterfall project management. With this method, you break your project into different phases. When one phase ends, the next one begins — there’s no overlap between them. 

When to use this method: For long projects that require a single timeline and a very sequential order.

Commonly used in: Construction. Building a house or structure requires a successive order. You can’t put on a roof before you’ve poured a foundation, for example. 

Agile project management

Agile project management is an iterative approach and is much more flexible than waterfall project management. It's a DevOps best practice that breaks projects into chunks that are tackled in short bursts (called sprints). After each sprint, your team reevaluates the work you’re doing to make any necessary changes and ensure you’re staying on target. 

When to use this method: For projects that aren’t yet well defined and require a lot of adaptability. 

Commonly used in: Software development. This profession pioneered agile, and this approach allows developers to build higher-quality software because they’re able to test and review at regular intervals.

Lean project management

If you’ve heard of lean manufacturing, those same principles apply to lean project management. The goal of this methodology is to increase output and value while reducing waste. To use it, you’ll need to map a value stream, which is the sequence of project activities. Then, you take a magnifying glass to that stream to identify and eliminate work that doesn’t add value. This means your project process will be as streamlined, optimized, and efficient as possible.

When to use it: For projects that need to be delivered quickly. 

Commonly used in: Manufacturing. When you’re producing physical goods, you want as little waste as possible to minimize spend and maximize profit. That’s why this approach is popular in manufacturing, especially in the automotive industry.

Project management stages

Imagine that you’re starting a project from the very beginning. Project management doesn’t come into play only when you actually start checking off tasks — you need to lay the groundwork first.

With that in mind, the Project Management Institute (PMI) established five distinct stages of project management.

Stage #1: Initiating

Think the first step of the project management process is planning? Not quite. Before you can map out a strategy for your project, you need to understand it at a broader level. In this stage, you should answer questions like:

  • What’s the business case for this project?
  • Is this project feasible?
  • Should we pursue this project?

To put it simply, in this stage you’re trying to decide if this project is even worth tackling before you invest too much elbow grease.

Stage #2: Planning

If you decide to move forward, you’ll next head into the planning stage. This is where you’ll get into the good stuff and develop a detailed project plan that your entire team will follow. Questions to answer in this stage include:

  • What is the goal of this project?
  • What are the key performance indicators (KPIs)?
  • What is the scope?
  • What is the budget?
  • What are the risks?
  • What team members are involved?
  • What tasks are involved?
  • What milestones need to be met? 

This step is to ensure you and your team all have shared expectations before you get started. If you think you’re getting too caught up in the minutiae, you aren’t. Digging that deep is more than worth it, as it improves your team’s alignment.

Stage #3: Executing

Grab your coffee and get your power cable, because it’s go-time. This is where you and your team will roll up your sleeves and start conquering project tasks with your project plan as your guide. In this stage, you’ll need to: 

  • Allocate necessary resources
  • Ensure assignees carry out their tasks
  • Host status meetings
  • Set up tracking systems

The bulk of the work happens in this stage, and it’s also where you’ll start to see your project really coming together. See? All that planning was worth it.

Stage #4: Monitoring

Just because you have a project plan doesn’t mean things will run smoothly on their own. It’s like setting a budget for yourself — having the budget doesn’t do anything if you don’t keep a close eye on how you’re managing your money. 

That’s why you need to monitor project progress to ensure things stay on track. You should evaluate your project against the KPIs you established in the planning stage.

What should you do if your project feels like it’s strayed from the path or fallen prey to scope creep? Take a moment to reevaluate. You can decide if you need to realign things, or if your original plan needs to shift. That’s the great thing about monitoring — you have regular checkpoints to course correct.

Stage #5: Closing

The closing stage is about wrapping up loose ends. This includes:

  • Hosting a postmortem or retrospective to evaluate the project
  • Preparing a final project report
  • Collecting and storing necessary project documentation somewhere safe (a collaborative documentation space like Confluence is great for this, by the way).

Not only does this give your team the chance to officially wash their hands of the project, but it also makes it easier to refer back to it when necessary.

Project management best practices

Even if you follow all of the above steps, effective project management isn’t a set-and-forget scenario. There are a few other best practices you’ll want to implement to help your project run as smoothly as possible.

Host a project kickoff meeting

Your project kickoff meeting is when you’ll establish goals, break down your timeline, and generally get everybody on the same page about your project.

Regardless of how excited your team is to get to work, don’t skip this sitdown. You’ll proactively clear up confusion and rally your team around a shared goal.

Be mindful of task and resource dependencies

Remember when we talked about projects that feel like a string of teetering dominoes? That’s especially true for large, cross-functional projects. Maybe Daisy can’t start creating graphics until Joel has drafted the content (that’s a task dependency). Or maybe Choua can’t use a piece of software while Derek is using the shared license (that’s a resource dependency).

Your project tasks don’t happen in a vacuum, so it’s important that you account for these dependencies. PMI’s 2018 Pulse of the Profession showed that resource dependencies contributed to 26% of project failures, while task dependencies contributed to 12% of project failures.

When all of your tasks and resources are connected, you need to understand how they fit together, or you run the risk of watching in horror as your whole line of dominoes comes toppling down.

Identify your critical path

Identifying your critical path is a great way to prevent schedule overruns. While it might sound like something out of an action movie, your critical path is just your longest string of dependent project activities. If you hit a snag or delay on that path, you know the whole project is at risk of coming in late. 

Finding your critical path allows you to know where you have some wiggle room in your schedule, and where you need to stick as close to your timeline as possible. 

Hourglass

Be realistic with your timeline

Have you heard of the planning fallacy? It’s a phenomenon that causes us to grossly underestimate the time it takes us to complete tasks, and it can be a real detriment to your project timeline.

Keep yourself in check by referring back to timelines for previous projects. Consult your time-tracking software (if you have it) to see how long typical tasks take, and ask your team to gut check their schedules.

Use project management software

If your team members need to dig through endless email threads or folders to find what they need, your project is bound to drag behind. 

That’s why it’s helpful to use project management software (like Jira) to store your documentation and organize your project in a knowledge management software (like Confluence). It increases visibility into all project steps and tasks, centralizes communication, and gives your project team one single source of truth.

Establish clear roles and responsibilities

Research from Gallup found that only about half of employees strongly agree that they know what’s expected of them at work. 

To get the best output from your team, people need to know exactly why they’re involved. What is their role and what are they expected to contribute? 

Not only does this instill a sense of purpose and accountability in your project team members, but it also prevents them from stepping on each other’s toes and allows you to play to everyone’s strengths.

Make it a collaborative process

Managing a project can be stressful, and you don’t have to do it all alone. Your team will have a lot of great insight into your project plan, including if your timeline is realistic or if you’re forgetting about dependencies. And remember, you brought them into this project because you know they’re brilliant and you trust their expertise. 

Don’t plan projects in isolation. Involve your team to hash out a more reasonable plan and boost their sense of ownership over the project.

Project management roles and responsibilities

Potential project roles include:

  • Project manager: Person who oversees the entire project and is responsible for the project’s success.
  • Project sponsor: Senior manager who champions the project and works closely with the project manager.
  • Team member: People who actively work on the project tasks.
  • Supplier: People who provide goods or services for a project.
  • Stakeholder: People who have an interest in the project. These can be broken into:
    • Primary stakeholders: People who actually do the work and are actively involved in the project.
    • Secondary stakeholders: People who might come to meetings and play a small part but aren’t key decision-makers in the project.
  • Interested stakeholders: People who are in the loop on the project but don’t play an active part or have a lot of influence.
  • Client: Person who receives the final project, if it’s a client-facing project rather than an internal one. 

How project management software can help

As always, technology is on your side. A survey showed 77% of high-performing projects use project management software. But, despite that impressive statistic, adoption of this type of software remains low (with only 22% of organizations using it). 

How does project management software help? It hones the process by: 

  • Allowing for greater visibility: By knocking down silos, team members can get a bird’s-eye view of the entire project, who’s working on what, when pieces are due, and more.
  • Streamlining communication: Don’t waste time searching for what you need. Project management software centralizes all project communication and resources in one place.
  • Reducing errors and inefficiencies: Having a single source of truth means less miscommunications and errors on your project team.
  • Producing real-time updates: By having this easy-to-reference software, everybody always has the most up-to-date information about the project and progress. 

Awesome projects come from awesome plans

You don’t need to hold out for a magic genie. Effective project management is your not-so-secret sauce. With careful planning, strategy, and monitoring, you can set your team up for great project success. 

Make sure your team has everything they need to complete winning projects—including the right tools. Jira makes it easy to plan, track, and manage your projects, while Confluence boosts transparency and centralizes your project-related conversations and resources. 

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