16 August, 2016

How to Know When to Use Project Management

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

Of course, there’s an 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… It Shouldn’t

There’s really 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.

When to Use Project Management
When to Use Project Management

A Deadline Delivery Date

The word ‘deadline’ implies consequences for failure. Perhaps the single largest class of projects are those that are deadline-driven. Whenever you make a promise, or need to comply with a regulations, there is the likelihood of having to meet a strict time scale. We use Project Management to help us do this, because it has a suite of tools and techniques to help. Whether you need simple milestones or a complex network of predecessors and successors, good Project Managers excel at meeting deadlines. For most of us, it is nothing less than a matter of professional pride.

For good #Project Managers, meeting deadlines is nothing less than a matter of professional pride Click To Tweet

A Specific Requirement

Another obvious time to use Project Management is when you have to meet a specific requirement. This is usually set out by your boss or your client, but you may also set out your own requirements. We articulate these in terms of functionality and quality. And we refer to the functionality requirement as ‘scope’ within Project Management. We use Project Management here, because it offers us ways to define requirements very precisely, and to ensure that we can deliver them as specified.

Initial Uncertainty in What Your Client Wants/Needs

Managing to a specific requirement is one reason to use Project Management. An even better one is to help you to 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, they also have ways to distinguish clearly between needs and wants. This is important, because someone needs to pay for the 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! Click To Tweet

Possibility of Changes in Requirement along the Way

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 need to use Project Management techniques to take control of these situations. Change control and variation order 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.

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, whilst you nay 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 Co-ordinate

One of the hallmarks of a Project is the presence of many tasks, that you need to co-ordinate. 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. But, 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 Click To Tweet

Team Needs to Work Together

I am not going to assert that Project Management is the only route to team working. But when you use Project Management, you do get team building and team collaboration 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.

Uncertainty and Novelty

This is the ‘classic’ reason to use Project Management: to do something new and innovative. Its 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 ‘could fail’.

Projects mean ‘Risk‘. 

And, as the hugely experience Project Management consultant Tim Lister said, in 2004, ‘Risk Management is How Adults Manage Projects’. Consequently, we have an armful of tools, that integrate with robust methods.

'Risk Management is How Adults Manage Projects' Tim Lister, 2004 Click To Tweet

Shifting Stakeholder Landscape

My last reason to use Project Management is the presence of stakeholders, who demand to be kept informed and involved. Stakeholder don’t just have an interest in your project; they have opinions, priorities, prejudices, and agenda. Stakeholders make Projects hard. As a result, Project Managers spend a lot of our time engaging, consulting, informing, and influencing them. Once again, we have a suite of tools and techniques to help us.

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 ne 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 of our earlier article, How to Get Better Project Management Results. This presented 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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