Project Management 101

The Elements of Project Management Explained

Businesswoman writing on whiteboard
Hero Images / Getty Images

A successful Project Manager must simultaneously manage the four basic elements of a project: scope, resources, time, and money. These elements are interrelated and must be managed together if the project and the project manager are to be successful.

  1. Scope: Project size, goals, requirements
  2. Resources: People, equipment, material
  3. Time: Task durations, dependencies, critical path
  4. Money: Costs, contingencies, profit

    The Most Important Element: Scope

    The project scope is the definition of what the project is supposed to accomplish and the budget (of time and money) that has been created to achieve these objectives. It is imperative that any change to the scope of the project has a matching change in budget, time and/or resources. If the project scope is to build a building to house three widgets with a budget of $100,000 the project manager is expected to do that. However, if the scope is changed to a building for four widgets, the project manager must obtain an appropriate change in time, money and resources.  


    There are 3 aspects to understanding and managing resources:

    1. People
    2. Equipment
    3. Material

    A successful Project Manager must effectively manage the resources assigned to the project, including members of the project team, vendor staff, and subcontractors.  You must ensure that your employees have the skills and tools they need to complete the job, and you must continually monitor whether you have enough people in place to complete the project on deadline.

    It will be your job to ensure that each person understands his task and the project deadlines.

    When you manage direct employees, the senior member of each group of employees reports to you. Employees also may have a line manager who provides technical direction. In a matrix management situation, like a project team, your job is to provide project direction to the line managers.

     Managing labor subcontracts usually means managing the team lead for the subcontracted workers, who in turn manage those workers.

    A project manager often must procure equipment and materials and manage their use, so the team operates efficiently. You are responsible for having the appropriate equipment and materials in the correct location at the proper time.  


    There are 3 elements to successful time management:

    1. Tasks
    2. Schedule
    3. Critical Path

    Build the project schedule by listing, in order, all the tasks that need to be completed - some must be done sequentially, others can overlap or be done in tandem. Assign a duration to each task. Allocate the required resources. Determine predecessors (what tasks must be completed before) and successors (tasks that can't start until after) each task.  

    Project management software can simplify the task of creating and managing the project schedule.

    Some tasks have a little flexibility in their required start and finish date. It is called float. Other tasks have no flexibility, zero float. A line through all the tasks with zero float is called the critical path. All tasks on this path, and there can be multiple, parallel paths must be completed on time if the project is to be completed on time.

    The Project Manager's key time management task is to manage the critical path.


    There are 3 considerations in managing money:

    1. Costs
    2. Contingencies
    3. Profit

    Each task has a cost, whether it is the cost of the labor hours of a computer programmer or the purchase price of a cubic yard of concrete. In preparing the project budget, each of these costs is estimated and then totaled. Some of these estimates will be more accurate than others. Thus, the project budget should include a contingency allowance. It is money that is set aside in the budget "just in case" the actual cost of the item is wildly different than the estimate.

    Profit is the money the company wants to make from the task. It's put on top of the cost.

    So a project budget is composed of the estimated cost, plus the contingency, plus any profit.

    The project manager's job is to keep the actual cost at or below the estimated cost and to maximize the profit the company earns on the project.

    An Art and a Science

    Successful project management is an art and a science that takes practice. The ideas presented above can give you a basic understanding of project management, but consider it only a beginning. If your job or career path includes project management, and you want to improve your skills, talk to successful project managers, read, and practice. Project management can be a very rewarding career.