Please Share

Project Management for Managers: What You Need to Know

Project Management for Managers: What You Need to Know

Project Management has become a core skill for anyone in a managerial role. As a manager, a lot of the project capabilities you need will build on your core skillset. But what do managers need to know about project management?

OnlinePMCourse is here for project managers at all levels, that means we don’t only serve full-time career project managers. So, in this article, we look at project management for managers and answer the questions I get asked most often by line managers:

So, with no further ado, let’s get on with it…

Why Do Managers Need Project Management?

Project Management for Managers: What You Need to Know

How does a Project Manager differ from other managers? The answer is in what we manage. Project managers are responsible for temporary teams, delivering a specific thing, over a defined time period. Other managers – that we may call operational managers – usually get:

  • a permanent team. Or, at least, a long-lasting team that changes slowly over time
  • responsibility for range of processes
  • and these processes will continue indefinitely – although they will evolve or transform radically to meet changing needs

And, it’s in the last of these that we start to glimpse why operational managers need to learn Project Management. It will be the first of three big reasons why managers need to embrace project management:

  1. Changing your team’s workflow/process
  2. Getting things done
  3. Your Management Career

Changes to Your Team’s Workflow/Process

As an operational manager, part of your job is to keep your team’s work flowing. That means constantly reviewing the processes they follow. And, as you spot opportunities for improvement, or if things change, you need to make adjustments.

Most of these adjustments will be minor tweaks. But some will take planning and will need a significant resource of people, materials, and budget. Yup, changing an operational process may become a project.

Getting Things Done

The great thing about Project Management is that it is a toolset for getting things done efficiently and effectively. And that makes it a great base toolset for anyone in a managerial role. Even if you are not doing projects, there are some fantastic tools, methods, and ideas in project management that will serve you well as a manager.

A Manager’s Career

But, for me, the single most compelling reason why you need to embrace project management and treat it as a core competency is simple. Increasingly we can see a professional or managerial career as nothing more nor less than a series of projects. As you progress, you will do one project after another.

Once you have a stable operation, and the ability to lead your people effectively, day-to-day, your bosses will give you projects to do. They will start small and your role will be mostly about co-ordination. But, by the time you reach senior management, you will be leading large projects – often as project sponsor, with a role to oversee the work of project managers.


When you look back over your career from the perspective of retirement, that’s what you will see: a sequence of projects with different roles. and from that point of view, even as an operational manager, project management will be the skill that was most instrumental in your success. because it will have been your project successes (or failures) that will have got you noticed!

What is Project Management?

So, we’ve established that project management will be an important part of a manager’s career. But just what is it?

Sometimes it feels like nothing more than:

…a race to complete a poorly defined thing by an artificial deadline, by co-ordinating a disparate bunch of people, each of whom has their own agenda, prejudices, and ideas about how to manage the chaos of a complex, novel, and urgent endeavor, for which they will never be thanked.

Humorous definition from ‘How to Manage a Great Project’, by Mike Clayton (published by Pearson, 2014) [US|UK]

Shall we start again? Here’s a short video in which I answer the question for you:

What Sorts of PM are There?

Another question managers often ask is about the different types of project management. When I first started training managers in PM, this wasn’t a question they asked. But now, typically one or two in a group will have heard of Agile Project Management and want to know what that is. And some will want to know about Scrum, Kanban, PRINCE2, or the PMBOK Guide…

Now, if nly there were short videos on each of these things, explaining them in under 5 minutes. Oh, there are ‘What is…

But, if you don’t want to go scooting around our website, opening loads of windows, here’s a short primer.

Traditional Project Management

Traditional, planned project management follows a lifecycle of:

  • determining the fundamentals of your project
  • putting together a plan
  • delivering to that plan, and then
  • closing down your project

The details of the lifecycle can vary from organization-to-organization and from project-to-project. There is an infinite variety. But they all boil down to something like this. Here’s the terminology that we use here at OnlinePMCourses.

Project Lifecycle - OnlinePMCourses Model - Definition, Planning, Delivery, Closure
Project Lifecycle – OnlinePMCourses Model

If you want to follow a structured program of learning about planned Project Management, take a look at our five-step guide: ‘I Want to Learn Project Management’.

Because we try to anticipate what we’ll be doing and when, and to foresee problems, we often call this approach ‘predictive’ project management. For reasons we don’t need to explore here, you’ll also hear the term ‘waterfall’ applied to this approach.

It’s worth knowing that this term is sometimes used in a pejorative way by some practitioners of Agile Project Management. They think their methodology is newer and better. In fact, it builds on long-standing ideas that project managers have developed and used for years. And it is better – for projects where an Agile approach is well suited. But it’s not better when one isn’t. So, what’s Agile?

Agile Project Management

In a nutshell, Agile project management is a response to projects that need to evolve as they go. Requirements at the outset are uncertain, or methods need to adapt t what the project team learns during the project. Planning the whole project is not effective, because it would tie you to ideas that may become out-of-date.

So, Agile provides an incremental way to work, where we develop one part of the project and then look at ‘what next?’. It’s also iterative in the sense that we can build layers of functionality or quality upon a base level, one enhancement at a time.

But Agile is not a methodology – any ore than planned project management is. It’s an approach. And, like planned PM, Agile has a number of more or less formal methodologies that sit under its banner. The two commonest are Scrum and Kanban.

If you want to follow a structured program of learning about Agile Project Management, take a look at our five-step guide: ‘I Want to Study Agile Project Management’.

Scrum, Kanban, and Scruman

These are three Agile methodologies or, more accurately, two methodologies and a hybrid. Take a look at the Agile Methodologies course in our Free Academy of Project Management.


PRINCE2 is a planned project management methodology, developed for the UK Government. It’s been through several evolutions, but has always focussed on creating a controlled project environment through robust governance processes.

The methodology is supported by training programs and qualifications. For an introduction to these take a look at our guide: ‘PRINCE2 Certification: Everything You Need to Know‘.

If you want to follow a structured program of learning about PRINCE2, take a look at our five-step guide: ‘I Want to Study for PRINCE2’.

The PMBOK Guide

The Project Management Institute (PMI) offers two industry-leading qualifications for project managers:

  1. Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM), and
  2. Project Management Professional (PMP)

You can learn about the comparison between them and who each is best for in our article, ‘PMP versus CAPM: All You need to Know‘. The syllabus for both is set out in PMP’s standards document, the Project Management Body of Knowledge – usually known as the PMBOK Guide. The PMBOK Guide has always been resolutely about planned project management.

That is, until PMI’s latest edition (the 6th Edition). This now includes references to Agile Project Management. And it’s publication was accompanied by the simultaneous publication of its Agile Practice Guide, written in conjunction with the Agile Alliance.

If you want to follow a structured program of learning towards a CAPM or PMP qualification, take a look at our five-step guide: ‘I Want to Study for Project Management Professional’.

What Does a Manager Need to Know?

Of course it would be very easy to give you a long and overwhelming list here. But I shan’t. Instead, I’ll confine myself to the top three things I would recommend any manager to focus on.

Number 1: Core Project Management Skills

I suppose this goes without saying. And it also, arguably, contains a long list of skills within it. But our core course program grew from my experience of training two groups of people with overlapping needs:

  1. New and want-to-be Project Managers
  2. Managers who need to manage projects

For the former, early-stage PMs, I developed two tiers of core training, that allow them to choose from full detailed immersion in the topic, and the basic skills they’ll need to master for a decent size project.

For you, I also developed two tiers, but they overlap the other two. A manager may need the most fundamental induction into the skillset – a fast start, if you will. Or they may need to go deeper into the skills.

So, we offer the following three programs. The Project Manger’s…

  1. Fast Start Program. Accelerate your was to Project Management success. This is right for you if you are a manager or professional who wants to feel confident taking on a small to mid-size project.
  2. Skills Mastery Program. Master all the basic skills of Project Management. This is right for you if you are serious about succeeding in your first significant project, and see project management as a vital part of your job.
  3. Immersion Program. ​A deep dive into Project Skills for serious practitioners. This is right for you if you are committed to making your next project the successful foundation of a long-term project management career.

You can compare these three core courses on our comparison page.

Number 2: Balancing with your other Responsibilities

I sometimes think the role of a project manager is best summed up by this picture…

The Role of a Project Manager

The big challenges for managers tasked with managing a project as well, is usually easy to state. You still have your original job to fulfil. Which means it feels like spinning a set of plates while juggling a load of balls. The closest I can get to giving you advice is our article: ‘Secret Strategies to Manage Multiple Projects‘.

Number 3: Collaboration across teams

The other big challenge that operational managers face when leading projects is… well, management. Because, as a manager, it’s reasonably straightforward to get your people to do what you expect of them. First, because its probably their job, and second, you’re probably their boss.

But, leading a project, it’s likely that not all people will be working directly for you – maybe none will. And, more than that, your project may be an add-on to their day-to-day work… which they still need to fulfill.

So, you’ll need to develop a new style of influence. And that’s a good thing, because it will serve you well as your career progresses.

What to Do if You are Given a Project

Let’s end this review by surveying your big priorities, if you are given a project to do. I’ll hight eight, in a sequence that broadly (but not precisely) reflects their order in taking on your project. Not precisely, because there will be a lot of overlap.

1. Understanding Your Project

Your first step is to understand what your project is… and what it is not. This is your project definition. You need to get a sense of clarity around what you’ll be trying to do.

2. Setup Governance

This does not need to be a heavy task – especially for a small project. But you will need to know who your sponsor it – the person or group for whom you’ll be doing your project. And I would always advise that you discuss with them early on, what the right approach will be to over/sight and decision-making.

3. Stakeholder Engagement

One of my 12 Project Management Rules is that:

Stakeholders will determine the success, or not, of your project.

So, it will never be too soon to start speaking with your stakeholders, hearing what they have to say, and getting a good sense of each one’s perspectives on your project. Stakeholder engagement will be a big part of your work and a major contributor to a successful outcome.

4. Set Quality Standards

It’s my experience that new, and inexperienced project managers pay most of their attention – in planning their project – to the schedule and the budget. These are two of the three corners of the Time-Cost-Quality Triangle. It’s also known as the Iron Triangle, Triangle of Balance, and Triple Constraint.

Quality standards are also important, so please do give them the love they deserve! 

5. Planning

Whether you go for traditional, planned project management or an Agile approach, you still need to do some planning and preparation. And, most of the projects that managers lead are likely to be better suited to a planned project approach as their underlying process. This does not mean that you cannot incorporate ideas, tools, or even processes from Agile. But it does mean you’ll need to think through and document a clear set of steps for your project.

6. Risk Management

Risk happens. Things go wrong. So, it is vital that you put in place processes to anticipate and mitigate the consequences of adverse uncertainties: risks.

7. Team Management and Co-ordination

Most operational managers will be experienced in team management and co-ordination. The two (related) things that tend to be different about a project team are:

  1. The team has come together recently, so does not have the cohesiveness and trust that an established team will have. You will have to work at transforming your group into an effective team. Take a look at our article, ‘Get Better Results from you Team with Tuckman‘.
  2. Unlike your normal team, they don’t all work for you. So issue resolution and conflict management will require a more consensual approach than you may be used to using.

8. Monitor and Control

Once your project is running, you need to stay in control. That means keeping a regular eye on what is happening, comparing that with your plans and expectations, and then intervening to assert control, as needed.

What is Your Experience of Managers Managing Projects?

We’d love you to share your experiences, advice, or questions. Add your comments below and we’ll respond to any contribution.

About the Author Mike Clayton

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 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.

follow me on: