19 December, 2022

10 Critical Project Management Concepts You Absolutely Have to Know

By Mike Clayton

19 December, 2022

Gateways, Governance, monitor and control, planning, Porject Controls, project management, risk, risk management, STage Gates, Stages, Stakeholders, Time-Cost-Quality Triangle

If you’re starting out, you may be wondering: what are the most important Project Management concepts that you need to understand? That’s what I will answer in this article.

Project Management is not only a fabulous discipline for building a career around, it is one of the most valuable life skills you can acquire.

And it is chock-full of simple but essential concepts and mental models. But if you had to be selective, and needed to focus on just ten of those Project management concepts, what would they be?

I have around thirty years of experience in training project management courses and delivering projects. So, I have thought about this carefully. Even so, it’s a difficult challenge. But, just for you, I have finally honed my list down to the ten critical things to learn about project management. These are my 10 vital Project Management concepts.

The Zeroth Project Management Concept: A Project

10 Critical Project Management Concepts You Absolutely Have to Know
What you most need to Learn about Project Management

Before we get to Number One, let’s put aside the place many people might start: understanding what project management is.

Clearly, this is important…

So why knock it off my list? ‘Maybe I just needed the slot’, you are thinking.

I shan’t include it because I have heard myself tell groups time and time again, that I may need to teach them what a project is, to make their course complete, but they will never really need to know the definition.

What matters in the real world is not some theoretical debate about whether this is a project, or that is just an initiative. What matters is how you get it done: the tools, techniques, systems, and processes that you deploy.

The fact is, you will know it when you see it, and as long as you choose the right tools from your toolbox; that’s enough.

However, we do have a really thorough article, for anyone who wants or needs to go into this in detail:

‘The Definition of Project Management: What are a Project and Project Management?’

This article provides a comprehensive overview of ten essential concepts that project managers must be familiar with to ensure the success of their projects. Understanding these concepts can help project managers plan, execute, and control their projects effectively. Additionally, obtaining formal training can be a help. As an example, PMP training  can demonstrate proficiency in these critical concepts and enhance career opportunities for project managers.

So, with that out of the way; let’s get on with our list…

The Vital Project Management Concept of Definition

The foundations of your project will be its definition. Without getting your definition right, it barely matters what else you learn about project management: your project is likely to fail.

For that reason, I make a great big deal of understanding how to define your project, in terms of goal, objectives, and scope. There are other components to your project definition, but these are the ‘Big Three’ you absolutely need to nail at the start of any project.

But don’t think this is simple: for me, getting your project scope right is not only crucial; it is also the hardest part of project management. This is where your negotiation skills will come to the fore, as you try to reconcile the varying needs, ambitions, priorities, and desires of your stakeholders. The good news is that, once you’ve done this, it will all get easier from there!

Learn more about Project Definition

First, you need to know that another term for Project definition is ‘Project Brief’. So, check out our article, Clear Project Brief (10 Things to Include). e also have a video that follows a similar approach: ‘Define Your Project’.

Then, you may want to take the vital project management concept a step further, to ‘Strategic Project Definition’.

Do also check out our video on ‘The Primary Project Hierarchy’.

For a more unusual approach, I muse on ‘Three Big Questions about Your Project’ that will take your Project Definition further, in a short (under 5min) video.

Finally, I had the pleasure of doing an interview about ‘The Importance of Project Definition’, with Johnny Beirne at Project Management Paradise.

The Time-Cost-Quality Triangle

This is a simple concept, often taught in a trivial way. The Time-Cost-Quality Triangle (also known as The Iron Triangle) is not trivial at all: it is profound in its implications for your project. That’s why I consider it a vital project management concept.

Forget the trite sayings, like ‘time, cost, quality: pick two’ and focus on what this concept can do for you… especially when you build in scope properly.

What it cannot do is answer any of your questions nor solve any of your problems. But what it can do is make your choices (and their implications) very clear. The solution to most project management problems is going to involve your choices around time, cost, quality, and scope. Understanding this well is crucial when you start to learn about project management.

Learn more about Scope

Scope is the ‘fourth corner’ of the time-cost-quality triangle. So…

Stages and Stage Gates

There are lots of reasons why project managers split our projects up into stages, but the most important of them all boils down to control. As a project manager, you should be doing everything you can to build systems, procedures, and tools that will give you control. And stages do just that.

And yes, if you are wondering… Control is one of my vital Project Management concepts and we’ll look at it below!

Each stage can have specific outcomes, defined resources, and a fixed deadline. All that helps you with control. But it is the stage boundaries that help most.

These are where decisions can be made in what is known as either a Stage Gate or Gateway Process. This is a go/no-go choice of whether or not to continue the project, based on a set of pre-determined criteria.

Learn more about Stages and Stage Gates

Let’s start with the stages themselves. Here’s our key article: ‘The Project Lifecycle and Four Essential Stages’.

But what about the Stage Gate process? Do read our article, ‘How the Stage Gate Process Will Make You a Better Project Manager’.

So, if you’re persuaded, the next thing you’ll need to know is ‘How to Run an Effective Stage Gate Review’ (video).

Finally, there’s a project stage that far too few Project managers know about. So, ‘What is the Project Discovery Stage?’

Stages and Stage Gates are not just about control, however. They also contribute to the fourth of our critical project management concepts…

The Vital Project Management Concept of Governance

The word ‘governance’ originates in the ancient Greek word ‘kubernator’ the steersman of a large sea vessel. Governance is an essential Project Management concept to learn about because you, as a project manager, are spending your organization’s or client’s money, and you are putting at hazard their reputation.

Governance, like the steersman of a trireme, needs to achieve three essential roles in a project:

  1. First, it must set direction and ensure that the project will fulfill the long-term interests of the sponsoring organization.
  2. Second, it must make accountable decisions when the project encounters unfamiliar shores or unexpected turbulence.
  3. And finally, it must oversee what is going on, to ensure that the project’s ship is being properly managed.

Learn more about Project Governance

Let’s start by making the case for Project Governance. I do this in ‘What has Project Governance Ever Done for Us? [Ans: A Lot]’.

Now let’s move onto a short video with some practical tips: ‘5 Project Governance Tips’.

A lot of project governance is also about getting your project documentation right. You might like our article: ‘The Secret to Getting your Project Documentation Right‘.

Stakeholders – Your Keys to Project Management Success… or Failure

Who cares about all of this project stuff? It is your stakeholders.

If there is one thing that I would single out for every new project manager to learn about project management… And to really remember, every day of your working life… It is that it will be your stakeholders who will determine the success (or not) of your projects.

Because your stakeholders are the key to your project’s success (or failure), stakeholders and stakeholder engagement really do earn their place among my 10 essential project management concepts. Consequently, you’ll see more content on this site about them than just about anything.

Stakeholders are anyone who has any interest in your project. As a result, the task of engaging positively with them is a substantial commitment. The overall process is simple, but its execution takes discipline and hard work. But relentless attention to your stakeholders can have more effect on your project’s success than any other endeavor.

Learn more about Stakeholders and Stakeholder Engagement

Start with our comprehensive article, ‘Project Stakeholder Management Knowledge Area: A Guide to Stakeholder Engagement’. This also acts as a resource guide to many of the other articles and videos about stakeholders and stakeholder management on this site.

But here are a few of my favorites from the other dozen or so (at time of writing) free articles and videos on this topic, here on our site:

The Vital Project Management Concept of Planning

As you get used to being a project manager, planning will increasingly become a natural part of your life. Project managers plan instinctively: we can’t do anything without a plan.

And that is good, because it makes implementation so much easier and more reliable. The only problem comes when we forget that a plan is just an estimate of how reality might turn out, if things go the way we expect them to.

This is one of the reasons why we have a variety of different planning tools. They help us to see our projects from multiple perspectives, and therefore (we hope) to spot inconsistencies that render our plans risky at best and fatally flawed at worst.

If there is one thing I would want all project managers to learn about project planning, it is not the instinct to plan, nor the talent to plan well… it would be an attitude of skepticism about your plans.

Learn more about Project Planning

Our master-article on Project Planning is ‘Project Planning Process: Navigate the Many Steps You Need’.

And, if you prefer a video format, check out the video: ‘Project Planning Process – How to Build Effective Project Plans’.

Do you remember my comment about skepticism? This article is crucial: ’12 Project Planning Mistakes… and How to Fix Them’.

And we have three videos that answer the question, ‘What is…

Project Resources

You cannot do a project without the right resources, in the right quantities, in the right place, at the right time. Resource planning is at the very core of the practical skillset that you need to learn about project management. Which, of course, makes resources a vital Project Management concept.

By resources, I mean the full set of people, assets, materials, information, and cash.

Money is indeed a resource: it is the master resource that can be exchanged for any of the others. I would also want project managers to learn that time is not a resource. It behaves in a very different way; not least because you cannot store it, save it up, buy more of it, or use it some other time.

The Vital Concept of Project Controls

The one thing a project manager craves, above all else, is control (and believe me, it is). So, an understanding of project controls has to be one of the most critical project management concepts to learn about.

Project controls serve two purposes. They:

  1. help us to keep our project on plan, and
  2. tell us how we can respond, if (when) our project veers off plan (as it will – see planning, above).

There are many project controls, but the ones that will be most valuable for a new project manager to learn about are: project reporting, change control, and risk management.

Learn more about Project Controls

Here’s an interesting thought piece in the form of a 3.5-minute video on ‘The Project Control Paradox’.

Project Reporting

Change Control

Quality Management

For Risk Management, see the next section…

The Always-present Risk

Projects do something different. They do it in limited time frames and with constraints on their resources. They can be big and complex, and they affect people’s lives. No wonder there is uncertainty and the possibility of adverse consequences. And any uncertainty that can affect outcomes has a name: risk.

Project risk management is such an important project management concept that it is a discipline in its own right. (At OnlinePMCourses, it is high on our list of specialist courses we will be developing).

But this does not mean a project manager can sideline risk management and put it solely in the hands of an expert. Even if it were not the case that you will rarely have that luxury; risk management is, without a doubt, one of the most important things for a project manager to learn about project management.

Learn more about Risk Management

Like stakeholders and stakeholder engagement, we have a huge wealth of content about risk management on this site. So the place to start is with our Ultimate Guide to Project Risk Management. This also acts as a resource guide, sign-poting you to many of the dozen or more other resources.

Of those, my favourites include:

And ‘what about Issues and Issue Management?’ you ask…

The Monitor and Control Loop

The last of my ten critical concepts of project management is the beating heart of your project during its delivery stage: the monitor and control loop. You know (or should by now) that the one thing we crave, above all else, is control. So constant attention to what is going on in your project is vital. And we do that so that we can intervene as soon as we become aware that our project is drifting off plan (as it will).

When you exert control over your project, by rescheduling activities, reallocating resources, reworking deliverables, or addressing risks, for example; you are managing your project. And that is why we learn about project management. To increase our ability to stay in control, and therefore deliver your project on budget, on target, and on time.

Learn more about

Take a look at ‘Cycle Times and the Monitor and Control Loop’.

And, for an alternative perspective, we also have: ‘Take Control with John Boyd’s OODA Loop’.

The Almost (but not quite) Critical Project Management Concepts, that Nearly Made the List

Please know that the 10 project management concepts above are necessary, but not sufficient, for a working Project Manager. Yes, you can manage small projects with just those ten ideas.

But, if you want to make a career in project management (and that would be a great choice for many), then there are loads more to know.

So, what project management concepts would be in my second tier? This is not a carefully considered list, like the first ten. But the first 7 things that come to mind are:

  1. Agile Project Management
  2. Benefits Management
  3. Constraints
  4. Dependencies – both Task Dependencies and then, also, External Dependencies
  5. Kanban
  6. Waterfall
    For more details, we answer ‘What Really is the Waterfall Method?’ and we also compare ‘Agile vs Waterfall: Which one is Right for Your Project?‘.
  7. Work Breakdown Structure

What Project Management Course will Teach You All of This?

Core Project Management Programs

All of our Core Project Management programs are designed to cover these ten critical project management concepts. But then, so too will many other project management courses. So you may want to take a look at a complementary article to this one, to help you decide Which is the Right Project Management Course. Other articles you may enjoy, include:

Other Ways to Look at This Topic

You may also like some other articles, that take a different but complementary view of what is most important.

What Would You Consider to be Your Vital Project management Concepts?

Did I get the top 10 right? What did I miss? And, if you were going to insert your one, which of mine would you relegate to the second tier? Remember, in picking ‘top tens’ like this, there are no absolute right and wrong answers!

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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