What Is Project Management?

What is project management? Simplest put, the art and science of taking an idea to reality by planning and managing who does what, when, and how. That’s the basic definition – but the devil is always in the details, as they say. Project management is about projects, and projects aren’t just anything.

The two basic building blocks of a project are:

  • a goal – there is something unique the endeavor is meant to accomplish
  • a timeframe – there is a start and an end to the endeavor

project management graph

What Is A Project?

Say you’re an industrial lighting company. You’ve won the bid to install all the lighting in a mall. You have a goal – installing the lighting in the mall.  This is a unique goal. You have a timeframe – the time between now and the deadline when the work needs to be completed. This is not an ongoing operation.

On the other hand, say your industrial lighting company is given a maintenance contract for the same mall. You are tasked with replacing all the lighting fixtures that burn out or break. This is an ongoing operation – there is no end. This is NOT a project. There is a goal, but there is no timeframe.

OK, you say. A project is an endeavor with a goal and a timeframe. Now that you have a project, you need to manage it to a successful conclusion. In our example, this is a mall with lighting installed, functional and ready to go, by the date of the deadline. How will you accomplish this?

Now You’re Talking Project Management

Project management has a few defining factors of its own.

  • Planning – a project is not a chaotic list of tasks! There is a central plan, mapped out in advance, that governs who does what, and when
  • Execution – the plan is actively managed. There is a step by step process, mapped out by the plan (and often a timeline), that is adhered to
  • Monitoring – progress is tracked against the plan. Not only is there a step by step process, it is a measurable process

Project management is a top down process – it starts with the goal, and gets broken down to tasks. It’s actively managed, against a rubric. Chaos is the enemy of the project.

How Are Projects Managed?

The first step to managing a project is creating the project plan. A project plan is almost always a timeline – this timeline is usually a Gantt chart, sometimes created as an Excel template or with project management software. This is the “top-down” process – the plan is where the goal is translated into tasks.

This plan, once approved, becomes a tool for managing for the project as it unfolds. Tasks are assigned to team members, progress is reported, milestones are met (or delays are accounted for). Project managers monitor the overall health and progress of the project, delegating workflow appropriately and managing crises as they arise. This is the “execution” and “monitoring” aspects of a project.

What Goes Into Managing a Project?

Quite a lot goes into managing a project. The description sounds idyllic. It might even give you the picture of a paint by numbers approach. It’s easy to pretend a project manager just whips up some Gantt charts and overlooks the project, but this isn’t true. Reality is anything but. Projects have a lot of moving parts. They’re dynamic, and fluid. Trying to impose order, or even just stick to a plan, is difficult. There are a lot of things on a project manager’s plate!

Managing Scope 

The scope of a project is its measurables. This is usually defined in the planning stage. Projects can often begin to act like runaway trains, in that the goal begins to change over time. Without active, ongoing management of the project’s scope during the execution phase, that project to install lighting in a new mall can quickly become a contract to wire the entire city block. Who keeps a project nailed to the scope set out at the beginning? The project manager.


Managing Time

Time is of the essence, they say. Managing time in terms of project management is a multi-layered endeavor. You need to manage the project’s time, making sure the goal is accomplished before the deadline. Then there’s managing the time of the people working on the project, making sure they have enough time to finish their tasks while not becoming wasted resources. Finally, you need to manage the time necessary for tasks to be completed. Who manages the different timelines? The project manager.

Managing Integration

Many projects require multiple teams, with multiple members, working on different aspects of the project. Someone has to make sure everyone is on the same page! In our example, one team is on site at the mall installing fixtures, and another is dealing with vendors at multiple external sites. A third is coordinating shipping and warehousing. Yet another is interfacing with the customer. Who is coordinating everything? The project manager is responsible for integrating all the different parts of the project, so they function together.


Managing Communications 

Bob in procurement sent a message by email saying fixture #442 is on temporary backlog from the supplier. Thing is, Molly in installation works primarily through Slack. She didn’t see the message in time. Oh, and Kevin at the warehouse sent his progress report through the project management software system. How do multiple people speak to each other in a way that messages are received and actionable in the right time window? Someone needs to communicate with stakeholders, communicate with the team, and with management. The project manager sets communication channels, and acts as the central nervous system for the project.

Managing Budget

Things cost money. Projects are assigned budgets, and someone needs to make sure money is spent properly. Supplies, software, miscellaneous expenses…they all add up! There’s labor costs to keep track of, too. Your remote office bought a pen? Someone is paying for that, right? The customer does not want his project to run over budget. It’s that simple! Who is tracking the budget, expenses, and labor costs? The project manager.

Managing Risk

Sometimes surprises are nice. A surprise birthday party, for example. A bonus in your paycheck. But a lot of surprises are not nice at all. When clients and stakeholders find out that their project is at risk, they aren’t happy. With any undertaking, there are risks. Delays, vendor issues, or the unforeseeable – who knows? There’s already risk baked into any project. Identifying what the risks are, and taking the preventative steps, is imperative. Creating a robust project plan capable of dealing with crises and sudden risks is crucial. The project manager is the chief risk officer of any project. 

So, What Is Project Management?

Project management isn’t as simple as just deciding who does what, when, and how. Project management starts with defining goals and timeframes. It incorporates a top down process. Project management starts with planning, moves to execution, and is monitored throughout. It manages scope, communication, budget, risk, time, and integration.

The best way to think of project management is an airline route map.

airline route map

The project manager is “Charlotte.” 

There are many inputs, but they all either end in Charlotte, or pass through there to where they need to go. A message may go from Fort Myers (let’s say that’s procurement) to Burlington (let’s say that’s the on site team) – but it passes through Charlotte. Each of the nodes is another aspect of the project – whether people, tasks, items, money, reports, or anything else. The central hub of the project, that plans the route map and operates it, is the project manager. Sure, there are other minor hubs (Philadelphia, Washington) – these are team leaders. Even they, ultimately, end up in Charlotte. Charlotte is Project Central. That’s the project manager.