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Real World Project Management: An Introduction

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Everyone talks about project management, but what is it? Isn't project management just organization to get the work done? In this overview article, the first of an on-going series, project management expert Joseph Phillips delivers the big picture of project management.
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Oooh—project management. Everyone talks about project management, but what is it? Isn't project management just organizing your little work to get the big work done? Isn't project management really just a series of events to create some thing, by some point, way off in some hazy future? Not really.

To define project management, we first need to define what projects are. Technically, a project is a short-term endeavor to create a unique product or service. In practical terms, it is an assignment or undertaking to create a deliverable that satisfies the mission of the project customers.

A project is a set of activities to create something that is outside of your day-to-day operations. A project creates a unique deliverable. For example, if your organization develops game software, the actual creation and development of the code is a project. The manufacturing of the CDs, the Internet delivery, and the technical support you provide to your customers is part of maintenance and operations.

The difference is that one set of activities creates a unique deliverable; the other centers on organizational process, day-to-day business, and support of the organization's mission. This is true in disciplines other than IT: Consider designing a car versus manufacturing a car; consider writing a book versus printing a book; consider building a skyscraper versus maintaining a skyscraper.

Projects have budgets, deadlines, and an agreed set of requirements for the deliverable to be accepted by the customer.

The United States of Project Management

In my project management seminars I like to say that this point in the room represents our current state; this is where our organization is today. We have some opportunity that we want to seize. We have some problem that we want to solve. Or there's technology that has leapfrogged our current equipment so we need to improve our technical attributes. Where we are now is our current state.

Then I'll stroll to a distant part of the room. This new location represents where we want our organization to get to. This describes our desired future state. Can you imagine how great our organization would be once we reach this destination? Can you imagine the problem solved, the seized opportunity, or the new technology and how it makes our business better? This spot represent our desired future state.

The only way we can get from right here, our current state, to our desired future state, which is way over there, is through project management. Project management is about planning, doing, and ensuring that we've followed our plan. Here's a key thought: the only way we can do project management, effective project management, is to know where our desired future state exists.

Effective project management is built on a solid foundation of planning. Then the project team must execute the work according to plan. And the project manager must control the work to ensure that the project plan was followed. Plan. Do. Check. React. Project management, quite simply, is knowing where we're going, planning on how we'll get there, and then delivering on the promises within the plan.

Projects, all projects, have constraints. Have you ever inherited a project that had to be done by a given deadline? Remember the Y2K scare that turned out to be the Y2-OK yawn a few years ago? It was real tough to move that deadline. January 1, 2000 was coming—ready or not.

Or have you ever managed a project that had a preset budget? Regardless of how long it took, your project could not, must not, spend more than $750,000. Or else. A pre-set budget might be calculated on how much cash is in the bank account, the expected return on the project investment, or some other magic formula such as the time value of money. The point is that a pre-set budget is constraint.

Finally, you may have faced a project that had some very steep requirements. Are you a public company? Then you've dealt with the Sarbane-Oxley Act. Or if you're in health care, you've dealt with HIPAA. Or the regulations you may have to follow in pharmaceutical, construction, manufacturing, and countless other industries.

You may also have worked with a customer who said, "I don't care how much it costs or how long it takes. I need the product to do this." (Those are my favorite kinds of customers, by the way.) These steep requirements are part of the project scope, and the project scope has to be met for the project to be successful.

You've just read about the triple constraints of project management: time, cost, and scope. The triple constraints of project management are collectively called "The Iron Triangle." Imagine an equilateral triangle. If you don't want to imagine take a look at Figure 1. The bottom of the triangle represents scope, another side represents cost, and the last side represents time.

Figure 1Figure 1

For the project to be successful, the project must remain an equilateral triangle. In other words, you can have a gigantic scope and a puny budget or a weak schedule. For a project to be successful, each side of the Iron Triangle must remain in proportion to the other sides if your customer wants a scope that's so big (hold your arms out real wide). And their budget is only this big (now bring your arms in real close together). A big ol' scope and tiny little budget mean just one thing: It ain't gonna happen.

The same is true with the schedule. To achieve the project's scope, there must be enough time to plan and execute the project. Unrealistic expectations on the schedule usually lead to waste, rework, frustrations, and a decline in morale. In some instances, they might also lead to cheap tequila.

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