What Is Project Management?

Project management team
Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

The Project Management Institute (PMI) defines project management as "meeting project requirement through the application of knowledge, skills, tools and techniques to project activities. This is accomplished through the use of initiating, planning, executing, controlling and closing a project."

Although this definition may seem complex, project management principals are rooted in common sense and practicality.

Whether you want to provide project management to your clients or perhaps you’d like to become a project manager yourself, consider the foundation of project management one-step at a time. To get started, first determine if the service you are about to offer or the assignment you are about to accept is truly a project.

A Project Only Happens One Time

How do you decide is something is or isn’t a project? The easiest way to break this down is by looking at two different areas of management, functional (or general) management and project management.

Functional or general management has to do with continuing operations of a company or client. For instance, let’s say you own a small technology company and have a client for which you provide back up support. For this client, you continuously manage their yearly account by backing-up their servers once a week and providing them with a report of activity.

You’ve been doing this for five years now and have a renewable contract with this client. For the most part, the work you do for this client is continuous and therefore general or functional.

Now let’s say that your client calls you and explains they want to implement a new content management system.

They also explain that they have 1-year to develop the new system and want you to lead its development. At this moment, your client has engaged you in a project.

Or similarly, if you work in human resources and your job is to manage the department budget and supervise junior associates, then you have a functional job.  We know this is functional (vs. a project) because it’s a continuous job that does not have a defined finish.

On the other hand, let’s say you have the same HR job and the director of your department approaches you about a new recruiting program he’d like to implement. He outlines his expectations including the deadline and budget, and then declares you the project manager. Let’s look at the request and determine if it’s a project. Does it have a start date and a desired end date? Will the activity happen one time? The recruiting program request answers yes and therefore, we can determine that this is a project.

You Have a Project

Now that we’ve outlined what constitutes a project, we can look closer at the definition of project management. Let’s take the recruiting program as an example. Now that the HR director has declared the need for a project and has assigned a project manager, the next step is to outline the scope, time and budget needed.

Project Management is the planning, organizing and controlling of the scope, budget and time of the recruiting program project. To help you visualize the project, draw yourself a simple pyramid.  Each line of the pyramid represents one of the three main parts of a project (scope, time and budget). The empty space in the middle of the pyramid is the quality of the product delivered. The pyramid is an important tool to keep in mind as you plan your project because as your three main parts grow or shrink, the quality of the product (the center of the pyramid) is affected.


Defining scope is often the most difficult and complex part of project management. Details of a project are generally unknown at the beginning, so part of project management is estimating what activities and tasks are needed in order to execute the project.

The scope is made up of these various activities and tasks and ultimately produces the actual item that you will deliver. The project scope will also help you determine the time and budget you’ll need to finish the project. A good way to begin building a project scope is to simply start writing down what you think is needed to complete the task. You’ll then want to consult with others to gain a comprehensive view of all activities to include.


Once you’ve established an initial scope, you will begin to assign a time to each activity and task. During this time you will also need to look at the projects bigger picture. Can some activities happen at the same time? Or will each activity or task have to happen sequentially?  Also, pay close attention to how many people will need to review the project activities as this can affect the time it will take to complete a step. You’d be surprised how long a simple task can take when three people need to review it. After calculating the time it will take to complete the cumulative activities and tasks, you can create a project schedule for the project team to follow.


At this point, we’ve established the what (scope) and the length (time) of a project, so now it’s time to determine how much it will all cost (budget). Much like calculating time for a project, you will often have to consult others, including department leads to generate an accurate budget. The budget will be comprised of multiple considerations including, people and materials that are effected by what activities or tasks they are performing (scope) and how long they will be needed (time) to complete them.

Watch Out

Often times a client or boss will want a project within a pre-determined time and budget while not considering the scope of the project. The problem with this is that almost always, the scope of what that person actually wants is infeasible given the time and budget constraints. Although it’s difficult, part of project management is negotiating scope with a client or boss.

After all of this, communication throughout project development is the No. 1 trait you’ll need. Even during a difficult scope negotiation, the clearer you communicate challenges, the happier your client or boss will be. Whether you’re a seasoned project professional looking to refresh your thinking or an aspiring project manager hoping to arm yourself with the basics, remembering these foundational elements will be valuable as you tackle your next project.