On the business landscape, perhaps no other concept has undergone as much change and evolution in recent years as project management. Indeed, with so many organizations – from small firms to large enterprises – running multiple projects these days, the question “what is project management?” might be better phrased as “what isn’t project management?”
Still, despite the prevalence of work management as a framework for everything from launching a small training course to leading an enterprise-wide digital transformation, there are some core fundamental principles that distinguish work management from other approaches to achieving business objectives.
Defining Project Management
A classic answer to “what is project management?” is provided by the Project Management Institute (PMI), which refers to it as a combination of knowledge, skills, tools, resources and techniques that are applied through progressive elaboration as part of a temporary endeavor, in order to create a unique product, service or result.
To clarify and simplify things, we can unpack this by looking at each of the elements that are bolded in the definition above.
Element #1: Project management is a combination of knowledge, skills, tools, resources and techniques.
Effective, sustainable and successful project handling requires a mix of capacities and competencies, including (but not limited to):
- Integration management
- Scope management
- Time management
- Cost management
- Quality management
- Procurement management
- Human resources management
- Communications management
- Risk management
- Stakeholder management
Essentially, the key thing to note and remember is that project handling is not a single function. It is a group of functions with their own respective disciplines and special characteristics, which are all managed together in order to achieve clear and viable business objectives.
Element #2: Project management uses progressive elaboration.
The second element is that project handling unfolds through progressive elaboration. This means that the project plan is continuously improved and optimized as more detailed information and accurate estimates become available.
Another way to look at this – and a fundamental way in which project handling differs from program handling and other work approaches — is that a project plan is never “carved in stone” when work starts. It is only by doing the work that more useful and relevant information becomes available, which is then used to fortify the plan.
Element #3: Project management deals with temporary endeavors.
The third element is that projects are temporary endeavors — which means they have a definitive starting and end point, unlike programs that are ongoing. However, with this in mind some major projects go through multiple stages and phases. As such, it is a mistake to assume that “temporary” must mean “short.” Some projects start and end within a few weeks or months, while others can last for several years.
Element #4: Project management aims to create a unique product, service or result.
The fourth and last element – and the one that most project managers and their teams find the most exciting and rewarding – that sheds light on “what is project management?” is that projects are designed create a unique product, service or result. However, many project managers (and other stakeholders such as PMO staff) wisely rely on templates, tactics, strategies and lessons learned from other projects, in order to maximize the chances of success and minimize risk.
Now that we have unpacked the basics of what is project management, it is helpful to look at some other concepts that are part of the overall concept, including it’s processes, software, and project manager roles and responsibilities.
Project Management Processes
The PMI categories all project handling activities into five types of processes: initiating, planning, execution, monitoring and controlling, and closing.
- Initiating: processes that are required to launch a new project (or a new phase of an existing project)
- Planning: processes that are needed to define and plan the total scope of the project.
- Executing: processes that pertain to how the project plan will be executed.
- Monitoring and Controlling: processes that pertain to how the project will be tracked, governed and optimized.
- Closing: processes that pertain to how a project will be formally completed and archived.
Not all organizations or project managers subscribe to the PMI’s framework or methodology. However, the above processes are typically present in all projects, though they may be categorized or termed differently.
Project Management Software
Much like the question “what is project management?”, the question “what is project management software?” does not have a standard answer. The marketplace is global and there are numerous solutions that range from legitimate to superficial. Those that earn a spot in the former category are built with features and functions that:
- Drive productivity by making every minute of work count, regardless of whether project teams are co-located in the same office or distributed around the city, country or world.
- Drive visibility by clearly illuminating who, what and how work is being done across the organization.
- Drive adaptability by enabling project managers and their teams to embrace change and exploit opportunities.
Project Manager Roles
What does a project manager do? Again, there is no single, standard job answer to this question. However, the APM offers a general job description: “A project manager is responsible for day-to-day management of the project and must be competent in managing the six aspects of a project, i.e. scope, schedule, finance, risk, quality and resources. Project managers work on specific projects that have definite outcomes, have time limits and have to stay within a budget.”
The Bottom Line and Looking Ahead
Project management is a dynamic approach to achieving business objectives and priorities. And while the concept has been around for many decades, it is constantly adapting. As such, the answer to the question “what is project management?” is always evolving to be more insightful, relevant, practical and reliable – and ultimately help teams and organizations succeed and thrive.