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The Practicalities of Project Management

what is project management

Just what is project management?

If you’re looking for the textbook project management definition, a good place to start is the Project Management Institute, which defines project management as “the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements.”*

OK, great. But what if you’re looking for a definition that you can understand and actually use?

When people ask me what project management is, I find it’s most helpful to define it in the context of the actual work that has to be done. So I usually go with a more practical definition than the “textbook” version when people ask what is project management:

Project management involves predicting—with as much certainty as is possible or required—the project’s time, cost and scope at completion, and then embracing reality and influencing future activities to meet those predictions.

If we break this definition down into its components, we can see how it’s much more instructive in terms of what it really means to do project management work. Let’s take a closer look:

Project Management Is…Predicting Time, Cost and Scope at Completion

You may not have a crystal ball, but predicting is a key part of the project manager’s job, and one of the first answers you should come to when asking “what is project management?”. After all, if project managers don’t make predictions about time, cost and scope—predictions that they then try to meet—then any path they choose on the project is OK because they don’t have anywhere specific to be, something the standard project management definition doesn’t cover.

There’s a reason we’re called project managers, not project drifters. For starters, who wants a project drifter leading their project? But also, you need a destination point in order to come up with a good plan to get there. By giving you destinations, predictions allow you to settle on a clear and optimal course so you’re not just floating around arbitrarily.

So what else is project management?

Project Management Is…Embracing Reality to Influence Future Activities

Embracing reality means knowing exactly where you are on your project at any given time—not where you wish you were or where you think you are, but where you actually are.

On the surface, this might seem obvious. Of course it’s the job of a project manager to know what the project’s status is. But it’s almost human nature to deny or downplay issues, to convince yourself that things aren’t that far off track, that it’s no big deal.

The problem is, denying reality doesn’t change it, and ignoring issues won’t make them go away. No one asks “What is project management?” and answers with “Ignoring what’s happening”. In fact, it usually only makes things worse. You can’t make corrections and choose the right activities to get back on course unless you’re honest with yourself about where you really are and what’s really going on. Then and only then can you move past the typical project management definition and influence future activities to steer the project to the destination that your predictions laid out for you.

Project Management Is…Influencing Future Activities

Influencing future activities starts with a clear gauge of reality: identifying the gaps between where you are now and where you thought you would be at any point in the project’s timeline. If you found a good answer to “what is project management?” and planned properly, you can do this. If all you did was say when you would finish the project, then you will have no idea where you were supposed to be at any given time during the life of the project.

But let’s say you did plan properly. Then you’ll be able to use specific leverage points to overcome the variance between where you thought you would be and where you currently are. This is how you influence future activities to achieve predictions.

For example, if you need to get caught up on a project’s timeline, you can add resources to tasks on the critical path to shorten the timeline. Or you might adjust planned consecutive tasks so they take place simultaneously instead. If you are over budget, you can cut the scope to deliver less and keep you within the budget.

As you can see, if want to know what project management is, all three of these components are closely interconnected and clearly depict what project management means. So don’t worry about what the textbooks say. Instead, think about what it is that you actually need to do.


*This definition is taken from the Glossary of the Project Management Institute’s, A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, (PMBOK® Guide) – Fifth Edition, Project Management Institute, Inc., 2013.

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