10 June, 2024

Right Time, Right Move: When Should You Embrace Project Management?

Project Management is one of the most powerful solutions available to you. But what are the problems it solves? This article is about when to use Project Management and all the tools and techniques that the full body of knowledge puts at your disposal.

The Easy Answer to the Question of When to Use Project Management


If you want the TL;DR version of this article, it’s simple…

Use Project Management when you have a project!

If that sounds obvious, it should be. The defining features of a project are closely related to the circumstances that make Project Management the best approach to choose. I covered the definition of a project in an earlier video blog, ‘What is Project Management?

But I’m Guessing that won’t Satisfy You…

Right Time, Right Move: When Should You Embrace Project Management?

It Shouldn’t

There’s far more to say than that. So, let’s look at the conditions that seem to drive a need to use Project Management, if you want to get a good result.

In this article, we’ll look at:

A Specific Requirement

An obvious time to use Project Management is when you have to meet a specific requirement. Most often, it will be your boss or a client who sets this out. In Project Management terms, the person you will be working for is your Project Sponsor. But you may also set out your own requirements. 

We articulate these in terms of:

  • Functionality (what the products need to be able to do), and
  • Quality (how well and in what way, they will be able to do it)

And we refer to the functionality requirement as ‘scope’ in Project Management. We use Project Management because it offers us tools to help define the users’ or customers’ requirements precisely, and to ensure that we can deliver them as specified.

A Deadline Delivery Date

The word ‘deadline’ implies consequences for failure. And, perhaps, the single largest class of projects are deadline-driven. Whenever you make a promise, or need to comply with regulations, there is the likelihood that you will have to meet a strict time scale. Examples include:

  • Preparing to meet new legal or regulatory obligations
  • Meeting the constraint of an existing product reaching the end of its life (or contract)
  • Working within calendar constraints, like holiday periods
  • Or, delivering to a deadline set by a senior person for ‘political’ reasons

We use Project Management to help us do this because it has a suite of tools and techniques to plan and schedule our work. Whether you need simple milestones or a complex network of predecessor and successor dependencies, good Project Managers excel at meeting deadlines. For most of us, it is nothing less than a matter of professional pride. And for many, its simply the way we are wired!

For good #Project Managers, meeting deadlines is nothing less than a matter of professional pride Share on X

Initial Uncertainty in What Your Client Wants/Needs

Managing to meet a specific requirement is one reason to use Project Management. An even better one is to help you manage the uncertainty that you, your boss, or your client will have – especially at the start – over what that requirement is.

Project Managers have developed ways to resolve what your client wants and needs. Indeed, we also have ways to distinguish clearly between needs and wants. This is important because someone needs to pay for those requirements! Consequently, we have also co-opted the tools we need, to help clients to justify differing levels of specification, and the expenditure associated with them.

#Project Managers need to distinguish between needs & wants because someone needs to pay for the requirements! Share on X

Possibility of Changes in Requirement Along the Way

However, agreeing on the requirements at the start of your project is only the first challenge. Has your boss or client ever said this to you?

‘That’s great. Thank you. It’s just that… I’ve changed my mind.’

If they have, then welcome to the real world of Projects! Changing their mind is what clients and bosses do.

So, you’ll need Project Management techniques to take control of these situations. There are two broad solution sets that we can call upon.

Change Control

Change control and variation order (VO) tools make it possible for you to maintain your accountability and keep people happy at the same time. This is particularly important if you are doing commercial projects for someone else.

Adaptive Approaches

On the other hand, where constant change (and difficulty in foreseeing everything the client will need) suggests we build adaptability into our process from the start. Agile project management frameworks allow us to select what we will do, only when we are ready to take on a new chunk of work.

A Fixed Budget

Wouldn’t it be nice if every project came with a book of signed blank checks?
(or cheques, if you are British)

Sadly, they don’t.

So, while you may not have a wholly fixed budget, you are unlikely to be able to flex your budget to suit yourself.

Once again, Project Management comes to the rescue. It offers tools to help set a budget that matches your requirements. And you can also use Project Management tools to monitor and track your expenditure against that budget, so you stay in control. And, if you get pressure to deliver something different or new, you can combine them with the change control tools of the previous paragraph, to help with that too.

Lots of Tasks to Coordinate

One of the hallmarks of a Project is the presence of many tasks, that you need to coordinate. This complexity sets the stage for you to use Project Management methods to manage it. But let’s not forget the easiest – and often best – solution.

Wherever possible, split a big project into two or more smaller ones. Obviously, the fewer tasks you have, the less complex your Project will be. So, two small projects will always be less complex than one large one.

If possible, split a big #project into 2 or more small ones. Two small prjs are less complex than one big one Share on X

Team Needs to Work Together

Lots of tasks that you need to coordinate will mean you also need to create good team collaboration. I shan’t assert that Project Management is the only route to good teamwork. But within the body of knowledge of Project Management, you’ll find team leadership, motivation, and collaboration. Team building and teamworking are so fundamental to what we do that it is almost baked into the process. Good Project processes naturally allow for:

  • fair work allocation
  • great communication
  • learning and development
  • morale and motivation boosting
  • and a host of other valuable team-working assets.

Many Stakeholders, with Different Priorities

Stakeholders are people who have an interest in what you are doing. The more of them there are, and the more their individual needs and perspectives vary (or even conflict), the more you’ll need a structured approach to engaging with them.

And, of course, stakeholders demand to be kept informed and involved. They don’t just have an interest in your project; they have opinions, priorities, prejudices, and an agenda. Stakeholders make Projects hard.

Stakeholder engagement is a core part of the project skillset and comes with an over-arching process and a broad set of tools and techniques. Even with all this, Project Managers spend a lot of our time engaging, consulting, informing, and influencing them. But, without our suite of tools and techniques to help us, this would be harder to plan and to track.

Uncertainty, Novelty, Ambiguity, or Complexity

The ‘classic’ reason to use Project Management is to do something new and innovative. It’s what most people conjure in their minds when they hear the word ‘Project’. But why do we need something special to manage the new and the uncertain? Because new means ‘untried’. And uncertain means ‘unclear’ and ‘could fail’. And, often, this comes with added complexity. All this adds up to one thing…

Projects mean ‘Risk‘. 

And, as the hugely experienced Project Management consultant Tim Lister said, in 2004,

‘Risk Management is How Adults Manage Projects’.

Consequently, we have an armful of risk management techniques and tools. For many Project managers, risk management is the primary specialism, within the profession.

'Risk Management is How Adults Manage Projects' Tim Lister, 2004 Share on X

Putting it all Together

If you have one of these characteristics, do you need to use Project Management?

Probably not.

You can use Stakeholder Engagement Management to deal with stakeholders, and Risk Management to deal with uncertainty and novelty. You can use Team Leadership to deal with the need for a team to work together. And you can use Change Control to handle shifting requirements. And so on…

But, when you have two or more of these characteristics…

When they cluster together, there really is only one solution. Because there is only one toolset that has it all: Project Management. We use Project Management because it integrates:

  • requirements planning
  • quality management
  • budgeting
  • scheduling
  • investment appraisal
  • change control
  • co-ordination
  • sequencing
  • team leadership
  • stakeholder engagement
  • risk management
  • … and more

In some ways, you can view this article as the complement to our article, 10 Tools for Better Project Management Results. This presents ten essential Project Management tools. And these tools address the conditions we have described above. What other conditions have led you to use Project Management? Do tell us in the comments section below.

But let’s not forget…

Project Management skills are widely applicable in many areas of your work and private life. It may just be that you want to use them whenever you can. Maybe, even on easy low-risk activities, you will find some of your Project Management skills make everything even easier. Just like other essential life skills, like critical thinking and relationship building, there should be no limit on when you can use Project Management to get things done.

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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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