Photo credit: Thijs van der Weide
The vast majority of engineering work takes place in the form of projects. A project is a one-time, temporary endeavor aimed at creating a unique product, service, or outcome. Many engineers turn to project management at some point in their careers. Others, while they may not be interested in leading projects, will almost certainly work in a project environment.
Chapter 5 in the Engineering Management Body of Knowledge (EMBoK) covers the basics of project management. This post will summarize the most important points of the chapter in the hopes that it will serve as a useful primer and encourage you to dig into the EMBoK if you’re interested. You can order your copy of the EMBoK here.
The Basics of Project Management
Project management is the art and science of initiating, planning, executing, controlling, and closing projects. When an organization recognizes some sort of need or opportunity, a project is typically launched to address or pursue it. It is the project manager’s job to define the work, organize the required resources, and see to it that the need or opportunity is addressed on time, on budget, and with the right quality. In many ways the project manager is like the CEO of the project – they hold the ultimate responsibility.
Initiating a Project
Initiation is a crucial step in running a successful project. When initiating a project, the project team determines what exactly the project is meant to do, and how it will affect the project’s stakeholders. Stakeholders are anyone who can be directly or indirectly affected by the project, or who could affect the project. For example, for a hydroelectric dam construction project, the local electric utility, local government, and conservationists could all be pertinent stakeholders, each with very different views to take into account. Understanding the people involved and the ultimate goal of the project is critical before moving forward.
Planning a Project
Project planning is a major effort in the early stages of the project. When planning, the project manager determines what work will be done and what won’t be done. This is called the project’s scope. The project manager will also organize the scope into a work breakdown structure to organize everything that needs to be done and to facilitate scheduling the work and assigning it to the right people. At the end of the planning effort, the project manager should have a plan for the work that will be done, how much it costs, and how long it will take.
Risk is the effect of uncertainty on a project’s goals. There can be both positive and negative risks, often called opportunities and threats, respectively. Risks can be categorized according to their likelihood of occurrence and the level of impact that they would have if they were to occur. A highly likely, highly problematic threat requires a mitigation plan from the project manager. Risks can be managed through four typical strategies: acceptance, avoidance, transference, or mitigation. Similarly, opportunities can be pursued as well, which is an important way to help mitigate the effects of risk on a project.
Project work actually occurs through project execution. This is a very important phase of a project because this is typically where the majority of money is spent on a project. If a project manager isn’t careful, money can be spent doing the wrong work, or doing poor quality work. Both result in delays and overspending which threaten the success of a project. The project manager must be skilled at building and leading high-performing teams in order to succeed in project execution.
Monitoring and Controlling Projects
In order to make sense of how a project is proceeding, a project manager will monitor the project in several ways. Using earned value methodology, the project manager will look at what has been accomplished, how much money has been spent, and what was expected to be accomplished and spent based on the original plan. Using these metrics, it is possible to determine if the project is on schedule and on budget. If the measurements show a significant deviation, then the project manager must take action to correct the issue.
Closing a Project
At the end of a project, the effort must be formally closed. For successful projects, that means securing acceptance and payment for the project’s deliverables. The project manager should also host a post-mortem with the project team in order to elicit lessons learned for use on other projects in the organization. This will facilitate better project planning and execution in the future and elsewhere in the organization.
Projects are a ubiquitous part of an engineer’s day-to-day life. You will, in all likelihood, find yourself leading or participating in a project team at some point in your career. Understanding the basics of project management can make all the difference in the world when it comes to project success, no matter what your role is.
About Patrick Sweet
Patrick Sweet, P.Eng., MBA is a recognized expert in engineering management and leadership with expertise in systems engineering, project management and product management. You can read more from Pat at the Engineering & Leadership blog.