Friday, February 25, 2011

Beginners Guide to Project Management
Part 01 What is Project Management

Introduction to this guide

This guide was built for 2 different audiences. If you’re starting on Project Management this is a perfect place to start because it links the main concepts in a time frame perspective that makes learning about Project Management much easier. And for the same reason, it also serves perfectly well as a reference book: it links the main Project Management concepts.

This guide is still under construction and it will be published during the next few months on the Ah-Ha-Moments blog ( When completed, it will be available there as an eBook for you to download. The main objective is to offer a guide to Project Management that you can use and follow as the project evolves, giving you a sense of a time line that usually is missing from the literature.

This guide contains all the main ideas related to Project Management and it will be supported extensively on Project Management Institute’s (PMI) “The Project Management Book of Knowledge”, 4th Edition (from now on referred as the PMBOK). Supporting this guide on this commonly accepted standard will provide you with a solid reference point to further explore the concepts exposed.

Part 01 - What is Project Management?

Defining a project
Project Management start with a project and it’s common to define it in several different ways. But somehow defining Project Management as “the art and science of making a mess workout right” doesn’t seem neither right nor productive for the purpose of this guide. So I’ll build a solid foundation first before we play around with these concepts. On the PMBOK, a project is defined as “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result” (PMBOK page 5). A project is always something that joins a group of people in order to produce some unique result in a defined time frame. In this definition you have 3 distinct components and these components are always present in any project you can think of:
  • A unique result, meaning that if the result you’re planning to get is exactly the same as some other you don’t have a project
  • Temporary effort, meaning that your project has to finish when the results of your project are done (1 week, 1 year or 10 years are all OK)
  • Continuous effort, meaning that is not something you will do sometime if you have nothing better to do
Here is a list of some projects that anyone can recognize as such:
  • Building the Great Pyramid of Giza
  • Putting a man on the Moon
  • Developing Microsoft Windows
  • Researching a new medicine
  • Making a movie

Defining what isn’t a project

Let’s see what happens if we take out one of these components (the unique result, temporary effort or continuous effort) starting with the unique result. Suppose you’re having a regular dinner at home with your family. That is not something unique but it’s time bounded because you’re supposed to have dinner sometime in the evening and it requires some work as someone has to go shopping, cook, set the table, do the dishes and so on. Is it a project? Not really, it’s a repetitive task you do nearly every day.
Do you have kids? Although you make plans for them, like saving money for them to go to college, you can’t really face them as temporary, can you? So kids are not a project either.
Do you have a place where you’d really love to go for a vacation? This is something many people dream of but they don’t work on it every day so I’m sorry to inform that your dream vacation is not a project.
And here’s a list of things that you can recognize as not being projects:
  • Crossing the street
  • Managing assets for a millionaire
  • Maintaining an oil tanker
  • Paying your employees
  • Monitoring your business
  • Winning the lottery
Oh, there's one other thing a project is not: a project is not a Gantt chart.

What is Project Management

So what is Project Management? Project Management is the management of projects. This circular definition is good enough to show you that Project Management is not about doing the project, it’s about making sure people can do the project, that there are no obstacles in their way, that they know what they’re supposed to do and that they do it.
In a more pragmatic form, “Project Management is the application of knowledge, skills, tools and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements” (PMBOK page 6). Same thing. But it does add important information: there is some knowledge, skills, tools and techniques for you to learn and acquire. This is why Project Management is such a fascinating subject:
  • You can know it all - but that still won’t make you a good Project Manager
  • It’s multi-disciplinary, meaning you have to know a bit about: finance, negotiation, communication, leadership, quality and so on
Finally, Project Management is cross-industry (at least as much as it can). In theory, you can manage any project in any industry as long as you can manage projects and know a bit about that industry. In practice, some industries have so much specificities that sometimes it’s really hard to move from one to another. For instance, the construction industry has it’s own characteristics that separates it apart (several thousands old, slow technological changes, only a small part of the work is intellectual, obligation to build what is planned and naturally phased) and specific legislation that rules it. Even PMI has PMBOK adapted for construction.
This particular topic is further developed on the article “Project Management? Yeah, I do that to”.

Where do projects come from?

This is the single most important thing about projects. Projects exist for a single very simple reason: someone is willing to spend money and resources on them. Why? Because they expect to get something back based on the project results. Examples:
  • You are contracted to build a bridge (this is your project result). Why? Because the local authorities want to increase mobility of the population.
  • You are hired to upgrade some software (the project result). Why? Because the software builder is about to end the support for the installed version.
  • You are hired to do a new TV commercial for a particular product (the result is the commercial). Why? Because the company wants to increase sales by 10%.
These “Whys?” are the most important thing on Project Management because:
  • It’s the sole reason your project exists
  • If you don’t work on that direction, satisfying that “Why”, your project can end in time, on budget and in scope and will still be a failure for sure
Once you lose sight of these whys your project is lost. Take the software upgrade example. I don’t think the project would be the same if you were to upgrade the same software but for another reason: the new version has some dashboards that the company wants to share at the board and top management level.

Outcomes and outputs

I recently reviewed the book “The Art of Funding and Implementing Ideas”. This book isn’t exactly on Project Management but has an interesting perspective on Project Management. One of the interesting things is the meaning attributed to “outputs” and “outcomes” and I started using them since then. Outputs are the results your project is supposed to deliver. Outcomes are what people will get once they have those outputs.
Using these new meanings for these words, you can state that your project will produce some outputs (following the previous examples: a bridge, a software upgrade or a commercial) that will allow some intended outcomes to come true (increased mobility, continuing support and increased sales respectively).
Outputs and outcomes are interconnected. Although your project won’t produce any of the outcomes, its outputs will have a strong impact on them. And the outcomes are the reason you have someone spending money on your project. If they have no use for your project’s outputs, if they don’t contribute for the intended outcomes, there is no use for your project.
Hence your first lesson on Project Management: keep the relevant outcomes in sight of your team all the time and make sure everything you do on your project is connected to the outcomes. If you have something that is not connected to the outcomes then your project doesn’t needed it and you can throw it away.

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Lisa Drake said...

Great overview of Project Management, enjoyed the post.
Lisa Drake

Luis Seabra Coelho said...

Thank you for your kind comment Lisa. And sorry to get back to you only now but I had to take a forced pause.
And I'll be back on this guide with a practical example of how a project goes. I hope you'll also enjoy that.

@normwatts said...

Good stuff. Easy read without all the jargon that often appears in project management literature. Looking forward to reading the rest of your blog.

Norm Watts

Luis Seabra Coelho said...

Thank you Norm, I'm glad you're enjoying!
You won't have to wait for long for the next post...