An Overview of Project Management

You know, I've through many projects in my career and one of the questions that some newcomers ask me is:

"What exactly is project management? Isn't it just common sense?"

Well, the truth is, project management is quite a mature discipline and has a tremendous, formal body of content underneath.

In the following, I want to explain a little about what project management is and give you some idea what a project manager does.

1. What is A Project?

Before even talking about project management, let's look at the term “project”. What exactly is a project? To me, I'd define a project as follows.

Definition: A project is a temporary endeavour to undertaken to create a unique product, service or result.

That's it. One sentence that encapsulates what a project is.

Now read that definition carefully. There are some important keywords in there which describe the characteristics of a project.

A Project Is Temporary

A project is temporary in nature. It has a definite beginning and an end. In an institution, project activities are usually distinguished from “Business -As-Usual” (or BAU) activities.

Examples of project activities are as follows:

  • Conceptualising IT strategy for a manufacturing firm over the next five years.
  • Implementing process improvements to reduce the account opening time for new clients in a bank.
  • Performing User Acceptance Testing (UAT) for a new customer relationship management system in an insurance company.

“BAU” activities are usually more “day-to-day” and operational in nature, for example:

  • Validation and processing of forms for the client account opening process.
  • Checking the credit standing of a person before allowing a loan to be taken
  • Scanning of forms and filing of a client's documents into a cupboard

A Project Produces Concrete Outputs

There is always an “output” from a project - whether that output is a product, service or some other result. Take the following examples:

  • If I documented the IT strategy for a company, the output product might be a deck of Powerpoint slides.
  • If I run a project to analyse credit card spending behaviour across different client segments, the output product might be a Word document.
  • If I run a project to install a new core banking system in an international bank, the output product would be the core banking system itself, along with any new services (e.g. mobile banking) services that the bank can now offer with the new system.

Projects Can Be Large Or Small

It's worth remembering that projects can be large or small. Whether you're producing a report on the best vendors in the marketplace for a trading system, or implementing a large customer relationship system for a bank - projects can be of varying sizes.

Projects Can Be Of Different Natures

Projects can be of different natures. Most of my experience has been in system implementation projects, that is - projects which deliver computer systems. But a “project” is more generic than that and can cover things like:

  • A review of a company's strategy
  • A cost-benefit analysis of rolling out a new product
  • A competitive analysis of a particular market segment
  • Building a dog house
  • Teaching your child how to save money

The last two points are particularly interesting. You see, a project can be about practically about anything you can think of - it doesn't need to be work related. In fact, David Allen, author of Getting Things Done (one of my favorite books about personal productivity) says that “A project is anything that requires more than one step to accomplish”.

Projects Can Be Run On The Same, Fundamental Methodologies

This is one of the most important characteristics of projects. What do I mean here? Well, think of it this way - there is always a base body of knowledge that underpins all project management efforts.

Fundamental activities like initiating, planning, executing, monitoring, controlling and closing a project will always apply regardless of the project's nature or industry. This is the reason why bodies like the Project Management Institute are set up - to offer education on that base body of project management knowledge.

In fact, I have the same aim in this website - to provide you materials on the fundamentals of project management which you can apply in any given project.

2. Some Projects I've Been In

At last count, I've been in about 20 projects over my 12 year career. On average, that's about 1.67 projects every year! For the most part, I've been in projects as part of a vendor company, and in some projects within a bank. Here are some examples of the projects I've been in:

A Core System Replacement For An Insurance Company In Asia

I played the role of a business analyst, doing process re-engineering and gathering requirements for a leading insurance company in Asia. I later went on to develop test scripts and also became test manager, leading a team of testers during the testing phase of the project.

An IT Strategy Roadmap For A Government Institution

This project was quite interesting - the client was a government statutory board in Singapore and we had to come up with a five-year IT roadmap, aligning their organisation's capabilities to that vision. I was the lead business consultant who came up with concept maps showing how their capabilities (people, processes and systems) supported the broad level vision statements.

A Core System Replacement For A Private Bank In Asia

Another interesting project for me - I was the project manager for a large-scale core system replacement for a private bank. I rolled out a new solution covering front-to-back processing of all asset classes in the bank, including equities, fixed income, mutual funds, FX and money markets.

And on the home front, I've been in projects like:

Renovating My House

These can be huge-undertakings and I also consider them to fall under the category of “project management”. I renovated my house in Jan 2012 and it was a six-month affair. You need to deliver a definite product within a fixed timeframe on time and on budget. I work with the contractor's project manager and make sure all the materials, resources and fittings are done. Very much like projects we do in the workplace.

Creating A Video With My Son

While much smaller scale than the “official projects” we're used to, I took on a little holiday project with my son last year. My boy is interested in digital video so for a week, we went around the neighbourhood shooting videos of the surroundings, us in fancy poses, etc. We put the shots into a video editing software (there are some really good programs out there) and created fancy effects. Then we cut it into a DVD and showed my wife and Grandma. That's a project too!

There are many other projects that I've been involved in. And all of them incorporate to some extent - a fundamental body of knowledge that you can always apply.

And here's the other thing - what I've learnt in those projects - was always invaluable. As a kid, I thought I might be a doctor or lawyer (i.e. or some other parent-friendly profession) but somehow I got into project management and some of its related disciplines (business analysis and testing).

On the whole, I've not regretted this career path as I get to meet so many people, work with so many companies, in so many parts of the world. It's been a great ride and I wouldn't really exchange it for anything else!

3. What Is Project Management?

Ok, so now that we understand what a project is, we should try to understand what is “project management”.

Let's start with the official definition from the Project Management Institute:

Definition: Project management is the application of knowledge, skills, tools and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements.

Quite a weak definition if you ask me :) I'd prefer to define project management as the following:

Definition: Project management is the discipline of applying a consistent set of knowledge, tools and techniques to successfully deliver project outcomes.

I like to use the word “consistent” in the definition because I believe in “repeatability”. Project management is one of those skills that thrive on using and re-using templates and tools you've applied in past projects.

I've give you an example. Let's say I've run a project to implement a new system for an insurance company. I've got a truckload of project plans, business requirement documents, test script templates, etc.

Now say I've to start project managing the rollout of a new trading system for a bank next month. Would I re-create those documents? No, of course not. I'd re-use my project plans, requirement documents and test script templates. I'll customize them a little to suit the new project, but by and large the base would be the same.

And that's the beauty of project management - it focuses a lot on re-use and application of tools that have worked well in the past.

So consistency and repeatability features a lot in project management. Besides these, there are several other characteristics of project management you should take note of.

A Fundamental Set Of Knowledge, Tools And Techniques

I've said this a few times, but I'll say it again. One key characteristic of project management is that it has a fundamental set of knowledge, tools and techniques. These project management fundamentals are applicable across all project domains and industries - and can be usefully applied again and again no matter what project you're tasked to manage.

It Requires Several Different Skills

We'll see this again when I talk about the role of a project manager below, but you should know that a key characteristic of project management is that it requires many different skills. Communication skills, in particular feature very highly on my list, along with leadership, team building, negotiation, analysis, time management and industry skills. I never said project management was easy! But if you take the time to learn and practise it well - it's very rewarding indeed.

It's About Being On Time, On Budget AND Meeting User Expectations

From my years of experience in project management, I've realized that yes, it's important to successfully deliver a project on time and on budget - that's a given. But you have to also deliver your project to the satisfaction of your stakeholders. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that is the MOST important aspect of project management.

Very often, I see projects that are “technically great” (i.e. on time and on budget and successful by all technical metrics) BUT when you ask the ultimate end user if they derived value from it - the answer is “I didn't see any benefit from that project”.

You see, you HAVE to meet user expectations. You can't bulldoze your project through to completion and say you're successful if your end users aren't happy (trust me, projects get “successfully” delivered all the time to a set of unhappy users).

Tip: Good project management is about being on time and on budget. Great project management is about being on time, on budget AND meeting user expectations.

4. The Role Of A Project Manager

The last thing I want to tell you in this little overview of project management is this - it's important to understand the role of a project manager. A project manager wears many, many hats while delivering a project and I'll highlight some of the more common ones below.

A Leader

A project manager is a leader. This manifests itself in different ways. Some project managers are loud, extroverted and display great, explicit capacities for leading teams. Other project managers are quieter and work in the backend to get teams to achieve their goals. In any case, all project managers are able to bring a team together to get things done - a characteristic of all leaders.

A Communicator

One of the most important skills of a project manager is his or her ability to communicate. Delivering a project requires listening, presenting and speaking to stakeholders at all levels - from the C-suite to the operations user in the back room.

All the good project managers I've met in my career have a great ability to communicate. Each has their own special style - I've met more aggressive project managers who can drive hard messages to project stakeholders. I've also seen others who are friendly and always smile when communicating with others. Whichever style they adopt, they have a unique way of getting the message across to other human beings.

A Delegator

To me, a project manager must be able to delegate. A project manager is not a “do-er”. It took me some time to understand this. Perhaps it's also because I love doing “technical” work and go into deep analysis.

But a project manager should NOT do that.

Becoming a do-er makes you lose focus on the “big picture” and the high-level issues or risks that may throw the project off track. You need to delegate and make sure you remain focused on the final outcome. Leave the “doing” to others and let them report to you how they're progressing.

Detail Oriented Tracker

Leaving others to do things also means you need a way of monitoring and tracking their work. A project manager is an extremely detailed person who can track all open loops and tasks performed by his or her team members, clients and all other stakeholders in the project.

This is where tools and templates help a lot - a good project manager makes sure he or she has a good “toolkit” full of such materials.

A Negotiator

One of the most important roles a project manager should play is that of a negotiator. From my own experience, I very often need to negotiate project scope with my stakeholders.

Consider the following as an example:

My users agree and ask for A, B and C.

We start the project aiming to deliver A, B and C.

Somewhere during the project, the users change their minds and ask for an additional D and E which requires a lot of effort.

I'll need to go in and negotiate that we need to stick to delivering A,B and C to meet the project timeline.

This is a very important skill and the better you are at it, the better your chances of success in project delivery.

A Multi-Tasker

The modern day knowledge worker needs to multi-task - a lot. The average project manager needs to multi-task - even more. He or she needs to ensure project activities in the team, the client, the vendor and stakeholders are all happening according to plan. Again, time management tools and techniques play an important role here.

A Stubborn Problem Solver

A project manager, in my opinion, should be a stubborn problem solver. Ok, not stubborn to the extent that the sky falls down and he or she is still gnawing at the problem. But a certain extent of persistence and the ability to “stick it through” is essential for any project manager.

This is especially true in system implementation projects - you can have a thousand things that don't work when you're trying to deploy a system. I've always told myself, “have tenacity” and break the problems down one by one.

Those are the basic roles a project manager should play.

On top of those, I'd recommend that a project manager also be an industry or solution expert, as well as a play the role of being a passionate, motivational force.

5. Summary

Good! I hope the above has given you a solid overview of what project management is and what the discipline is all about. If you're new to the profession, there's a lot to learn and apply, but that's where the fun part is … so don't give up, pick up all the project management skills you can and soon you'll see yourself delivering projects more successfully.

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