Running a full project management life cycle can seem counterintuitive at first glance. When your business or team is working hard on a project, especially one that's time-sensitive, you might not be inclined to take the time out to, say, make a visual representation of your project's progress.
However, using a full project management system can drastically reduce the possibility of failure. One commonly cited statistic states that 70% of IT projects fail somewhere down the line, and are unable to deliver. But similar projects that use a project management process are found to have their failure rate reduced to around 20%.
Now that remote and hybrid working styles are inextricable from office working, with 40% of businesses looking to adopt hybrid working by 2023, clear communication between teams is more crucial than ever. A thorough understanding of the project management process and each of its phases could mean the difference between a successful business launch and a memory of what could have been.
So here are the five main steps to any good project management process. To help visualize this process, we'll compare it to building a house, as construction is actually one of the biggest industries to typically use the project management method.
Project Management Phases:
The first phase of the project management life cycle is conceptualization. No plan can commence unless you know exactly what end goal you're trying to achieve. In fact, in a report by the Project Management Institute, 29% of organizations said that their projects fell apart due to an inadequate goal or vision. In the same report, 39% of organizations said that a shift in priorities was responsible for the failure – priorities that could and should have been ironed out in the planning stage.
This is the easiest and shortest stage of the entire process, but by no means the least important. Setting up your goal is crucial, and leaving it to be done later, or keeping the goal vague, could be a death sentence for your entire project.
Using our house metaphor, this is the stage where you'd envision the house's shape, color, windows, size, etc. Some specifics would definitely be nailed down later, like the budget and the location, but this is the time for broader strokes, not blueprints.
If conceptualizing is the forest, then planning is the trees. Once you've got the big picture fully set up, you'll need to sort out the smaller steps that will get you to the finish line.
Depending on your project and your methodology, this could be quite easy to lay out, or could be an entire task in itself. For example, if you wanted to use project management to write a book, you'd simply map out the chapters you needed to write, and estimate the time it would take to write it.
When it comes to our house, however, the planning stage becomes a lot more complicated. Now is when we whip out the blueprints. We'll need to piece together the various steps and lay out a concrete plan before we take a single tangible step. We need to know which materials to buy, the exact zoning permits we need, the exact blueprint layout of the house – anything that will help us lay down firm guidelines. At this stage, many project managers use PERT or Gantt charts to visualize their project steps.
This plan will help set expectations for the project's timeline, cost, and necessary manpower. This means that, at any time during the project's progression, these figures can be checked and compared in order to see how well the project is going. This is especially important, as budget is almost always an issue when it comes to projects – only 43% of organizations claim to complete projects within their budgets.
Showtime! This is the stage where the project gets underway. Whatever project your business is handling, this is when you'll actually start working on it. This is likely going to be the longest step, since it encompasses all the actual work you'll be doing.
In terms of our metaphor, we're now building the house. Setting up the foundation, tiling the floors, painting the rooms, installing the pipes (maybe not in that order) – these are all done in this step.
Depending on your methodology (which will be tailored to the type of project you're working on) the project management process itself will vary significantly during this stage. For example, the Waterfall method will mean that you're taking things step by step, where as the Agile method will mean that your team is bouncing between various tasks.
While this step is the most involved, there's actually the least amount to say about it. Since there's such a wide range of approaches, we couldn't feasibly cover what this step looks like for everyone, so all we can really tell you is that this is the meat and potatoes of any project.
4. Examine and Monitor
While this is labelled as phase four in the project management life cycle, it would really happen in conjunction with phase three. One of the main benefits of project management systems is the ability to track your project's progress down to the smallest detail.
Take a Kanban board, for example (shown below through Jira.) This board tracks the progress of each individual task, showing if something is overdue, how much of the project is finished, and who is in charge of which area.
This is the easiest part of the process to let slide, especially if you're not using project management software. In a team of 10 people, it can be easy for one or two of them to forget to mark their progress down, but this can be disastrous if something goes wrong and steps need to be retraced.
We don't even really need to reflect on our house-building comparison, as this would be pretty much the same for every project under the sun. Keep tabs on what's in progress, what's under review, and what's finished, and your project will be much easier to navigate.
5. Finalization and Review
Pop the champagne! We're finally done with our project. The only things left to do are turn it in to the client, in whatever form that would take, and look back at the experience.
The first part is easy: show the client the final product. Whether that's a logo, a building, a robot – all that's left to do is walk the client through the end result and confirm that they're happy with it.
Once that's done, it's time for a bit of reflection. Compare the time and money spent to the original projections formulated in phase two. If you went over budget or past the deadline, look through your data gathered in phase four to see where exactly you went wrong. Gathering this data is crucial for the growth of your organization, as it serves to make you more efficient and will ensure that your next project runs more smoothly.
In our house example, once we've walked the client through and shown them their new home, we'd then have a look at our numbers. Perhaps the insulation took two more days to install than we thought, or the piping put us a couple thousand dollars over budget. Being aware of these hiccups going forward can only serve to make future projects more realistic and timely.
Useful Project Management Stats
Outside of the five major phases, what else is there to know when it comes to project management? Here are some important statistics that can help you master the project management field.
- Multitasking can make productivity drop by 40%. Juggling multiple jobs can actually impede progress on all of them. This might be why almost all methodologies seem to favor one person doing one task until it's complete, rather than stretching themselves too thin.
- 55% of project managers cite budget overruns as a reason for failure. Budget has always been a constraint on businesses, and pushing it can cause a project to crumble.
- The COVID-19 pandemic caused an increase in the need for project management. At a time when many people were away from the office, and perhaps feeling unmotivated, the structure provided by project management methodologies was a huge help in keeping some organizations on track.
Project Management Methodologies
The full project management life cycle can be carried out via various different methods. While their structures and hierarchies range, these methods won't vary too drastically from the overall stages outlined above. Here are a few of the most popular options.
Agile – Best for Dynamic Workspaces
The Agile methodology focuses on consistent deliveries to the client. Rather than disappearing for a few months and then showing up with a finished product, teams using the Agile approach break down the project into smaller, deliverable parts that can be shown to the client for their approval or reassurance. It's a very popular methodology, with 76% of executives predicting that Agile project management tools will be the norm in the near future.
If you were in charge of furnishing a house, the Agile methodology would be a good choice, as it would facilitate you showing your client individual pieces of furniture, getting feedback, and then adjusting your approach, allowing the project to grow as it goes on.
This is the opposite of Waterfall project management (more in this just below) where the changes like this are much harder to make once the project has started – But as with any comparison, Agile and Waterfall project management methodologies both have their merits and pitfalls.
An example of the Agile methodology from Asana
Scrum – Best for Software Development
Scrum is the project management methodology for software development teams. It's similar to Agile in that a larger project is broken down into sections, but these sections are then handled by individual team members rather than the whole team and everything is guided by the key principles of Scrum.
Since software developers need to have complete control over their code, Scrum can be considered preferable over other, more collaborative methods. This method usually involves a lot of meetings where the team members will update each other on their progress.
An example of the Scrum methodology from Jira
Kanban – Best for Multiple Simultaneous Tasks
Perhaps the most iconic project management methodology, the Kanban methodology is represented in real life by putting sticky notes on a wall and moving them along their various project stages (ex. “Planned,” “In Progress,” “Finished,” etc.)
If your project is made up of a bunch of relatively independent tasks, then a Kanban approach is a great choice, as you'll have a quick visual reference for how far along each project is.
An example of the Kanban methodology from Trello
Waterfall – Best for Direct Working
This is the simplest methodology, for the simplest project progression. Waterfall is essentially a straight line, wherein you can't progress to the next step of the project until the previous one is 100% completed.
This is the ideal methodology for a project in which each stage relies on the previous stage's completion. For example, you can't build the third floor of a building if you haven't finished building the second.
An example of the Waterfall methodology from Wrike
Using Project Management Software
While project management can be done with as little as sticky notes and a pen, it's best handled through project management software. This software will allow you to stay on top of your projects using various tools and services that can help expedite your workflow. In fact, 77% of high-performing projects use project management software.
Some key benefits of project management software include:
- Data visualization: See how your team is handling the workload with graphs that show where time is spent, and how well projects are completed.
- Automations: Take some of the workload off your team by automating basic tasks, like administrative housekeeping. 54% of workers spend more than 5 hours a week on tasks that could be easily automated, like data entry, so automations can save businesses loads of time.
- Reporting: Create brief summaries of your team's progress that you can use to report back to your clients. A study from Capterra showed that this was the most popular feature of project management software, with 65% of organizations claiming to use this feature.
- Collaboration features: Allow your team to communicate and collaborate through the software by using things like an online whiteboard, an instant messenger, and a project calendar.
- Two-factor authentication: Keep any sensitive data safe by imposing strict security rules.
As far as the best project management software, there are a lot on the market. However the top three are:
BEST ALL ROUND
BEST WORK OS
BEST FREE TIER
A great task management system due to strong customizablity and support team, with a generous Free Trial period.
Slick, simple software with a powerful core, plus a genuinely usable free tier for individuals, and great value plans for teams.
A feature-rich service with a plain interface that's easy to learn, and has a free tier option to try.
All-around great software, thanks to ease of use and a scalable pricing scheme.
A solid project management solution with an attractive free tier for small teams, as well as great automations that can help speed up workflows
Best for client-facing businesses, since it offers great service features.
A simple project management platform with a strong feature set and an impressive free tier.
A fairly-priced, stripped-down option best for small teams.
A great tool for spreadsheet-natives, which can take your Excel-based task planning to the next level, and there's a free trial, too.
An enterprise solution aimed at large companies.
A pricey service best for companies invested in Microsoft.
A feature-rich software with a pricing scheme best for mid-sized teams.
A management tool with a complex functionality.
The Five Stages of Project Management
- Conceptualization: Thinking up and nailing down what you want your project to be
- Planning: Laying out each step of the project in a specific plan
- Action: Beginning the plan, in whatever form that may take for your business
- Examine and Track: Tracking the progress of the project, updating time logs and progress reports to reflect the status of the job
- Finalize and Review: Turning in the project, and looking over the entire experience to see what learnings can make for a better experience in the future
By combining these five phases with a methodology that suits your business, and a software that is well equipped to handle your needs, you'll be able to optimize your workflow and deliver projects smoothly and efficiently.
Frequently Asked Questions
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