In this article I discuss the project management framework that I have applied in multiple projects (including the one I used in “A Free Project Pipeline Tracker for Excel“). What you’ll find is that it’s simple and uses the most basic of components, yet it’s where every project I’ve ever worked on begins.

Let’s begin by defining a project. Here are the characteristics:

  • A project has a specific end goal;
  • A collection of tasks has to be completed in order to achieve the project goal;
  • Each task may take a different amount of time or work, cost and skill; and
  • A collection of resources is available to perform work on these tasks.

Project management is the act of achieving the project goal by using the resources available, accounting for all constraints and handling any unexpected events along the way. A project manager (PM) is the leader of the project.

The Two Stages of Project Management

The work of project management is applied in two stages: planning and management. The first stage is to plan the project ahead of time and have a clear idea of the project before the project work begins. For example, if the project is to build a home, then you want to have a clear project plan that lays out how it will be built before the building actually starts. The second stage starts when the project work actually begins. This is where the PM manages the project to completion — effectively and efficiently — to meet the project goal.

During the planning stage, the objective of the PM is to have answers to these questions:

  • Can the project be completed by our preferred date? When will it be completed?
  • How much will it cost?
  • How efficiently will we use our resources?
  • Who will work for how many hours on which task on a given day?

Answering the last question will help us answer all the others. The answer to the last question is what formulates the schedule.

The Planning Stage

A schedule lays out how to complete the work needed using the resources available.

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Factors in building a schedule

On one side, you know the work (referred as “tasks” in the image) that needs to be done. You factor in the hours of work needed, any external constraints on starting a task, and dependencies between tasks. For example, you may not be able to start a task before another task is completed.

On the other side, you have the resources that are capable of performing that work. They have their standard working hours per weekday. They may have vacation and overtime. The company may have holidays during which work won’t be performed.

On top of these, the PM assigns each task to one of the resources available based on skill. Given all this input, a schedule is built.

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A project schedule

Using the schedule, you can calculate all relevant project metrics, such as project finish date, cost and resource utilization (a measure of how efficiently they’re being used). It may take a few iterations to land on a schedule that’s acceptable. For example, in the first iteration, the project timeline might be too long. In the next iteration, the cost might be too high.

The “levers” to project success that a PM has are:

  • A list of resources;
  • Availability of those resources (standard work hours, overtime, vacation);
  • Assignment of resources to tasks; and
  • The scope of tasks.

Once a PM lands on an acceptable schedule, we have answers to our original questions. The results can be shared in a project report with the project sponsors to get approval. Once approved, we have a project plan. We will call this a “baseline plan.” It includes key dates or milestones, the detailed schedule, cost estimates and resource utilization rates.

Now, we wait for the project start date to begin actual work, and our planning stage ends.

Two stages of project management

Two stages of project management

The Management Stage

From the day actual work begins, you enter the management stage. The first and most important activity here is to track the actual work performed. Only then you will know if your plan is being executed. The frequency of tracking may depend on the scale of the project. It could be daily, for example.

This tracking allows you to monitor the progress of the project towards your goal and also monitor if you’re sticking to your baseline plan. The PM monitors the progress using reports and shares status with project team members and sponsors regularly. The reports will clearly represent what percentage of the work has been complete and how much more needs to be done. Clear and timely communication is an important job of a PM.

If actual work was performed exactly as planned, the management stage becomes simple. But the reality is that many things may not go according to the baseline plan, for several reasons:

  • The actual work performed is less (or more) than planned;
  • The planned work estimate may not be correct;
  • The scope of work has changed;
  • The resource cost is different than planned; and
  • Resource availability may have changed.

These factors may invalidate your baseline plan. The PM has to build a new plan to handle all the new challenges and factors. Let’s call this plan the “current plan.”

The Current Plan

The current plan takes into account what work has actually been done so far and plans out the rest of the project, given the changed inputs, such as resource availability and work estimates.

The PM can increase resource availability and/or reduce the scope of tasks. Even using all the levers available, it may happen that the estimated project finish is later than in our baseline plan. In other words, the project will be delayed. I should note that the PM received approval earlier for the baseline plan. If the current plan deviates in cost or timeline significantly from the baseline plan, then a new approval may be necessary.

Here’s a quick overview of the difference between the two plans.

Baseline PlanCurrent Plan
What is it?The project plan you get approval for before beginning actual workThe project plan that takes into account actual work performed so far and projected remaining work
PurposeSets the benchmark for project measurements and used to identify variancesReflects that current best estimate of the project timeline
Can it change?Does not change after the project beginsCan change after the project begins; regularly updated as actual work is performed

Using the new current plan, the project moves forward. It’s a continuous process. This current plan will be updated regularly based on actual work performed and any changes that may happen with the inputs. Your reports will tell you how the current plan is progressing and is compared with the baseline to identify variances. The PM will continue to share these reports with the sponsors and team as necessary.

It’s possible that the schedule has to be updated or rebuilt a few times during the course of the project. Finally, when all the work is completed, the PM finalizes the project report and shares that with stakeholders.

There you have it — a project management framework. While every project will grow beyond the basics presented here, all of them also start from the simple components I’ve presented.

Am I leaving something out? Tell me in the comments below.

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