Project management is the process of planning, executing and managing project team work through a set of standardized phases, tools and techniques. Widely used methodologies include the Agile model, Scrum, Lean, Kanban, Six Sigma and Waterfall development.
Projects are the lifeblood of every business—which means project management is the heart. Without upfront planning and preparation, established processes, a strong leader, committed team members, and the right tools, your project will probably flounder.
Those are pretty high expectations, and you might be wondering how you’re supposed to pull together everything you need. That’s why I’ve put together the ultimate guide to project management. First, we’ll look at modern methodologies and which one you should use; then, you’ll learn how to customize your approach so it’s optimized for your team’s end goal, working style, and more. After that, we’ll dive into the apps you can use to be far more efficient. Finally, I’ll let you in on what I’ve learned about project failure: the most common causes, how to avoid it, and the signs of a project that’s in trouble.
Ready to take your team to the next level? Let’s go.
Believe it or not, companies didn’t use established frameworks to manage their projects until the 1950s. Each leader devised their own approach; as you can probably guess, that meant almost every project was tackled in a different way.
While using individual methods can work, having a system that the entire team uses over and over again is helpful for several reasons:
A methodology will ultimately save your company time, money, and resources. But that hinges on one crucial decision: picking the right methodology.
One of the first systems to emerge, Waterfall is also one of the most famous. It’s highly likely you use a version of Waterfall in your own life without realizing it. Think about the last time you decided to, say, cook dinner. You probably thought about all the steps involved—picking a dish, figuring out which ingredients you needed, going to the store, and actually preparing the meal—and then performed those steps in sequential order.
That’s the Waterfall method. It requires the team to start with their end goal, then map out every stage of the project needed to achieve that end goal—all before any work happens.
Once the project starts, you go by your results, rather than the clock. If you’re supposed to conduct 30 user interviews in phase one, you can’t move on to phase two until all 30 are finished—even if that means you’ll spend more time than you allotted.
Benefits: If you’re dealing with an incredibly complex product, having this much structure will keep your team members focused and motivated. Waterfall is also extremely fault-tolerant; if you need a "perfect" product (like a car or an aspirin bottle), it’s ideal.
Drawbacks: Tight deadlines don’t mix well with Waterfall—there’s no way to adapt this system to unexpected delays. Some people also dislike how rigid it is, saying this stifles creativity. It’s usually not the optimal choice for software products, as they often change on a dime.
Lean comes from the manufacturing sector; however, in the past couple years, the number of startups branding themselves as "lean" has exploded—especially in the tech world. Software and industrial companies may seem pretty different on the surface. But every type of business can benefit from the methodology’s core goal: to deliver the highest value possible at the lowest cost.
The "build-measure-learn" feedback loop is at the center. Essentially, you build the most basic version of your product (or a subset of your product); then, you test your idea (ideally by taking it your actual users or the closest possible approximation); finally, you use the results of your testing to either continue on the same path or chart a new course.
Benefits: Lean teams can react and adapt to change without slowing down. They tend to produce extremely cost-effective results, which is obviously key when you’re strapped for cash. And since lean requires you to gather feedback at every stage of the process, there’s very little danger of creating a fantastic product that no one wants.
Drawbacks: Unlike other project management systems, lean is pretty bare bones—there aren’t a ton of rules or formal processes to follow. You’ll need to develop your own way of doing things, which isn’t always productive. Lastly, lean’s obsessive focus on cutting waste isn’t always great for team morale. After all, employee happiness should probably rank above the bottom line most of the time.
Have you ever given yourself a task with a hard and fast "stop" time? For example, you might commit to answering emails for 45 minutes. Once that time is passed, you move onto the next thing, even if you still have unanswered messages.
Scrum is fairly similar. It’s a sub-set of Agile (and some would say the most structured). There’s some pre-work planning, during which you carve up your end goal into mini-goals. Each mini-goal is assigned a two to four-week period, also known as a "sprint."
Teams are expected to make progress on their sprint goal every day. At the end of every sprint, instead of immediately transitioning into the next one, everyone participates in a reassessment. They might decide to mix up the order of the sprints, or change the end goal entirely.
Benefits: Scrum’s emphasis on constant reassessment makes it optimal for iterative projects. In addition, its focus on relatively short time periods helps keep the project interesting and dynamic.
Drawbacks: Since it’s relatively easy to add or change goals, you might find a project ballooning in scope or veering off in the wrong direction. Plus, some work really needs more than a month to be done well.
Imagine you’re renovating your house. There’s no way you can accomplish everything in one fell swoop; instead, you start work in the kitchen, then do some updates in the master bedroom, then go back to the kitchen once your new granite has come in… You get the drift.
With the Kanban methodology, projects are still broken into pieces, but each piece can be worked on throughout.
There’s not really a defined workflow—it’s essentially ongoing.
Benefits: When your team is in-sync, Kanban can work like a charm. People can work fairly independently; plus, you can easily get an overview of the project’s status at any given moment.
Drawbacks: If your team isn’t highly unified, or its members need a lot of oversight, the project will struggle. Furthermore, it’s not well set up for projects with a high number of dependencies.
Take a second to visualize what a "successful" project looks like to you. Is it virtually error free? Or is it a minimum viable product (MVP)?
If you chose the first option, then six sigma may be the best methodology for your team. This highly disciplined, data-driven process aims for near-perfect business performance and services.
Traditionally, six sigma practitioners use the DMAIC approach to problem-solving: define, measure, analyze, improve, and control. Six sigma teams also focus on three main ways to bring down costs without reducing quality: defect prevention, cycle time reduction, and cost savings.
Benefits: When a product has a "six sigma" rating, it’s 99.99966% error-free. When you have an extremely low tolerance for defects, therefore, this is a solid choice. In addition, six sigma’s focus on statistics and analysis can work well for quantitative thinkers.
Drawbacks: The majority of teams prefer to follow a "done is better than perfect" philosophy. Six sigma is also pretty inflexible, which might cause some or all of your team members to feel creatively stifled.
The number of methodologies out there can be overwhelming. How on earth are you supposed to pick? Adding to the confusion, most methodologies can be customized to your team’s specific needs, structure, and objectives—meaning that you’ve got even more options to choose from. And should you use one framework for all your projects or vary your approach depending on what your team is tackling?
Unfortunately, there isn’t one universal truth. But if you know which factors to consider, you can figure out the optimal solution for your company.
As this CIO article explains, you should reflect on these crucial points before you decide which methodology to use:
That might feel a bit abstract to you, so let’s look at a couple sample scenarios.
Back in 2012, the Basecamp team decided to create a new "Everything" page for their software. This page would serve as the gateway for a team’s projects—meaning that when a user logged in, it would be the first place she would land before navigating to a sub-page.
The team wasn’t sure what the layout should be, what content would be included, and how this update would impact the navigation. In other words, there was a lot of uncertainty involved.
They also wanted to move fast. This project wasn’t going to be a long, multi-stage one: it had to come together all at once.
With these inputs in mind, choosing an agile model with an iterative approach definitely made sense. As Chuck Cobb, author of "The Project Manager's Guide to Mastering Agile," explains, "Projects with a high level of uncertainty where business results are more important than predictability lend themselves to a more adaptive (Agile) approach and projects with a lower level of uncertainty and with a need for predictability lend themselves to a more plan-driven approach."
Commercial software provider Vertabase was working on a project for a new client. They were initially leaning toward their usual approach: Agile.
However, while "this works great for a tightly defined set of deliverables and a client who has done software before," Vertabase principal Mark Phillips said this project and client didn’t fit the bill.
"More than building features, this client is interested in having us take care of them. They are new to technology. They have a great idea, an understanding of their target users and the enthusiasm to stick with the project," he says. "In their case, we are providing a full service consulting and execution experience."
For that reason, the team pivoted to Waterfall. They decided to solidify the client’s vision, write an in-depth specs document, launch an alpha, incorporate the client’s feedback, iterate on the alpha, release a beta, do three stages of bug testing and fixing—and finally, go live.
Pretty intense, but clearly a good fit for the project.
You should also account for your team’s dominant working style. Do they love collaborating, innovating, and moving quickly? Or are they most successful when there’s a highly detailed, orderly plan?
If you’re not sure, think about the last couple projects your team has tackled. What type of work environment was present for the successful projects versus the unsuccessful ones? The answer should tell you what your team needs to thrive.
Groups that produce the best results in uncertain but exciting setups will like Agile, Lean, Scrum, and Kanban. Groups that like structure and predictability, on the other hand, will appreciate Waterfall and Six Sigma.
Of course, the product itself should also influence your role. Check out this comprehensive and informative system analysis chart:
(Kettunen & Laanti, 2008)
Don’t be fooled by the seeming complexity of this chart—the underlying concept is pretty simple. Basically, the higher your production quality must be, the less agile your approach should be. If you’re creating an innovative product that can be changed or updated after you’ve released it (like software), Agile is ideal. Lastly, factor in how flexible your tools are. Can they be adapted fairly quickly? If you’re working with digital platforms, probably so; if you’re working with physical products, probably not. Agile is an optimal approach for the former but not a good choice for the latter.
Once you’ve decided on the framework you’re going to use, there’s still one more step: customizing that framework.
According to the Project Management Institute, most methodologies are explicitly designed to be customized.
It explains, "Some inexperienced practitioners fail to understand this and apply the methodology verbatim regardless of project size, complexity, duration or organizational context. This very rarely leads to project success."
Taking an off-the-shelf methodology and tailoring it to your project’s size, complexity, duration, and context is also important because this step:
Furthermore, while simply using a methodology improves your project’s probability of success by 8%, using a tailored one increases those same odds by 16%.
I recommend getting your team together to discuss your chosen methodology’s processes, tools, templates, techniques, and practices. Once you’ve laid everything out, decide as a team which components you want to remove, add, or swap.
Like puzzles, projects come with a huge number of little pieces—and like puzzles, you can’t take a project to completion without every single one of those components.
How do you manage a million deadlines, tasks, responsibilities, objectives, details, files, and changes without letting any slip through the cracks?
With software, of course. An app can serve as your team’s digital memory, keeping everything in one place. They also play an instrumental role in keeping your team on-target.
Yet we’re back to the same conundrum—there are so many project management tools out there, how do you choose one? This list of the most effective platforms should help.
In addition to tracking time, many of our clients use Hubstaff to manage their projects. Since the platform lets you not just monitor employees work activity, but the time spent on each specific project task and any unrelated app or internet usage which is incredibly helpful to project managers.
For example, imagine that your team is working on a conversion optimization project for an ecommerce site. Instead of asking your Wordpress developer where she stands on the search filters, you can simply open her profile and see her progress for yourself. This shortcut saves time for both of you—and those minutes add up.
Furthermore, Hubstaff makes your project reporting much simpler and more accurate. You won’t need to make rough estimates of how many hours a project took or what your clients owe you, because you’ll have the results automatically (and they’ll be accurate down to the second).
And as a bonus, next time you plan a similar project, you can develop a data-backed estimate.
Hubstaff also lets your employees append notes to their entries. With this feature, you won’t even need to go outside the app to talk to your team members.
If you fantasize about email—more specifically, never sending, reading, or forwarding one again—then Asana may be the solution you’ve been waiting for.
When you use it as planned, it negates the need for email. Well, internal emails.
Interactions with your team members are broken up into two simple and intuitive categories: task conversations, and project conversations.
When you’re clarifying the details on a specific assignment, you’ll default to that assignment’s comments box. On the other hand, when you’re talking about the high-level plan for the entire project, you can hold your discussion in the project’s comment box.
The powerful search options make finding previous conversations even easier. Search also comes in handy when you’re looking for files—Asana integrates with Box, Dropbox, and Google Drive to make add attachments seamless, although you can always upload files from your computer.
Asana’s workflow templates differentiate it from other apps in the space. If your team tends to follow a certain sequence of steps, standardizing that process in template form will save you a ton of time.
To give you an idea, maybe your Technical Director always creates a preliminary brief estimating specs and resources. The brief goes to the PM for approval; she edits it and sends it to the client.
You could set up this three-part workflow as a template in Asana, so it’s automatically added to each new project you create. As you can imagine, this small change can provide serious gains over time.
Asana integrates with Hubstaff, so your team members can track their time on specific tasks and projects.
Want even more? Check out our guide to using Asana for project management.
In the struggle to be as helpful as possible, some apps start adding feature after feature—and you end up with way more functionality than you could ever conceivably use.
The latest version of Basecamp doesn’t have that issue. Its creators have carefully considered each and every feature they’ve included, and the result is a high-powered but easy to use collaboration tool.
Each project in Basecamp comes with its own dashboard. You’ll find tabs for the Message Board (like a Slack room, but for a project), documents and files, the to-do list, and any project events within the next few days and weeks. Projects also have "Campfires" for timely questions and conversations. You can even schedule automatic check-ins: to give you an idea, maybe your account executive checks in with the team every Thursday to share the latest updates from the clients.
Basecamp’s lack of frills enhances team productivity, since you won’t get bogged down in customizing tons of settings or sorting through an excessive number of tabs.
It’s a sign of Trello’s universal popularity that many people think it’s the only app for kanban. That’s far from reality—there’s a ton of similar tools, including Kanbanchi, Kanbanflow, and Kanbanery.
However, Trello’s simple yet aesthetically pleasing interface is definitely unique. Being productive is usually more satisfying than fun—nonetheless, there’s something inordinately pleasing about grabbing a task (a.k.a. a "card") and dropping it into the next list to mark your progress.
The app also makes it easy to find everything you need. Each card can include files attachments, checklists, labels, a due date, and an owner (or multiple). In addition, you can communicate with your team members in the Comments section of each card—but it’s worth noting Trello isn’t set up for quick, informal, IM-esque discussions.
Wrike's online software is well-suited to marketing, creative, product development, and project management teams. (Although if your team doesn’t fit in any of those categories, that doesn’t mean Wrike isn’t a good option.)
Like most project management apps, Wrike lets you create a hierarchy: from folders, projects, and tasks down to sub-tasks. Its "live editor" is a little more unusual; this feature lets you see everyone’s individual changes to a task in real-time.
Wrike will also create Gantt Charts based on your project schedule and dependencies, which is handy if you need to visualize what’s in the pipeline. The app’s workload view shows you who’s overwhelmed, who doesn’t have enough to do, and who’s got the optimal amount.
To help you meet deadlines and stay within budget, use the time and budget tracking feature. This shows you how how much long a project or team member is taking.
At some point in their career, most people have worked on a project that ultimately failed. In fact, most people have probably worked on several projects that ultimately failed—according to PMI, almost 40% of projects don’t meet their objectives.
And even if a project does fulfill the original goal, that doesn’t mean it’s finished within its budget. Research from the Standish Group shows only 30% of projects are delivered both on time and on budget.
Ready for one last scary statistic? Three in four executives believe their projects are doomed from the start.
Your company’s success hinges on delivering projects in that successful one-third, so you should be prepared for common risks and be knowledgeable about how to overcome them.
There are a million different reasons a project could flop, and thinking about and planning for every single one isn’t at all feasible. But you can—and should—be equipped to handle the the three most common.
It probably won’t surprise you to learn 80% of project managers name communication as the key determinant of a successful project.
After all, if you don’t have a constant, accurate flow of information between your stakeholders, you’ll end up with differing expectations, low morale, inefficiencies, mistakes, and the inability to handle surprises.
When you’re new to project management, you tend to underestimate how long each stage or sub-project will take.
Imagine Jane Doe is adding "support for social log-ins" to the plan. She goes to the team’s engineers and asks them approximately how much time they’ll need to complete this task, and they say one day.
However, when the allotted day rolls around, one person is working on a separate assignment that’s taking longer than planned, another is out sick, and the last engineer is fairly inexperienced. In the end, social log-ins swallow up two days, not one.
Add that to the other unanticipated project delays, and a two-month project takes three months. Not only is the client unhappy, but the agency loses money.
What’s your normal view of a project? Do you fly out to get the bird’s eye perspective, or zoom into the ground level?
Most people naturally fall into one style or the other, but project managers are required to use both. You have to think about the big picture so that you can explain the vision to your team, yet you also have to think about the tactical details and stay up-to-date on the status of individual tasks and members.
If you don’t incorporate both points-of-view into your management style, your team members won’t be able to work effectively.
Knowing what usually goes wrong is the first step—establishing safety nets and workarounds is the second.
First, make your communication predictable. Everyone should know exactly when the next update is coming, whether it’s in the form of a conference call, an all-hands meeting, a status email, or a post in your wiki.
The same principle holds for clients as well. Even if you’re constantly talking to them via email, phone, and video, you should still have a scheduled update. This guarantees information won’t slip through the cracks.
You should also strive for transparency. The members of your team should be as informed as possible, which is easiest if you use a tool like Asana, Hipchat, or Basecamp. Default to public conversations—in other words, if you need to give a team member information, do so in a chat room everyone can access rather than a private message (unless, of course, the information is sensitive or confidential.)
Your clients (if you have them) should know as much as possible, too. PMs love to pass along news they know will make the client happy ("We’re ahead of schedule!", "We already increased your conversion rate by 40%!", etc.) but they stay quiet when it comes to negative updates ("We discovered you need a complete overhaul of your back-end," "The project is going to run at least one week over," etc.)
Although being the bearer of bad news is never pleasant, share it with clients as soon as possible. They may be upset, but it’s better than losing their trust because you sat on it.
When it comes to budgets and schedules, playing it safe is always recommended. Start with the project’s cost and length assuming everything goes perfectly; next, come up with an estimate as though everything that could go wrong, does. Your target should be the first number, but you should develop your plans using the average of the first and the second.
For instance, maybe your best case is a 10-week project that costs $12,000, and your worst case is a 25-week project that costs $60,000.
Therefore, when you’re planning, you’d account for a 17-week project that costs $36,000.
"When I create projects I estimate three to five situations that could delay the project and how to deal with those situations and allot time for whichever would take the longest time to recover," says Jazmin Truesdale, CEO of Mino Enterprises. "Now 75% of my projects finish ahead of schedule."
Reaching clarity requires you to focus on both the high-level and everyday details. Let’s start with the former.
Before anyone starts working, hold a meeting to discuss the project’s mission. This kick-off meeting should cover your main goals and sub-goals, budget, timeline, perceived risks and plans for avoiding them, and any relevant background information. You should also decide on your success metrics—how will you measure your progress, and what will the finished product look like?
In addition, define every team member’s role and responsibilities. Projects often fail because people see something that needs to be done but assume someone else must be handling it. You can avoid this error easily by clarifying what everyone’s individual purpose is.
Do the same thing for any smaller teams within the larger one. Let’s say you have a design team; your information architect will design the navigation and the user researcher will run interviews with users, but who will the team’s point person be? Is there anyone responsible for making sure the team hits its milestones? Make sure everyone knows the answer to those questions, or you’ll likely encounter internal conflict and confusion.
To ensure that people don’t hear these details once and then forget about them, PCMag contributing editor Jill Duffy says you should write up a project plan. This document will prove invaluable as the project gets underway. She explains:
Imagine a project that takes one year to complete. A few months into the project, it's entirely possible that the vision in someone's mind's eye has morphed a little since day one. The project manager needs to remind everyone of the description of the final project—and needs to do so often. This kind of vision communication can happen during a regularly scheduled meeting (more on that in a moment), or by bringing in the project's client from time to time to remind the team what they're working toward.
PMs also need to be focused on the nitty-gritty details. Here’s where software like Hubstaff is so helpful: you can see how your team members are spending every minute of their time simply by glancing at their work logs or browsing the screen grabs of their work. Even better, you won’t have to waste their time checking in—you’ll be able to get the necessary information without consulting them.
Alternatively, you can try a team reporting tool like BetterWorks, Perdoo, or 7Geese. These apps ask employees to describe their current status, future projects, and any obstacles they’re facing. They’re definitely preferable to no system at all, but people aren’t always motivated to fill them out (and even if they do submit their reports, they might not always be as honest as you’d like).
Since project failure rates are so high, every team leader should know the signs of an impending crisis.
It’s normal to have someone burn the midnight oil every once in a while. However, if you notice several team members all working far more hours than planned, there’s probably an issue: either your original estimates were off, or something is wrong with this phase of the project.
Your next step? Investigating. Take a look at what your employees are tackling (if you use Hubstaff, you can simply browse through their latest time entries.) Pay attention to the quality of the work and how it compares to their norm. When quality slips, that’s a strong signal the task is too difficult, complex, or foreign for the team member.
Alternatively, you might discover there’s a different obstacle slowing people down. For example, they may not have the proper equipment or enough help. Once you’ve discovered the issue, you can start to fix it.
As the leader, you should be spending 20% of your time on reactive tasks and 80% of your time on proactive tasks. In other words, most of your day should be devoted to figuring out where the team should end up, how far away you are, and what everyone needs to do to get there.
But you can’t accomplish that level of strategic thinking if you’re frittering away your time on short-term crises. And without your vision to guide them, your team members won’t be able to combine their work into a meaningful product.
It’s hard to stop putting out fires; after all, it feels like the project will fall apart if you do. Your secret weapon is delegation. If a problem crops up that’s timely but not tactical, figure out who’s capable of tackling it. They might not be as effective as you—but in the long run, your attention and energy will be better served on other things.
Successful project managers frequently compare the current project objectives with the original ones. Those objectives will inevitably change over time as business needs, schedules, customer priorities, and/or funding shift. However, your project scope definitely shouldn’t change too dramatically. If your end goals are constantly mutating, you’re not just putting your deadlines and budget at risk—you’re also de-motivating your team members.
Writing a clear, fully fleshed-out scope statement before the project gets underway is the best way to avoid major changes. It should include the project’s reason for existence, requirements, milestones, deliverables, and cost estimates. The statement should also lay out what the project won’t include (e.g., non-goals).
Whether your stakeholders are your clients or some of your company’s senior executives, it’s never a good sign if their participation suddenly drops off. To give you an idea, maybe your client now takes a week instead of two days to respond to emails. Or maybe the executives who used to show up to every status meeting haven’t attended the last four.
Why are trends like these troubling? They mean you’ve lost your stakeholders’ support. It’s going to be an uphill battle getting final approval for your project if your main advocates have checked out.
To re-engage stakeholders, try switching up your communication style. For instance, if your client has checked out, try inviting them to a team Skype collaboration session. Giving them a peek into the creative side will probably spark their interest and enthusiasm far more than yet another email.
“Missing your deadlines is pretty obvious, but it's surprising how many times this warning sign is ignored,” explains small business expert Ty Kiisel.
If your team members are consistently out of step with your project’s schedule, it doesn’t matter how great their work is: your project is in danger.
There are a several potential explanations for the problem. First, the person assigned to the task might not have the appropriate or complete skill-set. Second, the milestones might not be realistic. Third, your employee isn’t prioritizing this task. Or fourth, they don’t have the right resources.
To figure out the root of the issue, ask the team members in question something like, “How can I help you meet your future milestones?”
Because you’re trying to assist them, rather than blame them, this question usually gets pretty honest replies.
Putting together all of the pieces for a successful project may seem difficult. However, if you approach each piece in isolation, it’s much less overwhelming. Start by choosing a methodology, and then figure out how to customize it. Next, choose your software. And finally, make sure you understand how to keep a project from failing mid-way.
A list of 30 of the most powerful project management solutions available today.Hubstaff Blog
All about the different project management approaches and processes.Wikipedia
A collection of different studies on the various reasons projects fail.Calleam
A list of more than 14 of the most surprising project management statistics.Capterra
Understanding the role strategic project management plays in a competitive advantage.University of Oregon
How you can effectively use Trello for marketing and customer support tasks.Hubstaff Blog
How Hubstaff built and manages a successful remote company.Hubstaff Blog
A list of some of the most useful things you can do with Slack.Hubstaff Blog
Zapier's guide to everything you need to know about project management.Zapier
Seven important lessons from the experiences of a first time manager.Zapier
A list of 10 best practicies for successful project management.Tech Republic
A collection of articles on project management from Harvard Business Review.Harvard Business Review