What Is Project Management: An A to Z Guide

October 19, 2015 Marcus Varner

what is project management Humans have made some remarkable achievements during our time on the earth. We built the Great Pyramids. We landed on the moon. We invented self-driving cars. These technical advancements would not have been possible without thousands of people working together toward a common goal. In fact, each of them required some form of project management to succeed.

But what is project management?

Project management is a word we hear often in the workplace, but we may not have a clear understanding of it beyond the obvious: "It's managing projects, right?" That answer is not entirely wrong, of course. Unfortunately, the term falls easily into that rare category of words that sound like everything and nothing at the same time.

According to the Project Management Institute (PMI), project management "is the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements." Frank Ryle, the guy who literally wrote the book on project management, Keeping Score: Project Management for the Pros, puts it another way:

"Project management is about combining the What, the How and the Why to reduce stress and allow us all to go home with a smile on our faces each Friday."

The What, How, and Why could be applied to virtually any type of project…from pyramids to driverless taxis!

Of course, these basic definitions are only scratching the surface. So, how did project management even become a thing? What does project management really encompass? What sorts of project management methods and tools are the most widely used by companies today?

We decided to answer these questions and more in our A to Z guide. Consider yourself one step closer to building the next Great Pyramid...or at least the next great marketing campaign (whichever comes first)!


agile project management Ever since a group of experienced programmers released their "Agile Manifesto" in 2001, the Agile method has become a mainstream alternative to traditional project management. The idea behind Agile is best explained this way: it helps teams respond to unpredictability through incremental, iterative work cadences, known as "sprints."

The projects that most benefit from Agile are web technology, mobile technology, and the Internet of Things, i.e., "wearables"—but in recent years, companies in other industries such as marketing and IT have adopted Agile with great success. In fact, the use of agile/incremental/iterative project management practices has increasingly become popular, with 38 percent of organizations reporting its frequent use—up 8 percentage points since 2013, according to PMI's "2015 Pulse of the Profession" study.

Benefits Realization Management (BRM)

Have you ever been assigned a project that you felt was overly focused on deliverables? Or too targeted toward cost savings? Benefits realization management (BRM) is a method that attempts to minimize the risk of failure for a completed project by clearly identifying its benefits (early in the lifecycle) and assigning ownership to those responsible for planning and managing the achievement of those benefits.

Critical Path Method (CPM)

You've most likely heard this term before. It falls under the Waterfall umbrella (see "Waterfall" below), which seeks to plan for everything up front—the opposite of Agile. Project managers typically design a plan using the critical path method (CPM), a formula used to determine the correct order in which to complete a project as efficiently as possible. This can involve detailed planning of the project—right down to the hourly level.


Even if you're new to project management, you've probably heard this term floated around the conference room table a few times. A deliverable simply describes a tangible (or intangible), measurable, and specific result from a project. Often, a deliverable will have a due date, satisfying a key milestone that is part of the project plan. A deliverable can be a software product, a design document, a training program, or other asset that is required by the project plan; and it can be "delivered" to either an external or internal customer.

Enterprise Work Management

As great as traditional project management is, it often results in work information being restricted to those few project managers (or those who have had project manager-ish duties thrust upon them). This can mean lots of confusion and extra work for team members and stakeholders, who often can't see immediately what's happening in the projects they're involved with but are obligated to go to into spreadsheets or other software to enter their individual project information. This also means lots of extra work for project manager, who have to send out emails and maintain spreadsheets to keep team members and stakeholders abreast of project progress. Unfortunately, this data gap leaves the team's project data a step behind reality.

Enterprise work management, pioneered by Workfront, focuses on creating real-time visibility across all team members, project managers, stakeholders, managers, and executives. This is achieved most successfully when all parties work in the same work management software and when the updates and communications in the software are automatically shared with everyone.

Frederick Winslow Taylor

project management You can't talk about project management without at least mentioning a Philadelphian named Frederick Winslow Taylor. As project management began to evolve in the latter half of the 20th century (due to the need for overseeing large, complex weapons manufacturing projects during World War II), Taylor stepped in and introduced the concepts of managing every phase of a workday for laborers. Rather than simply asking employees to work harder and longer, he developed strategies for working smarter and more efficiently—long thought to be the precursors to modern project management tools such as the work breakdown structure (see "Hierarchy")—and resource allocation.


Gantt, as in Henry Gantt, was an associate of Frederick Taylor's. He studied ship construction during World War I and developed the idea of using bars and charts to graph when certain tasks, or a series of tasks, were completed. (So you have him to thank whenever you find yourself creating graphs in those blasted Excel spreadsheets!) Gantt's work eventually led to project management becoming a separate discipline within the workplace. By World War II, military and industrial leaders began to employ more detailed management processes and strategies to get the most from the labor force, including network diagrams and the critical path method.


Successful project management is often dependent on a hierarchy of some sort. Typically, it's a list of tasks or responsibilities ranked from top to bottom, in accordance with their significance to the whole project. A work breakdown structure (WBS)—defined by the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) as a "deliverable oriented hierarchical decomposition of the work to be executed by the project team"—takes the hierarchy concept a step further. WBS is essentially a hierarchical tree structure of key project deliverables that organizes the team's work into manageable sections or phases.


This is step one on the five-process path to traditional project management. The initiating phase determines the nature and scope of the project (see "Processes"). If a project manager fails at this stage, it is unlikely that the project will be successful. Initiating may include a plan that involves analyzing the business needs/requirements in measurable goals; reviewing the current operations; financial analysis of the costs and benefits including a budget stakeholder analysis; setting costs, tasks, deliverables, and schedules.


Project management is a rapidly growing field, on track to add 15 million new project manager positions to the global job market by 2020, according to PMI estimates. The profession is clearly booming, in no large part due to the tech industry, which widely uses project management to control the complex processes of software development projects. If Marc Andreessen's claim that "software is eating the world" is correct, we're going to see a whole lot more project management in the future.


project management Kanban is a "lean" framework, started by Toyota back in the 1940s when it optimized its engineering process by modeling it after how supermarkets stock shelves. Kanban does the same for software teams today, who want agile projects. By matching the amount of work in progress to the team's capacity, Kanban gives teams more flexible planning options, faster output, clear focus, and transparency throughout the development cycle.


Also popularized by Toyota, lean project management focuses on delivering more value with less waste (either in time, company resources, etc.) in a project context. Lean project management has many techniques adopted from lean manufacturing and lean construction, which can be applied to other projects. One of its main methods is standardization. Key techniques are those "inherited" from Agile software development, like blame-free employee involvement, the need for a strong facilitator, pipelining, and more.


The monitoring and controlling process (phase four in traditional project management…see "Processes") oversees all the tasks and metrics necessary to ensure that the project is within scope, on time, and on budget. This process involves comparing actual performance with planned performance and taking corrective action to yield the desired outcome when significant differences exist. The monitoring and controlling process is continually performed throughout the life of the project.


project management A project network is a graph (flow chart) depicting the sequence in which a project's terminal elements are to be completed, and their dependencies. It is always drawn from left to right to reflect project chronology. A project network shows the "before-after" relations—in contrast to WBS, which shows the "part-whole" relations.


Operations are an organization's ongoing, repetitive activities, such as accounting or production. It's the direct opposite of a project. Tasks are part of operations. Since all work performed within a company is lumped into either operations or project categories, all of the costs must be distributed to either operations or projects.


Remember those key processes of project management we mentioned earlier? Well, they're originally from PMI's A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), which provides a best-practice approach to tackling project management challenges across the industry at all professional levels. The five different process groups—including initiation, planning, production or execution, monitoring/controlling, and closing—are meant to overlap and support success throughout all phases of the project.


According to the dictionary, quality is "the standard of something as measured against other things of a similar kind; the degree of excellence of something." The problem with quality, however, is that it's highly subjective. That's why it's important for project managers to set the definition of quality with each new project. Is it only meeting customer specifications? Is it meeting an internal goal, such as preventing errors or meeting a deadline?

Ensuring project quality often involves performing checks throughout the lifecycle of the project. To accomplish this, many project managers will create a quality plan. They set the standards and key metrics that will be used throughout the project. The plan, then, becomes the blueprint for all quality reviews.

Rolling Wave Planning

Unfortunately, rolling wave planning isn't as pleasant or laid back as it sounds, since it's a preferred method for high-risk projects with extremely tight schedules or timelines. But it does have major benefits, since it involves planning in waves for a project as it unfolds and as details become clearer later. It is similar to the techniques used in Scrum and other forms of Agile software development.


project management Scrum is the most popular Agile methodology today, widely used by software development teams who like its holistic approach and project success rates. It basically works like this: work is organized in self-organizing teams in short cycles aimed at continuous improvement. The project manager is responsible for removing road blocks in the team's work and doesn't interrupt the team during a work cycle. The team does not report to the manager, but rather the customer—as his or her priorities are systematically analyzed and fed into the work of the team. The team itself estimates how much time the project will take, how much work it can do in a cycle, as well as how to do the work in the cycle.

Theory of Constraints

Introduced by Eliyahu M. Goldratt in his 1984 book titled The Goal, the theory of constraints (TOC) is a management paradigm that views any manageable system as being limited in achieving more of its goals by a very small number of constraints. There is always at least one constraint, and TOC uses a focusing process to identify the constraint and restructure the rest of the organization around it. TOC has been widely adopted by operations, production lines, marketing, and sales.


Standardization—or "the degree of uniformity or consistency applied in implementing project management processes" as defined by Dragan Milosevic and Peerasit Patanakul—is a key component in successful project management. In other words, the highest degree of uniformity happens when the project management process is implemented by all project managers in the same way.

The lowest degree of uniformity happens when the project management process is used inconsistently by all project managers. PMI's 2015 "Pulse of the Profession" study reinforces this view, finding that high-performing organizations support project management through the use of standardized project management practices. The projects of these high-performing organizations successfully meet goals 2.5 times more often, and these organizations waste 13 times less money than their low-performing counterparts.


A lot of companies recognize the value that project management brings—but that doesn't mean everyone agrees on how to measure that value. To illustrate and more precisely collect the benefits of project management, PMI touts something called "benefits realization." It's a fancy way of talking about a company's ROI—their ability to capture hard facts—when it comes to project management. In PMI's view, organizations with a high benefits-realization maturity report significantly better outcomes—like 76 percent of them met original business goals and 66 percent finished on time.


There is not an IT team on the planet that hasn't had the waterfall vs. Agile debate. Waterfall is a linear, sequential software design process. Progress is seen as flowing steadily downward (like a waterfall) through the different phases of conception, initiation, analysis, design, construction, testing, production, and maintenance. Because the waterfall method requires upfront and extensive planning, you can launch software fairly quickly. You can also estimate timetables and budgets more accurately, which definitely tends to please clients. Waterfall tends to be best for static projects that are not likely to have many changes made throughout the development process.

XP (Extreme Programming)

XP, or extreme programming, is one of several popular Agile processes. It's a set of practices based on a set of principles and values, with a goal to develop a product that provides real value by implementing tight feedback loops at all levels of the development process and using them to steer development. XP actually popularized test-driven development (TDD) and pair programming; it's been a very successful model for many companies, including IBM.

Yellow (Red and Green)

When you're approaching a stoplight in your car, yellow means "proceed with caution." When you see yellow on a project management status report, it means something like: "We are not on track to deliver committed scope by the deadline, but we have a plan to get back on track." Status reports use the traditional stoplight colors—red, yellow, green—to monitor the status of projects in three crucial areas: scope, schedule, and cost. You can probably guess what red and green mean. (Red: "We are not on track and we need a plan to get the project back on track. Mayday. Mayday." And green: "We are on track to deliver the committed scope by the deadline. Let's all go to happy hour!")

Zero Float

Zero float is a condition along the critical path where there is no buffer time between activities. An activity with zero float is considered a critical activity. If the activity is not finished on time, it will cause the project to fall behind schedule.

Are you still reading? Bravo! As you can see from our dictionary-length A to Z guide, the road to answering the question of "What is project management?" is vast, complicated, and not something we could easily sum up in a simple blog post. But don't allow yourself to get lost in the terms. At the end of the day, just remind yourself why you're looking to manage anything in the first place: it's about delivering the best possible product to your customers. It's about leading your team. And it's about delivering measurable results for your business.

project management guide

To learn more about how marketing teams can implement best project management practices, download our free ebook "The Complete Guide to Marketing Work Management."

About the Author

Marcus Varner

Marcus is a content strategist and producer who loves helping brands craft content that improves customers' lives, builds brand credibility, and demands to be shared. For the last 10 years, Marcus has worked in every type of content—from writing to video production to design—and is currently a senior content marketing manager at Workfront, where he oversees all corporate- and awareness-level level content. When he's not producing content, he's consuming it, in the form of books, movies, and podcasts.

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