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Pioneering quality control guru W. Edwards Deming once wrote that “if you cannot describe what you are doing as a process, you do not know what you are doing.” While it is a safe bet that Mr. Deming was not specifically or exclusively referring to the overall project management process, his wise advice – or if you wish, his stark warning – certainly applies.

Project Management Process: The Basics

Project Management Process Groups

In the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK), the Project Management Institute (PMI) outlines five project management process groups

  • Initiating: processes that are required to define and authorize a new project, or a new phase of an existing project. 
  • Planning: processes that are required to create the project scope, evaluate objectives, and establish the plan to accomplish these objectives.
  • Executing: processes that are required to carry out the plan, in a manner that satisfies all project requirements.
  • Monitoring & Controlling: processes required to track, assess, and regulate project performance and progress, as well as identify and initiate changes as necessary.  
  • Closing: processes required to formally end a project, or a phase of a project. 

Project Management Process Flow

The following chart illustrates the integrated nature of all five project management process groups:

project management process flow chart

Source: PMI: Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide)

Project Management Process Steps

Below is a highly simplified overview of the five project management process groups: 

Initiating

The initiating project management process group governs the tasks and steps that are needed to define and formally authorize a new project, or a major new phase of an existing project. It also ensures that project selection aligns with overall organizational strategy. Typically, there are two critical outputs of this process: the project charter, and the stakeholder register. 

  • The project charter formally authorizes a project, and includes elements such as a high-level scope statement, timeline and cost estimate, as well as a list of key risks, opportunities and stakeholders. Once the project charter is formally accepted by all required stakeholders, it grants the project manager the necessary authority to obtain and allocate organizational resources (personnel, equipment and capital), in order to ultimately carry out project activities.
  • The stakeholder register identifies the expectations of each stakeholder/stakeholder group, and is used by the project manager (together with other members of the executive project team) to align expectations. This can be a difficult and time consuming task, but it is absolutely essential to ensure long-term support for projects once they begin.  

Planning

The planning project management process group governs the tasks and steps that are necessary to establish the complete scope of the project (effort, resources and objectives), and the actions necessary to carry out the scope. 

Planning is the most detailed and largest process group, and typically leads to several key outputs include: 

  • Scope management plan
  • Requirements management plan
  • Schedule management plan
  • Cost management plan
  • Quality management plan
  • Resource management plan
  • Communications management plan
  • Risk management plan
  • Procurement management plan
  • Stakeholder engagement plan
  • Change management plan
  • Configuration management plan
  • Scope baseline
  • Schedule baseline
  • Cost baseline
  • Performance measurement baseline
  • Project life cycle description
  • Development approach 

Each of these planning-related documents should be developed in collaboration with all relevant stakeholders. The time and effort invested in developing the Project Charter and Stakeholder Register will pay big dividends here. 

Once the overall project management plan is approved (which as noted above is composed of multiple sub-plans, baselines, and other documents), then the project is formally authorized to start.  

Executing

The executing project management process group governs the tasks and steps necessary to carry out the work defined in the project management plan. In other words, this is where the “rubber hits the road” and the project takes flight. 

Key outputs typically created during the executing process include:  

  • Deliverables
  • Work performance data
  • Issue logs
  • Change requests  
  • Updates to the project management plan
  • Updates to project documents
  • Updates to organizational process assets 
  • Updates to environmental factors
  • Lessons learned register
  • Quality reports
  • Test and evaluation documents
  • Project team assignments
  • Resource calendars
  • Team performance assessments
  • Selected vendor lists
  • Vendor agreements 

As noted above, change requests are a key output of the executing process group. Determining how, what and when to change any aspect of the project plan can be (and usually is) difficult and challenging. This is because the project plan is not modular. Changing one aspect can triggers changes in another — which in some cases may be positive, and in others negative. To make the situation even more complex, sometimes it is not clear whether proposed changes will be positive or negative. Or alternative, a change that was expected to have a positive impact turns out to have a negative consequence. 

The bad news for project managers and other members of the project executive team, is that there is no crystal ball, magic mirror, or other handy device that reveals whether a proposed change will be rewarding or regrettable. The good news, however, is that advanced project management software supports scenario (i.e. “what if?”) planning, that highlights the likely impact of decisions such as potential resource reallocation. 

Monitoring & Controlling

The monitoring & controlling project management process group governs the tasks and steps in three key areas: tracking, reviewing and optimizing project progress and performance; identifying areas in which changes to the project plan are beneficial or necessary; and carrying out approved changes. 

Key outputs typically created during the monitoring & controlling process include: 

  • Project management plan updates
  • Approved change requests
  • Accepted deliverables
  • Updated schedule forecasts
  • Updated cost forecasts
  • Quality control measurements
  • Closed procurements 

Before moving to the next and final process group (closing), it is helpful to pause and focus on an issue that can confuse and frustrate some new project managers, as well as those outside of the formal project management professional who nevertheless find themselves working on projects. 

Project “control” in the context of project management does not mean rigidly executing the project plan. Rather, it means continuously measuring actual project progress against planned estimates and expectations. It is a foregone conclusion that there will be a variance between actual vs. planned performance, and it is the responsibility of the executive project management team (led by the project manager) to determine if corrective action is necessary. This analysis and decision-making should be documented so that it may guide the current project, and potentially enhance future project planning and execution. 

Closing

The closing project management process group governs the tasks and steps necessary to formally close out a project, or close out a major phase of an existing project. 

Key outputs typically created during the closing process include: 

  • Final product, service, or result transition
  • Final report 

This process group should also include documentation and any other project assets that address the early termination or suspension of a project (which may or may not have anything materially to do with the project itself; e.g. major changes in the marketplace, new regulations, etc.). 

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Project Management Process Chart

Project teams typically use a variety of charts to help map and manage process groups. These include (but are not limited to): 

High Level Project Management Process

In conclusion, keep in mind that all of the above captures a high level project management process. It is up to each organization to determine the approach and configuration that helps them drive more successful projects, healthier portfolios, and happier customers and other key stakeholders.


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