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A team leader’s guide to project management (with best practice tips and productivity-boosting skills)

Project management
What is project management and how does it boost productivity?
What does the project management process look like?
Waterfall vs. agile: Which is the best project management methodology?
Project management best practices: 5 tips for more productivity
4 project management traits that’ll make you a better leader in any field
Final thoughts

Project management skills, tools and techniques are useful in all business areas. You may even use them to solve problems and fulfill objectives without realizing it.

By fully understanding what goes into the project management process, you can work on the most valuable traits to optimize your leadership and improve team performance.

In this article, we’ll define project management. You’ll learn what project management involves, which core skills are relevant across business functions and how best to apply them for optimal productivity benefits.

What is project management and how does it boost productivity?

Project management is the process of leading a team to achieve a set of goals within a given time, project scope and budget constraints.

By this project management definition, all initiatives have a beginning and an end. They are temporary efforts to create value through a new or refined product, service or result.

Businesses now have a lot to focus on outside traditional responsibilities, such as new initiatives, goals, promises and compliance regulations. The growing influences of technology, globalization and corporate social responsibility mean that day-to-day work is increasingly organized around projects to monitor the growing task lists.

As a result, managers of all disciplines are using and developing project management skills.

For example, when a sales leader identifies a need to diversify their team, they must:

  1. Assess the current problem and research potential solutions

  2. Plan an effective strategy and schedule the necessary actions

  3. Implement the required changes

  4. Monitor progress and staff performance

  5. Measure the outcome

This step-by-step process is typical of project management.

In a Wellingtone survey of project and program management professionals, only 47% said their organizations’ projects were mostly or always run by professional project managers. That means more than half are handled by people without formal project management training.

Corporate trainer Dana Brownlee explores this trend in a Forbes article on the far-reaching benefits of project management skills:

Over the years I’ve gotten more requests to provide Project Management training to non-project managers than project managers. That may seem counterintuitive but not really. Organizations realize the benefits of those project management skills and abilities, and they need everyone to have that skill set, not just their official project managers. While most professionals may not carry the formal title, virtually everyone manages projects from time to time.

What does the project management process look like?

Most project management processes follow the same five stages, regardless of the type of project or objective. These are sometimes called process groups.

By acknowledging and addressing each process group’s successes and challenges, the project lead can apply what they learn to subsequent phases to increase the likelihood of a positive outcome.

Here are the five key stages of project management:

1. Initiation

The project lead defines the main project objectives, draws up a list of stakeholders and builds their business case to obtain executive approval.

Other documentation you might create at this stage includes:

  • A project charter containing constraints, goals and budget details. This acts as a broad roadmap for the new project, keeping project managers, team members and stakeholders aligned.

  • A feasibility study showing how you’ll complete the project within time and cost constraints. In creating this, the project manager should determine whether the project is doable. If it’s not, they can stop early to avoid wasting resources.

  • A project team charter detailing all team members’ responsibilities. This creates accountability for the entire project, ensuring tasks aren’t missed.

  • A kickoff meeting agenda outlining key discussion topics for the project team’s first get-together.

During the kickoff meeting, stakeholders finalize project goals, scope and timeline details to bring the initiation stage to a close. It’s also a chance for these stakeholders to raise concerns or ideas before planning starts.

2. Planning

The project manager creates a project plan to explain how the team will manage execution.

The most important planning components are:

  • A project schedule that defines a timeline for all tasks and milestones. This more detailed roadmap sets stakeholders’ expectations and helps the project lead allocate resources effectively.

  • A project budget forecasting the total cost of all required tools, talent and actions. This helps the project manager balance their spending throughout the project to ensure it meets stakeholders’ cost expectations and remains affordable to the business.

  • A risk management plan listing all potential risks and describing mitigation strategies for each. By identifying and evaluating risks now, the project manager can minimize disruption caused by unexpected challenges during execution.

  • A resource management plan describing how the project manager will obtain, allocate and manage resources throughout the project. Addressing these needs now saves time during execution and highlights potential resourcing challenges.

When stakeholders are satisfied and team members understand their responsibilities, execution can begin.

3. Execution

The team works through their allocated tasks in the project schedule.

The project manager’s involvement is still crucial. It’s their responsibility to address challenges and inefficiencies as they arise and they’ll need skills in these areas:

  • Task management

  • Time management

  • Cost management

  • Relationship management

  • Procurement

  • Resource management

  • Collaboration

It’s normal for project management professionals to account for changing circumstances by adjusting project schedules.

For example, if a team member becomes ill, the project manager might redistribute the impacted tasks and extend deadlines. This prevents bottlenecks and ensures stakeholder expectations remain accurate.

4. Monitoring and control

The fourth process group runs concurrently with execution.

The project manager monitors progress to ensure work remains within time, budget and scope constraints.

Data like actual project costs, remaining budget, milestone statuses and hours used contribute to regular project management reports that:

  • Inform leadership decisions on strategy and resource allocation to optimize productivity

  • Update stakeholders to maintain realistic expectations

Managers can use project management software to view performance data in accessible formats. This customizable dashboard from Asana presents task data using graphs and charts:

Asana Customizable dashboard

Clear dashboards allow all stakeholders, regardless of data-savviness, to see how projects perform in real time.

For example, in the Asana example above, we see there are four overdue tasks. If this number rises sharply, a stakeholder could communicate directly with the project manager to investigate or offer support.

5. Closure and reflection

Upon completion of the last task (typically the final project delivery), the manager seeks stakeholder approval to conclude the project.

By documenting the project’s successes, considering the challenges and reflecting on the entire process in a team meeting, the project lead can replicate wins and avoid repeating mistakes in future projects.

Waterfall vs. agile: Which is the best project management methodology?

There are various ways to approach project management’s five stages. These are called project management methodologies, or frameworks.

Each framework has pros and cons, so there’s no definitive “best”, but understanding how the most popular approaches work can help you decide what’s right for your objective.

The two most broadly relevant methods are waterfall and agile project management.

Waterfall project management

The waterfall methodology is the most traditional project management approach. It involves completing tasks and phases in a linear, sequential fashion. Once you complete a task and move forward, you can’t return to make changes.

Given that progress only goes in one direction (like a real waterfall), this approach is better suited for projects in which the desired outcome is clearly defined and unlikely to change.

This Atlassian diagram shows a classic waterfall project in software development.

Atlassian Diagram

It shows how each stage has a window of time in which the team can complete certain work. They may overlap but when one window closes, the entire team moves forward toward launch day. These tasks that must be completed before another can start are often called “dependencies”.

Agile project management

Born from growing frustration with waterfall’s rigidity, the agile method allows movement between stages.

By testing and reporting more frequently and working in short phases (known as sprints), teams using the agile approach can revisit past work to account for information or needs they uncover later in the process.

This Atlassian illustration shows the same software development project in an agile framework. Instead of one main deliverable at the end, there are multiple smaller outcomes, each built in short sprints.

Atlassian Illustration software development project

Agile’s flexibility makes it useful for projects in which the final deliverables aren’t clearly defined, while its short sprints and regular reporting allow stakeholders to get more involved.

Other project management methodologies and where to learn about them

The waterfall and agile methodologies (especially the latter) have inspired many derivatives. The most common are:

  • Kanban. A more visual approach that’s often used to streamline software development projects.

  • Gantt charts. Another visual, iterative approach that tracks a project’s tasks across a timeline.

  • Scrum. A form of agile project management that emphasizes smaller teams (led by scrum masters) and sprints.

  • Adaptive project framework (APF). A looser framework designed to accommodate changing plans and objectives.

  • Critical path. An algorithmic approach that involves defining the longest sequence of activities the team must complete to achieve a successful project.

The PMI’s A Guide to Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide) is the most definitive and detailed resource on the near-endless list of project management methods.

Project management best practices: 5 tips for more productivity

Well-run projects help businesses grow by giving structure and measurability to change, but get it wrong and you risk causing more harm than good.

PMI (Project Management Institute) data shows that 11.4% of business investment is wasted due to poor project performance.

Here are five tips to help you maximize your project’s return on investment (ROI).

1. Give initiation and planning the respect they deserve

While it’s tempting to give execution the biggest share of attention by assuming that’s where the “real” work takes place, the foundations you lay during initiation and planning can make or break your entire project.

Take the time to ensure your objective is feasible and worthwhile, so you can stop or pivot as necessary before committing more resources.

Carefully defining your objective, purpose and strategy early on will also help you:

  • Obtain approval from stakeholders for time and budget expenses, so you can progress more quickly without needing to cut corners

  • Get your team invested to increase motivation and performance in later stages

  • Set realistic stakeholder expectations, making it more likely for the project to be deemed successful

  • Schedule tasks around other commitments to minimize disruption to business-as-usual tasks

  • Determine what success and failure look like for accurate performance measurement throughout

  • Mitigate risks to increase the likelihood of success

2. Be realistic with your constraints

However you define project management success, many projects fall short.

Based on Wellingtone’s survey results, only:

  • 34% of organizations mostly or always complete projects on time

  • 34% of organizations mostly or always complete projects on budget

  • 36% of organizations mostly or always deliver the full benefits of their projects

Over time, these repeated failures can damage team motivation and stakeholder confidence which is why it’s important to be realistic when aligning your objectives and constraints.

For the clearest picture of achievability, involve representatives from all relevant departments from the start of the process and take goal-setting inspiration from other teams and organizations. This way, you can learn from the experience of others.

For example, if another manager has tried to initiate a similar project but failed, they can help you avoid the same mistakes.

By allocating time in your kickoff meeting for attendees to raise concerns, you’ll learn directly from team members what they deem reasonable while establishing a useful transparency culture.

3. Promote a culture of transparency and accountability

Transparency and accountability underpin effective teamwork. They help team members understand what they’re contributing to and why, while ensuring everyone pulls their weight. This makes them essential to project management.

Even after the kickoff meeting, staff must feel comfortable raising work-related concerns so you as the lead can address them or at least advise. Otherwise, you risk issues being ignored and manifesting as more significant challenges later in the process.

Say a team member falls behind on their scheduled actions. If they tell you when they first notice a problem, you can reallocate tasks to keep the wider project on track. If they bury the issue through fear of criticism and it eventually causes the team to miss a milestone deadline, you risk upsetting stakeholders.

Accountability is just as important. Use project management tools to create team-wide visibility of individual tasks, as knowing others see their progress can incentivize team members to work harder. Equally, if a team member isn’t contributing enough, you can quickly identify them as the weak link and address the issue before it causes resentment.

4. Align objectives with wider business goals (and involve your team in the process)

Extend that transparency to your project’s purpose to motivate your team. Be clear about why you’re setting tasks, what the outcome looks like and how that will benefit them.

Many of your company’s competitors aren’t getting this right, so take the opportunity to move ahead.

Asana’s 2021 Anatomy of Work Index survey found that less than half of workers understood how their day-to-day tasks contributed to organizational goals. The 2022 version of the same study found “uncertainty over priorities” to be the third-biggest cause of missed deadlines.

On this, Bill Crim, CEO, United Way of Salt Lake says:

“In complex organizations, you need some way to keep everybody on the same page. When you let silos develop because there’s no organization-wide view into what’s going on, that’s the worst possible way of working.

While broad objectives should inspire all project work, you’ll focus most heavily on them during initiation and planning, so involve all team members in these stages.

Give individuals ownership of planning tasks, like researching solutions and collecting data, so they can see and contribute to the entire process rather than just execution. This kind of trust can demonstrate to people that they’re part of a bigger picture and that the work they do is impactful.

5. Invest in the right project management tools

Project management’s processes and best practices are consistent across all organizations and departments, but the work within is unique to your team or business.

There are hundreds of variables to consider, from goals and budgets to staff and stakeholders, and project management software will help you keep track. Tools like Asana, Trello and Forecast provide:

  • High-level overviews of project progress

  • Drag-and-drop scheduling capabilities

  • Automated reports

  • Time tracking data

There’s no shortage of project management software on the market. The right solution will simplify the entire process to help you and your team work faster. The wrong one could slow you down by adding unnecessary admin work.

Instead of going only on cost and ease of use, consider the following value-adds when comparing tools to help you project manage:

Integration. How well does the software slot into your existing tech stack? If it can share data with other platforms, like your customer relationship management (CRM) solution, you’ll save time by not having to repeat admin tasks. You can connect a range of project management tools to Pipedrive using marketplace integrations.

  • Automation. There’s plenty of admin work in project management. The best tools use custom rules to take care of repetitive manual processes, like setting due dates, assigning tasks and updating stakeholders, so you can spend more of your time on strategic work.

  • Customization. Custom data fields, reports and workflows allow you to tailor project management software to your business and its processes. See the data you value most and create templates to complete complex projects faster.

  • Track record. Real-life success stories show you what’s possible with a project management solution. The provider’s case studies are useful as a starting point. You can also search for unbiased views from industry experts and other businesses online.

  • Support channels. While user-friendliness is crucial, any truly capable project management tool will have some complexity. Ensure you can access expert help quickly to minimize project disruption when a feature isn’t clear. Pipedrive, for example, has a library of supportive video and written content in our Knowledge Base, as well as regularly published guides on product features, and includes a Community channel where users can help each other.

Minimize risk by looking for project management tools with free trials, like Pipedrive’s 14-day free trial.

4 project management traits that’ll make you a better leader in any field

Some project management skills are more broadly relevant than others. Here are four that’ll help you improve team productivity in almost any field.

1. Cross-department collaboration skills

Projects require business-wide input to have business-wide benefits. As a manager, you’ll sometimes lead and collaborate with people who don’t share your skills, priorities or views.

Effective communication ensures that even when there are differences, everyone pulls in the same direction toward overarching goals. Achieve that by doing the following:

  • Talking to people on their level. Make project outcomes relatable by confining role-specific jargon to individual conversations and using general terminology in larger meetings.

  • Being open to feedback. Accept that, despite being the manager, you won’t always know best – accept feedback from your team and stakeholders to maintain a balanced view of the project and its goals. Other perspectives should help you spot more problem-solving opportunities throughout the project.

  • Using a range of communication channels. Make team interaction easy by diversifying your communication channels. If you insist on one platform, like in-person meetings, those who prefer not to use it will likely contribute less to discussions.

Further streamline collaboration by factoring in communication skills and adaptability when hiring for your team. A team of strong communicators will invariably be better at project-based work than a group of siloed individuals, as they can combine skill sets to overcome challenges.

2. The ability to identify good and bad ideas

In project management, initiation comes ahead of planning because it gives managers, stakeholders and team members the chance to scrutinize ideas.

This methodology is useful in all problem-solving scenarios. By discussing and stress-testing ideas in a group setting, you’ll get a clearer picture of what’s good (i.e. worthwhile) and bad (i.e. potentially damaging or unjustifiable) before strategizing. That way, you can avoid wasting resources on unhelpful activities.

There’s no definitive rule for scoring ideas but answering the following questions can help:

  • Do the anticipated benefits of this work outweigh the costs and risks? If not, stop the process or look for ways to reduce costs and alleviate risks.

  • What are the risks and costs of not doing this work? Consider the worst-case scenario. For example, if you risk losing ground on your competitors by not progressing, the project (if feasible) is likely worthwhile.

Don’t be afraid to walk away from bad or unfinished ideas. You may achieve a similar or better outcome with a different approach.

3. An appreciation for risk management

Unexpected challenges are inevitable in most lines of work. Regular risk assessments will help you prepare for different eventualities so you can keep your project within time and cost constraints should anything go wrong.

Use team discussions and your experience of past projects to identify potential challenges and build contingency plans to minimize disruption.

Some project management tools have risk assessment features that allow you to record and score potential challenges based on their likelihood. Supplement this data by documenting real outcomes to improve the accuracy of future risk assessments.

4. The willingness to learn from every process

The final two stages of project management are largely about refinement: learning from successes, failures and challenges to improve your decision-making.

Reflection in this sense is an incredibly useful management skill. Next time you complete an objective or solve a problem, consider what went well and what could have gone better.

It might feel counterproductive to look backward, but by learning to repeat effective actions and avoid mistakes, you’ll find more efficient ways of leading your team.

Inform your reflection with data for maximum impact. You can use project management and CRM software to turn huge volumes of performance data into easily digestible reports, often automatically.

Final thoughts

Practicing project management skills and applying the field’s tried-and-tested processes to your work will help you become a more effective and efficient leader.

It may take time to adapt to a different way of working but get it right and you’ll soon see productivity grow across your team. For the best results, experiment with different methodologies and tools to find those that best fit your objectives.

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