What is project management? 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.

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.

Why projects fail

According to 9th global project management survey from the Project Management Institute (PMI), “Pulse of the Profession,” underperforming organizations typically have less than a 60 percent chance of completing projects on time and on budget, or in meeting intended goals and business intent. Whereas, “organizations that invest in proven project management practices waste 28 times less money,” and typically meet intended goals, on time and on budget 80 percent of the time.

One of the top reasons for project failure is misalignment between project goals and business strategy. In fact, organizations that establish an enterprise project management office (EPMO), aimed at aligning projects and strategy, have 33 percent fewer projects that are deemed failures.

Other reasons for project failure include:

  • a lack of executive sponsorship and support
  • vague business goals or requirements
  • unrealistic project scope or scope that is not closely controlled
  • insufficient time dedicated to planning
  • an inability to bridge the gap between strategy formulation and implementation
  • insufficient or misallocated resources, including talent
  • unforeseen unmitigated risks
  • misaligned project management methodologies
  • a haphazard approach to project management
  • talent that is spread too thin (not dedicated)
  • project managers or team members that lack the necessary training and knowledge

Now that we have gone through some of the potential pitfalls when managing projects, the first step in increasing the chances of success is to start by identifying the people, processes, technologies, and techniques necessary for success.

For an in-depth look at common project management pitfalls, see “Why IT projects still fail” and “8 common project management mistakes — and how to avoid them.”

Project management defined

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 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.

For a deeper look at the differences, see “What’s the difference between project management and change management?

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

For a closer look at project management goals, and how to define them, see “7 goals every project manager should aspire to achieve.”

Project management personnel

Project management group structures: 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. To find out more about the roles and responsibilities of a traditional PMO, see “What is a project management office (PMO) and do you need one?

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.

For more on aligning project activities with business objectives, see “How to connect business strategy with project management.”

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 managers vs. program managers vs. portfolio managers

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.

To find out more about the role of the project manager, dive into “What is a project manager? The lead role for project success.”

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.

For more on these non-technical skills in project management, see “7 must-have project management skills.”

Attributes of highly effective project managers

Highly effective project managers are strategic business partners fully vested in organizational success, and they must be able to roll with inevitable setbacks. Combined with the necessary technical skills, certain attributes will place you in higher demand as a project manager, providing a strong foundation that will enable you to adapt to the constantly changing dynamics of a project while putting your stakeholders needs first above all else. Highly effective project managers:

  • become a strategic business partner
  • encourage and recognize the valuable contributions of others
  • respect and motivate stakeholders
  • stress integrity and accountability
  • are fully vested in the success of the project
  • are able to “work in the gray”

For a closer look at these attributes, see “6 traits of highly effective project managers.”

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

For more about the cost, requirements, and organizations offering these certifications, see “Top 11 project management certifications available today.”

Project management processes

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

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

For more a closer look at these steps, see “Project management: 7 steps to on-time, on-budget, goal-based delivery.”

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.

Read more about setting realistic stakeholder expectations, see “8 project management tips for setting and managing expectations.”

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.

For more on project scope, see “Planning is key to project management success.”

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

Project managers who carefully watch budgets throughout the lives of their projects will keep stakeholders and management happy and thus experience greater project and career success.

For more on project budgets, see “Project management: 5 tips for managing your project budget.”

Project deliverables

The ultimate goal of a project is known as a deliverable. This is something that prompted a customer, internal or external, to initiate the project in the first place. It can be a tangible or intangible deliverable such as software, a structure, a system enhancement, or even an operational improvement. Understanding and meeting the needs of your customer and what the end result or deliverable should be is critical to the customer deeming a project a success or not.

Find out more about project deliverables by reading “6 tips to ensure you meet project deliverables dates.”

Project milestones and tasks

To provide a deliverable to a customer, project managers, their teams, and other stakeholders need to set a schedule for key milestones along the way. This is important for keeping projects under control. Milestones can be a date, result or some other measure. To meet milestones, smaller tasks will be assigned to groups or individuals to accomplish. Milestones will be dependent on the success of the smaller tasks.

For more on project milestones, see “13 tips for keeping IT projects under control.”

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. For a deeper look at agile, see “Agile project management: A beginner's guide.”

And for more on project management methodologies, see “How to pick the best project management methodology for success.”

Project management technologies and techniques

Project management software and tools

Having the right project team and methodology is not enough to guarantee success, the right set of tools is also essential to project management success. Project management tools and templates increase team productivity and effectiveness and prepare the organization for changes brought about by high-impact projects. CIO has compiled the ultimate project management toolkit as well as some open source tools to help you plan, execute, monitor, and successfully polish off your next high-impact project.

Analytics and project management

Knowing how to use data analytics to improve project outcomes is a high-value skill. In fact, worldwide revenues for big data and business analytics is expected to grow to more than $187 billion by 2019 and the project management industry is projected to hit $5.81 trillion by 2020. Organizations are leveraging data analytics to improve their project performance. Ted Friedman, vice president and analyst at Gartner, predicts the following four trends will drive fundamental changes in the use of data and analytics:

  • Instead of just reflecting business performance, data analytics will become the driver of operations.
  • Data and analytics will become infused in an organization's architecture from end to end, creating a holistic approach — and this will include strategic project management in EPMOs.
  • Executives will use data and analytics for business strategy and growth, creating new additional roles for professionals.

Find out more about the benefits of business intelligence and analytics tools, and how some companies are using them to improve project performance, by reading “How to use data analytics to improve project outcomes.”

Remote project management and mobile apps

Increasingly companies are recognizing the need for adapting projects to remote teams, making it necessary first to decide whether your organization is ready for remote project management. It is important to weigh factors such as your business model and infrastructure, business drivers, available talent, and of course mobile tools. If your organization is ready to go this route, ensure all your software vendors offer mobile apps for the on-the-go workforce.

To assess whether your organization is ready to go remote, see “Are you ready for remote project management?

For the best on-the-go project management tools, see “The 7 best project management mobile apps.”