Microsoft Project is an application designed to assist project managers with every aspect of managing a project. The software can be used to create schedules, track budgets, and monitor resource utilization in a broad range of projects.
To use Microsoft Project effectively, it helps to have a working knowledge of project management concepts.
What is a Project?
Before we talk about anything else, let’s be clear about what a project is – and isn’t.
Projects are a temporary endeavor. They have defined start and finish dates and, when complete, they create something new. Projects routinely involve assigning a large number of tasks to groups of resources and tracking progress against defined objectives while observing financial constraints.
Routine tasks or ongoing business-related activities like sending e-mails or generating sales reports are not considered projects.
A few examples might help clarify things.
Example #1: Building a Subdivision
Building a subdivision involves coordinating myriad support staff, management, and contractors while meeting local building codes. Like most examples involving construction, building a subdivision has defined start and finish dates, a need to assign and track tasks involving dozens (or hundreds) of resources, and a new neighbourhood is built when the endeavor is complete.
Building a subdivision is a project.
Example #2: Planning a Conference
Planning a conference includes selecting a venue, securing insurance coverage, coordinating speakers and vendors, and marketing the event to potential attendees. Like building a subdivision, planning a conference has defined start and finish dates, a need to coordinate many resources and, if done successfully, a new event will have been planned.
Planning a conference is a project.
Example #3: Annual Performance Review
Annual performance reviews require meeting with individual staff members, discussing employees’ performance, setting goals, and identifying key performance metrics. While there might be some work involved in coordinating schedules, performance reviews happen on an ongoing basis and don’t result in creating anything new.
An annual performance review is a routine task. It doesn’t qualify as a project.
What is Project Management?
Think about the construction example from the previous section. Building a couple hundred houses, along with the streets and infrastructure needed to support a new neighbourhood is complicated. Coordinating all of the trades and keeping track of materials is no small feat – and mistakes could be costly.
If only there was a way to manage the entire process. There is… it’s called project management!
According to the Project Management Institute, project management is the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to meet project requirements. Project management provides a framework for managing tasks and resources, helping to ensure that everything happens on time and within budget.
The Triple Constraints of Time, Scope, and Cost
Another concept central to project management is the relationship between the triple constraints of time, cost, and scope. In the diagram below, time represents the project’s schedule, cost represents the budget, and scope represents the deliverables or specific features the completed project will have.
Often referred to as the project management triangle, project triangle, or the iron triangle, the triple constraints are used as a model for analyzing projects. It contends that the quality of work in a project is constrained by the project’s schedule, budget, and scope.
Each element of the project management triangle is interdependent. None of the attributes can be altered without affecting the others. For example, if the scope of the project is increased, costs will likely go up. If the project’s budget is reduced, the scope will likely need to be reduced.
The Five Phases of Project Management
Projects can be complicated. They can be comprised of hundreds of tasks, dozens of resources, and have massive budgets representing millions of dollars. With all of this complexity, how do we even get started? The best way is to break things down into manageable chunks.
In an effort to standardize project management information and practices, the Project Management Institute identifies five phases of project management as initiation, planning, execution, monitoring, and closure.
Phase 1: Project Initiation
Initiation is the first phase of the project management lifecycle. This is where the project’s value and feasibility are assessed. Often a business case is created listing the benefits, costs, and risks associated with the proposed project. Additionally, a feasibility study may be undertaken listing all factors relevant to the project, including financial, technical, legal, and scheduling considerations.
Projects that meet an organization’s expectations for business benefits and feasibility proceed to phase 2.
Phase 2: Project Planning
During the planning phase, the project’s scope is defined, and a project plan is created. The project plan will include the project’s deliverables, a detailed task list along with cost estimates, required resources, specifications for quality, and a realistic schedule.
When listing the deliverables for the project, you’re specifying goals – and those goals need to be SMART. SMART goals are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time sensitive.
Once a project plan has been approved by stakeholders, work can begin, and the project enters the execution phase.
Phase 3: Project Execution
The execution phase is when work on the project begins. A “kick-off” meeting marks the official starting point. Teams are briefed on their responsibilities, procurement activities begin (if applicable), and systems are put in place to track progress.
Phase 4: Project Monitoring
As work on the project is completed, resources provide status reports to the project manager who updates the project plan. Actual durations and costs are compared to the approved schedule and budget to measure project performance.
Phase 5: Project Closure
During the project closure phase, the finished project is delivered to the client, all stakeholders are updated on the project’s status, and resources are released and available for work on other projects.