What Is Project Management…Exactly?

What Is Project Management Exactly?

If you are like most people, you are "pretty sure" you know what projects are, and you "think" you know what project management is (and what a project manager does), but there's always a varying amount of uncertainty in those perceptions. So, let's start off by clarifying some key concepts. Project management is simply the process of managing projects (and you thought this was going to be difficult). While this definition is not particularly helpful, it does illustrate three key points:

  • Project management is not "brain surgery." Yes, it covers a vast array of subjects, processes, skills, and tools, but the key fundamentals of project management are straightforward and are consistent across industries.
  • To better understand project management, we need to understand what a project is. The nature of a project provides insights into the scope and challenges of project management.
  • To better understand project management, we need to understand what is implied by the term managing and how this compares against traditional business management.

What Is a Project Exactly?

A project is the work performed by an organization one time to produce a unique outcome. By "one time," we mean the work has a definite beginning and a definite end, and by "unique," we mean the work result is different in one or more ways from anything the organization has produced before. Examples of projects would include the following:

  • Building a new house
  • Developing a new software application
  • Performing an assessment of current manufacturing processes
  • Creating a new radio commercial

The Project Management Institute (PMI), the globally recognized standards organization for project management, defines a project as "a temporary endeavor to produce a unique product or service."

This is in contrast to the operations of an organization. The operational work is the ongoing, repetitive set of activities that sustain the organization. Examples of ongoing operations include the following:

  • Processing customer orders
  • Performing accounts receivable and accounts payable activities
  • Executing the daily manufacturing orders

To further explain the nature of projects (and project management) and how they compare to the ongoing operations of an organization, please review the summary in Table 1.1.

Table 1.1. Comparing Projects and Operations




Key Similarities

Planned, executed, and controlled Performed by people

Resource constrained

Planned, executed, and controlled Performed by people

Resource constrained


Attain objectives and terminate

Sustain the organization



Definite beginning and end points



Unique product, service, or result

Non-unique product, service, or result


Dynamic, temporary teams formed to meet project needs Generally not aligned with organizational structure

Functional teams generally aligned with organizational structure

Authority of Manager

Varies by organizational structure Generally minimal, if any, direct line authority

Generally formal, direct line authority

After learning more about the nature of projects, you are beginning to see the inherent challenges involved with project management (and we will detail these out later in this chapter). For now, let's better define "project management."

"Managing" Projects

What do we mean when we say "managing" projects?

  • We mean applying both the science and art to planning, organizing implementing, leading, and controlling the work of a project to meet the goals and objectives of the organization.
  • We mean the process of defining a project, developing a plan, executing the plan, monitoring progress against the plan, overcoming obstacles, managing risks, and taking corrective actions.
  • We mean the process of managing the competing demands and trade-offs between the desired results of the project (scope, performance, quality) and the natural constraints of the project (time and cost).
  • We mean the process of leading a team that has never worked together before to accomplish something that has never been done before in a given amount of time with a limited amount of money.

Sounds like fun, doesn't it? We will explain each of these key aspects of project management in subsequent chapters, and we will discuss many of the specific tasks and responsibilities performed by the project manager in Chapter 2, "The Project Manager," but for now we just want to align our general understanding of project management.

PMI definition of project managementThe application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet project requirements.


An Academic Look

To further assist this alignment process, let's look at project management from a more academic level. The Project Management Institute (PMI) defines project management as a set of five process groups (refer to Table 1.2) and nine knowledge areas (refer to Table 1.3).

Table 1.2. Description of Project Management Process Groups


Process Group

Description per PMBOK 2000 Edition

Common Terms



Authorizing the project or phase

"preliminary planning"

"kicking off"



Defining and refining objectives of the project and selecting the best course of action to attain those objectives


"developing the plan"

"setting the stage"



Coordinating the people and resources to implement the plan

"making it happen"

"getting it done"




Ensuring project objectives are met by monitoring and measuring progress regularly to identify variances from the plan so that corrective actions can be taken

"tracking progress"

"keeping on course"



Formalizing acceptance of project or phase and bringing to an orderly end

"client acceptance"



Table 1.3. Description of PMBOK Knowledge Areas


Knowledge Area

Description per PMBOK 2000 Edition

Common Deliverables


Project Integration Management

Processes required to ensure the elements of the project are properly coordinated

Project Charter

Project Plan

Change Requests

Work Results


Project Scope Management

Processes required to ensure that project includes all the work that is required and only the work that is required to complete the project successfully

Scope Statement

Work Breakdown Structure

Formal Acceptance


Project Time Management

Processes required to ensure timely completion of the project

Network Diagram

Task Estimates

Project Schedule


Project Cost Management

Processes required to ensure the project is completed within the approved budget

Resource Requirements

Cost Estimates

Project Budget


Project Quality Management

Processes required to ensure the project will satisfy the needs for which it was undertaken

Quality Management Plan


Quality Reviews


Project Human Resources Management

Processes required to make the most effective use of the people involved with the project

Role and Responsibility


Organization Chart

Performance Evaluations


Project Communications Management

Processes required to ensure the timely and appropriate generation, collection, dissemination, storage, and ultimate disposition of project information

Communication Plan

Status Reports


Lessons Learned


Project Risk Management

Processes concerned with identifying, analyzing, and responding to project risk.

Risk Management Plan

Risk Response Plan

Risk Log


Project Procurement Management

Processes required to acquire goods and services outside the performing organization

Procurement Plan

Statement of Work



Figure 1.1 summarizes the relationships among the project management process groups, which is based on PMBOK 2004 Edition (Figure 3-2 page 40).

Figure 1.1. Project management process relationships.

Again, depending on your experiences, you may not have realized that project management consisted of all this, and you may not actually perform all of these activities as a project manager in your organization. However, it is important and helpful to understand how big your playing field is when learning something new. This book will not completely educate you on each of these process groups nor each of the nine knowledge areas, but it will provide you with the knowledge, essential tools and "real-world" insights to make you effective in your first project management opportunity.

Project management is a broad field with great potential for specialized and in-depth study. There are entire books and training classes focused solely on advanced analysis of individual process groups and knowledge areas.

Part i. Project Management Jumpstart

Project Management Overview

The Project Manager

Essential Elements for any Successful Project

Part ii. Project Planning

Defining a Project

Planning a Project

Developing the Work Breakdown Structure

Estimating the Work

Developing the Project Schedule

Determining the Project Budget

Part iii. Project Control

Controlling a Project

Managing Project Changes

Managing Project Deliverables

Managing Project Issues

Managing Project Risks

Managing Project Quality

Part iv. Project Execution

Leading a Project

Managing Project Communications

Managing Expectations

Keys to Better Project Team Performance

Managing Differences

Managing Vendors

Ending a Project

Absolute Beginner[ap]s Guide to Project Management
Absolute Beginner[ap]s Guide to Project Management
ISBN: 078973821X
Year: 2006
Pages: 169

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