Every business needs to get their projects across the finish line in order to succeed. But just like runners in a marathon, some teams close out their projects more gracefully than others. The most successful project teams may leap or sprint toward their delivery, while the not-so-successful ones may face-plant into the finish line — or worse, miss it altogether.
If you want your teams to excel every time, you can’t leave your results up to chance. You need to use proven project management frameworks and strategies to guide your people toward the right end results.
So what in the world is project management, and how does it work? We’ve got all the fundamentals, methodologies, and tips you need to know.
What is project management?
Project management (PM) is the process of guiding a project from start to finish. While anyone can technically take on the project management role, good project managers make sure they get the results they need while sticking to a set budget and timeline.
Project management professionals are responsible for keeping team members on track, so they can provide the outputs needed to achieve bigger and broader business goals.
The project management process
The Project Management Institute defines the project life cycle in five distinct phases. Each one involves different tasks and project management skills to complete. Let’s break down the five steps:
The first stage of the project management process is all about defining the project itself. The initiation phase is the foundation of your work, where you get to set the rules for what your project is and isn’t. By the end of this stage, you should know your:
Project objectives — the specific, measurable project goals you want to achieve
High-level project scope — the key deliverables your project team will be responsible for and the estimated resources (including budget, time, and human resources) you need to complete them
Don’t cut any corners in the project initiation stage. Just like a movie without a good plot would be a disaster to write, a project without a vision can’t be well-planned.
When you enter the project planning stage, you’re basically refining the rough draft you created during initiation. You’re adding details to your project scope and confirming your resource needs and budget baseline. Optimize your timeline by setting key milestones for your team to achieve, too.
Before you kick off your project, you’ll need to lock in your project team members and work with them to divvy up tasks.
The project planning phase is also the ideal time to come up with a risk management plan. Identify the project risks, like a tight budget or outdated tech, that could cause your efforts to fail, then create a simple plan of action to mitigate those risks.
It’s time to take off your thinking hats and start doing! The project execution stage is where you bring your plan to life.
To ensure your project success, you need to be attentive during the execution phase. This stage makes up the bulk of your project management process, so there’s a lot of room for errors (like excess spending or delays) that can cause your project to fail.
If you want to keep your stakeholders happy, keep an eye out for bottlenecks in your workflows and adjust your plan to eliminate them before your project falls behind. Your goal during execution is to keep your project moving.
4. Monitoring and controlling
As your team members continue executing your project, you can turn your focus toward monitoring and controlling. You’ve already optimized your workflows, and though you can always go back to adjust them, your priority should be ensuring that your project stays within its constraints and that you meet your milestones on time. For example:
If a client requests an extra large-scale deliverable, remind them of your project scope.
If an employee is far ahead of schedule while others are lagging behind, even out their workload by reassigning tasks.
If your project falls behind in one phase, set earlier deadlines for the next phase or phases to get your resource management efforts back on track.
Document every change you make, and regularly communicate about progress with both your project team and your stakeholders.
You’ve made it to the finish line. Your project is complete. Now how do you make sure you flourish instead of fail in your delivery?
First, review all your deliverables to make sure you’re actually satisfying all your project needs. Then, pass them forward to your clients (or to your business leaders, if you won’t be closing out your contracts).
While you’re technically done with your project at this point, effective project management always requires some reflection. Look back at your detailed documentation to review what happened during your project and evaluate what was successful and what wasn’t. Come up with actionable steps you can take to avoid mistakes in the future.
5 types of project management
While the project life cycle stays about the same no matter what you’re working on, there are different methods of managing projects that can affect your outputs. Each one has its pros and cons. Here are five popular types of project management you can implement and what they each entail.
1. Agile project management
With endless amounts of businesses talking about “going agile,” the term has become synonymous with efficiency. And it’s true — agile is efficient. However, there’s much more to agile project management than being as productive as possible.
The agile methodology stems from the Agile Manifesto, which calls for project teams to prioritize:
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan
While originally created for software developers, agile principles can be applied across industries. It’s all about staying flexible and creating value for customers. Agile PM takes an iterative approach, which means you can keep improving parts of your project until your project team is satisfied. This constant iteration can speed up your project timeline since you’re fixing issues as you go, instead of dedicating a lot of time to them at a later stage.
The downside? The flexibility can lead to scope changes and increased spending if you’re not careful. Agile can get really hard to manage in big companies with large-scale projects. And if your team is hard to please, iterating can go on and on without an end in sight.
2. Scrum project management
Ready to sprint? The scrum project management framework is a subset of agile that calls for teams to divide projects into short, manageable 1-4 week sprints, during which you can focus on smaller project goals. What keeps scrum flexible is the fact that the project can evolve after every sprint. When one sprint ends, your team will sit down for a sprint planning meeting to review your outcomes and choose the best next step, even if it’s not what you originally planned.
Like agile, scrum is rarely used for large teams. In fact, it’s most often used for teams of less than 10. This allows your team to largely work independently while you focus on leading the project. Your scrum master — a special role that only exists on scrum teams — focuses on guiding the team through daily standup meetings, sprint planning meetings, and similar processes.
3. Waterfall project management
In nature, waterfalls occur when rivers flow off steep drops. In this project management methodology, your project schedule flows a lot like waterfalls. As soon as one phase of your project ends, you instantly dive into the next and begin another predetermined set of tasks.
Waterfall project management requires you to have a firm timeline before you begin — that’s essentially your project’s terrain, which sets the stage for your workflow. This timeline is usually illustrated with a Gantt chart, which is a type of horizontal bar chart.
Once you begin your project, there’s no pressing on the brakes. This traditional methodology is one of the strictest, with the least room for error. If you’re not checking off tasks perfectly on time, your entire project gets delayed.
Plus, waterfall PM is linear instead of iterative, which means you’re finishing large pieces of your project before checking for errors. Any issues can be incredibly disruptive and time-consuming to circle back to and fix.
While the waterfall methodology can make projects easy to track, it only works well if you have low project risk, which means there are few unknowns that could derail your project. Need regular feedback from a client that never provides reviews on time? Then choose a more flexible methodology, like agile.
4. Kanban project management
If you like to visualize where you’re at in a project while getting more flexibility than waterfall project management provides, the Kanban framework can be a great choice. It uses a Kanban board, which is divided into three columns — traditionally “To Do,” “Doing,” and “Done” — and you can move tasks across the columns until they’re all complete.
Since Kanban is highly visual, you can spot where you’re slowing down in real time so you can make improvements. Most importantly, Kanban project managers should limit the amount of work in progress — tasks in the “Doing” column of your board — to ensure tasks are actually being completed. This way, your team delivers higher quality work instead of trying to focus on too many tasks at once.
Like agile and scrum, Kanban project management is an iterative process that’s all about continuous improvement. In fact, Kanban and scrum aren’t mutually exclusive PM methods, and many scrum teams use Kanban boards to visualize their work.
5. Lean project management
Often attributed to Toyota, the lean methodology was originally used in the mass manufacturing world. However, you don’t need to be making cars (or any products, for that matter) to go lean.
Lean project management is focused on reducing waste, whether that’s in the form of time, labor, raw materials, or other resources. It helps teams cut costs by aiming to produce exactly what’s needed, no more, no less — and faster.
At the same time, the lean methodology is highly client-focused. Every step in your project flow should add value for customers, not just help you save money. Lean improves processes, not just the outcomes. However, for lean project management to help your team, your projects must have clear goals.
4 tips for effective project management
No matter what type of project management you decide on for your next project, you can improve your PM processes by implementing these helpful tips:
1. Choose the right project management software
The days of physical Kanban boards and hard-to-track agile processes are behind us. These days, pretty much every PM professional uses virtual project management tools to track, manage, and optimize their project progress.
To choose the right project management software for your needs , first identify how you want to organize your workflow. For example, platforms like Trello and ClickUp offer Kanban boards, Gantt charts (or timeline views), and project management calendar views. Some even offer templates to simplify your project setup.
Then, create a list of anything else you’re looking for in a project management tool, including your budget and team or guest access needs. Remember to take advantage of all the free trials that software providers have to offer, so you don’t make a blind purchase.
2. Steer clear of scope creep
Scope creep — which refers to the unchecked growth of a project’s scope — is pretty much a project manager’s worst enemy. It leads to delays in your project that you, your team members, and your stakeholders will all be unhappy with.
Scope creep usually happens due to one of two reasons. First, your project may have been poorly defined in the initiation and planning phases of project management. This is why it’s important to take the time to fully understand what a project requires before you start. You’ll usually need more resources than you think. You don’t want to be stuck with an excess workload after already promising business leaders and clients that you’ll hit certain deadlines and stick to a set budget.
Another reason scope creep happens is because of pressure from business leaders or clients. A big part of the project management job is understanding how to push back — or, at least, buy yourself some extra time and resources if scope creep is inevitable.
3. Be transparent with customers and stakeholders
Honesty is the best policy, even when it comes to project management.
When your team members are well-aware of the full scope of the project and what each person is responsible for, it encourages them to take accountability for their own tasks. They’re more likely to do their part to keep your project moving.
Keeping your stakeholders in the loop is never a bad idea, either. It makes communication a lot easier. Whether you need to explain why you can’t add to your project scope or can’t yet share the client feedback you’re waiting on, you can point them directly to your project management calendar.
Transparency allows for trust to flow between all the people involved in your project, so you can successfully work together.
4. Establish communication expectations
At the end of the day, there’s nothing more important in project management than good communication. Before fancy PM software existed, businesses still got things done. But while in the past teams frequently had the benefit of being in the same office, modern businesses are often remote. This is why good communication expectations are key.
Make sure your team members and clients are all briefed on who to reach out to for what, and when to use each communication channel. For example, Zoom meetings may be reserved for in-depth strategy sessions, while email or Slack may be your primary channels for day-to-day communication.
Make every meeting count with Anchor AI
Every business needs to succeed in project management to get results. No matter what methodology or framework you choose, your job is to keep your team on track to complete projects on time and within a set budget. Start with proper planning — which should involve the identification of everything a project requires — then make sure to closely monitor the completion of tasks as you bring your project to life.
With Anchor AI, you can get more out of your project planning meetings, scrum standups, and client calls by automating the note-taking process. Invite Anchor AI to your next meeting, and you’ll get a time-stamped, searchable transcript that identifies individual speakers and provides action items.
You’ll never have to worry about forgetting what happened since you’ll always be able to review your notes. Sign up for Anchor AI to be among the first to try it out!
Check out these additional resources to learn more about project management: