6 May, 2024

Project Management Basics are Key: What Should You Focus on?

Understanding the Project Management basics is critical. It’s the start of a learning journey. But they also provide a compass bearing for even the most experienced of us. Here is something that has always been one of the most important insights, for me:

Project Management Basics are Key: What Should You Focus on

‘Focus on the basics, do them well, and do them relentlessly.’

I have always applied this rule to project management. And, through a series of projects, I have recognized a pattern of behavior in myself that has allowed me to apply it effectively.

In this article, I want to cover the basics in three ways:

  1. The Project Management Elements
  2. Applying those elements to understand The Key to Your Project Success
  3. My List of the Top 12 Project Management Basics to Focus on

The Project Management Elements

Let’s start, though, with something that I speak about, in one way or another, in many of the project management talks I give or courses I run: the project management elements. These are the unique ‘types of stuff’ that a project is made of.

All project managers are familiar with these – and, those who aren’t project managers will recognize them too. Projects consist of tasks, milestones, gateways, resources of various types, funds, risks, issues, and so on. Each task, deadline, or person is indivisible – the project atoms, if you like.

The Periodic Table of Project Management
The 2023 Periodic Table of Project Management

The ‘So what?’

A great way to think about the basics is by considering the elements of Projects and Project Management. From them, we can assemble every approach, tool, framework, and process we need, to deliver projects to schedule, to budget, and to specification.

The Key to Your Project Success

It struck me in early 2002 when I started training project managers professionally, that in every significant project I had managed, I had done one thing pretty much at the start: I had sat down and thought through which of these elements were key to the success of the project? Which ones would I have to really focus-in on if I were to bring the project in successfully? Let me give some examples.

A Focus on Risk

In one project, I had a great team – most were deep experts and the work-stream leads were pre-eminent in their fields. The whole team was committed to the project, able, and diligent. They were well managed by their work-stream leaders, who had carefully developed and well-coordinated project plans. We had a tight deadline, but the resources to meet it. On the face of it, my job was easy – keep the work-streams together and enjoy our success.

On reflection, I concluded that only one threat dominated our project. This was a highly innovative endeavor, and our risk register was bulging. I focused on that. At least half my time was spent actively working the risk register: meeting risk owners, chasing up actions, and working out new solutions with experts. We came in on schedule.

Co-ordinating a Large Team

Another project was quite different. The task was a familiar one – little innovation needed. My challenge was to keep a large team highly coordinated, to deliver a very specific set of highly integrated products (actually a set of formal recommendations) by a firm deadline. I had scheduled a decision-making meeting for all the top people, 16 weeks ahead, and I was determined not to re-schedule.

Told by one senior colleague that we’d never deliver to the deadline I’d created, I concluded that the two things I needed to manage tightly were the large number of team members and the precious time we had. Team leaders focused on supporting their teams, daily quality assurance, and flagging risks to me. I relentlessly reviewed the progress and activities of each team and their respective members with my team leaders, day-by-day and sometimes hour-by-hour.


If you were to accuse me of micro-management, you wouldn’t be the first. The judgment we have to make, as project managers, is how close to look at our projects. In this case, with tight deadlines, I chose a magnifying glass.  But we must also choose what to focus on.  Detailed planning and rigorous monitoring of the right things paid off. The meeting started on time and even finished five minutes early.

The ‘So what?’

Figure out what you need to focus on, build your plans around those few elements, find ways to track their progress closely, pay attention to them relentlessly, don’t be afraid to get into the detail…  if you need to, and don’t take your eye off the big picture while you do.

Top 12 Project Management Basics to Focus on

I am sure you will have your own list. And, while I would expect your list to overlap a lot, it may well differ in detail. You may not include one or two of my top concepts, while adding in a few of your own. Most likely, you’ll have the same idea, but express it in your own, distinct way. I’d love to read your comments, down below.

But, for now, I have the floor. So, here then are my top 12 Project Management Basics…

(Oh, and by the way: these are not in any order of priority: they are all Project Management basics, so are equally important.)

Project Management Basics No. 1: Control

The one thing that project managers crave, above all else, is control. We do our work in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) environment. And our job is to create something new (often innovative) within a fixed budget and often with tight deadlines. Amid this chaos, and with all these challenges, the only way we can succeed is by bringing methods and approaches that create control.

Control makes it possible to deliver and also creates confidence in the teams who are working with us and the stakeholders who are placing their trust in us.

Project Management Basics No. 2: Tailoring

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to delivering a project. As my friend and exceptional Project Manager, Tony Quigley, said:

‘One size fits all’ is for silly hats

There are no magic solutions to our work, so our job is to:

  • Learn as much as we can
  • Gather as many tools, techniques, methods, processes, and frameworks as we can
  • Understand each challenge for what it is, in itself
  • Develop a tailored solution for each need, drawing from the whole range of our resources

For more:

Project Management Basics No. 3 Integrity and Trust

If your team or your stakeholders don’t have, or lose, trust in you… You’re doomed! Building and maintaining trust is something to pay attention to with every decision and each interaction with another person. And the surest way to lose it is to forget that every action needs to demonstrate true integrity.

There is nothing more basic than your fundamental attitude to professionalism in general, and to your role in particular.

Project Management Basics No. 4: Stakeholders

If it is your stakeholders who will determine the success (or not) of your project – and I believe it is – then the way you deal with them is fundamental to your success. Get to know and understand them. Your goal is to satisfy your customers, meet the essential needs of your users, and engage with the full spread of your stakeholders.

Project Management Basics No. 5: Planning and Adaptation

‘But surely, Mike, planning and adaptation are competing approaches to Project Management?’

Well, no. They may be at opposite ends of a spectrum of approaches we can take, but I don’t believe we should just choose one approach at the start and stick rigidly to it. We need to do some planning (even for the most agile of approaches). And we need to adapt to changing circumstances (even in the most predictive of projects). Anything else would be frankly absurd!

Project Management Basics No. 6: Definition of Done

Talking about agile (which I sort of was), when I came across the term ‘definition of done’, I loved it! I am using this as a placeholder for all the elements of one basic idea. At the start of our project, we must take the time we need to understand just what our project is, and what it is not.

There are a whole bunch of elements that go into defining a project. And, without them, we cannot proceed to planning with any confidence. And we certainly should not jump into delivery without them. But, in addition to all that, without them, how will we know when to stop?

Project Management Basics No. 7: Quality

I don’t care what quality standards my client wants to set. That’ ‘s their business. But my job is to be sure that:

  1. They set them, and the project team understands them
  2. We reflect those standards in the design of the products, processes, or services we build (Quality Design)
  3. We set up procedures to ensure that everything we create will meet the quality standards in the design (Quality Assurance)
  4. Before releasing a product, service, or process into beneficial use, we evaluate it carefully for compliance (Quality Control)

Isn’t that part of what we are being paid for?

Project Management Basics No. 8: Risk

Shift Happens! Things go wrong. Especially in a project environment that is:

  • Volatile (subject to sudden changes)
  • Uncertain (because we are doing new things in new ways)
  • Complex (with lots of interacting parts that are near-impossible to predict)
  • Ambiguous (where something can have one or more from a wide range of possible interpretations)

‘Risk Management is how adults manage projects’ said Tim Lister. You’re not wrong, Tim!

Project Management Basics No. 9: Benefits

Why else would we do a project, other than to get some benefit from our investment of time, effort, and money? And if you can think of no good reason, then perhaps you too should be putting active benefits management at the core of your Project Management approach.

PMI – late to the party, as always – talks about value, which is fine. Value is just a relationship between benefit and cost, so I am happy with that.

Project Benefits Management

Our best-seller course: Learn Project Benefits Management Step-by-Step

Project Management Basics No. 10: Social Value

This is my latest addition and, frankly, I’ve had to swap out something to make room for it (see Project Management Basics No. 11). I am coming around rapidly to the feeling that every project should deliver benefit, in some way, to society.

If it does not, then it must surely be delivering benefits only to its sponsor. And, if this is the case, we are involved in a selfish (arguably abusive) endeavor. Since projects use resources and the earth is a finite source of those resources, if the project does not benefit society, then it is taking away society’s resources, to benefit a limited range of people. </political rant>

Project Management Basics No. 11: Team Collaboration

It’s your team who will deliver your project, so you need to get the best from them. That means leading them well, so that they can collaborate with minimum friction to do their jobs with minimum interference. Servant Leadership is the concept I’m speaking of.

Of course, your team is one of (and often the biggest of) your project resources. These also include materials, equipment, and assets of various kinds. So, my larger point is all about making the best use of all of your resources.

And, since resources cost money, this links me to the Project Management basic concept I referred to above, in No. 10, as having edged out: money. Money is the master resource we manage and use to secure the other resources we need. So, in case you thought I’d forgotten it… No. Cost management is in here!

Project Management Basics No. 12: Learning

We need to reflect on our processes, successes, failures, and decisions. Because that’s the way we learn from experience. Whether you call it a lessons-learned meeting or a retrospective (I’m increasingly loving this term), do something, regularly and frequently, to ensure your team learns and matures as professionals throughout your project.

So, What Do You Think about Project Management Basics?

Please share your thoughts on the elements of Project Management, the idea of keys to project success, and my list of 12 Project Management Basics, in the comments below. As always, I will respond to every contribution.

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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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