Project Management Training -- a basic FAQ

What is a project?

A “project” as applied to the topic of project management is an activity, usually carried out by an organization or company, that:

  • is customer specific

  • is only done once (per customer specificity)

  • is confined to a certain length of time

  • is limited to a predefined budget, resources and performance parameters; not defined by a specific routine

  • can vary in levels of complexity

Here are four characteristics that differentiate a project from the daily operations of an organization:

(1) Defined objective
(2) Limited duration (has a definite beginning and ending)
(3) Specific time, cost and performance requirements
(4) Uniqueness (never done before)


I work for a ConAgra food-products manufacturing plant. A recent project that was completed was the installation of an HVAC (heating-vent-air cond) system for the entire manufacturing facility. Previously, only the management offices, cafeteria and rest rooms, and certain food batching rooms were air-conditioned. The project manager (PM) was the plant project engineer. He was responsible for coordinating outside contractors to complete the installation; a specific firm actually designed the HVAC system. One of the main reasons for the project (other than making the machine operators comfortable) was to reduce downtime (machines run better in a cooler environment; previously, we would go through the “summer slump” when, during the warmer months, equipment would suffer more-frequent breakdown). After corporate offices approved the project, the PM created a work breakdown schedule (or timeline) that was posted for all employees to see. It was a bit surprising how accurately the contractors adhered to the time line. Martin Luther King Day 2000, a contractual production holiday, was scheduled for the helicopter drop of the main HVAC units on the rooftops (this date was chosen for safety reasons – no one was allowed to be inside the plant during the work overhead). The procedure went smoothly and on time, along with all subsequent activities. Although I’m not a project manager by profession, I now see how closely the HVAC project fits within the scope and characteristics (listed above) of a well-planned project, especially when compared with the daily (non-project) operations of a manufacturing facility.

Here are our top choices for skill-building books on project management:

Project Management and Leadership Skills for Engineering and Construction Projects Project Management and Leadership Skills for Engineering and Construction Projects

Project management is the key to any engineering and construction project's success. Now you can learn from the experts all the strategies to ensure that projects are completed on time and within budget. Details of scheduling, cost estimating and leader's skills are detailed. Containing forms, checklists and case studies, this reference should be a must for everyone involved with engineering and construction projects.

Project Management and Leadership Skills for Engineering and Construction Projects

Project Management for Business Professionals: A Comprehensive Guide Project Management for Business Professionals: A Comprehensive Guide

No longer restricted to the engineering industry, project management has at long last crossed over to mainstream business. Project Management for Business Professionals is the definitive reference on the essentials of contemporary project management. Featured here are some of the foremost practitioners and researchers from academia, consulting, and private industry, sharing their various areas of project management expertise and providing a wide range of perspectives on everything from risk management to resource planning to ethics management.

Project Management for Business Professionals: A Comprehensive Guide

Why is the implementation of projects IMPORTANT to strategic planning and the project manager?

Every project represents different challenges and various levels of difficulties. In the short-term scheme of things, this means long days at the office, struggling to meet various deadlines or refining techniques. However, all this sweating and problem-solving provides an individual or organization with a repository of repeatable techniques that can be used on subsequent projects. In simple terms, the more projects a project manager or organization has under their belt, the better the planning and implementations of subsequent projects. Better planning means more highly-controlled budgets, resources and timelines. The result is higher customer satisfaction and a better reputation for the project manager or organization.

The technical and socio-cultural dimension of project management are two sides of the same coin. Explain.

The technical side of project management is a highly structured, logical and disciplined process. It consists of scheduling, planning, creating a work breakdown and documenting these activities. As a result, all aspects of the technical dimension should be traceable via a documented record.

The socio-cultural aspect of project management is not as pretty. It deals with teamwork, motivation, and interpersonal relationships as well as various political and customer-relations issues.

These two dimensions are “two sides of the same coin” due to the fact that they both involve the same group of people. The link between the two sides is the project manager (PM). She must use her knowledge, experience (and maybe a sense of humor!) to keep the two dimensions in harmony.

Unfortunately, not all project managers have such a balanced perspective. Some are highly skilled – perhaps even obsessive -- at the technical aspects. On the other hand, they lack the stability or patience to manage their human resources. Others are great “people managers” but lack technical skills or have technical inability. An effective PM must be able to carefully balance both sides.


The popular film TITANIC as an example project. The “Project Manager” for the film was director/writer/producer James Cameron, who worked for Paramount Pictures on this project. Cameron is known for his technical abilities; all of his films are highly complex in terms of the dimensions of the project. Titanic, for example has a 90% scale replica of the actual ship used for certain scenes. These scenes had to blend seamlessly with the CGI shots of the digital ocean liner. All this involves a great deal of planning and a complex, work-breakdown scheduling. Cameron is an expert at this. However, the film ran way over-budget (>$200 million) and was released much later than Paramount wanted. Part of the reason was Cameron’s short fuse. He wanted things done a certain way; when he didn’t get what he wanted, he would loose his cool and fire people. Indeed lead actress, Kate Winslet, said she would never work with him again. The film was very successful, but the socio-cultural dimension of its production was less than stellar.

Describe the major components of the strategic management process (SMP). Describe the major components of the strategic management process (SMP).

The strategic management process attempts to assess the theme (“what we are”) and focus (“what we intend to become and how we will get there”) of the future course for a company or organization. The strategic management process, within the organization, is in a state of evolution and refinement and attempts to establish a level of consistency in all organizational levels. Successful strategies literally mean the difference between life and death for a company. For a company to be truly successful, they must be competent in formulating sound strategies and, then, making them happen. The latter the toughest part of the job! Four major components of strategic management process are as follows:

1. Organizational mission: Revision and/or Define:
The mission denotes “what we want to become”. This can be defined through a mission statement. For example, a software firm designing a voice-recognition program may have a statement such as “Recognize all Spoken English.” The more specific the statement, the better.

2. Goals/Objectives: Long Term:
The objectives define the mission via specific, measurable terminology. Objectives also specify targets, realistically define resources and state the duration of the time to objective fulfillment. In simple terms, objectives give detailed answers to “where a company/org is heading” and “when will it get there”.

3. Analyze and Formulate Strategies to Reach objectives:
Gives answers to the question, “What needs to be done to accomplish objectives”. This can be done the following steps: [a] complete a real-world evaluation of past and present standing of the organization (i.e., analyze who the customers are and what are their needs); [b] assess internal/external environments. Example of internal: strengths/weaknesses such as product quality, management skill, level of debt, etc. Example of external: factors such as govt regulation, state of economy, emerging markets and level of demand for a product/service. Then, conduct a critical analysis of strategies need to be implemented to make sure the organization is taking advantage of opportunities and overcoming its threats; [c] cascade objectives to lower levels in the organization.

4. Implement Strategies via Projects:
“ How” will strategies be accomplished with current available resources. By far, the most difficult part of strategic management process. And this is where many organizations fail! Implementation means actually taking action (so far, it has only been on paper!); this is why it is so critical to “get it right”. This can be done by following these steps: [a] Allocate resources (people, funds, skills, etc); [b] the structure and culture of the organization must be united…a team effort; [c] tight planning and control systems should be established to ascertain critical activities are properly performed; [d] socio-cultural issues such as motivation and dedication should be encouraged by the project manager. People like to be complemented for hard work rewarding efforts; [e] Prioritizing projects: certain projects need immediate attention, other can wait. Priority depends on customer demand, available resources, funds, etc.

Why should an organization not only rely on return on investment (ROI) to select projects?

There are certain issues where projects must be implemented w/o regard to profitability. These can include safety issues, state or government regulation, moral/ethical/environmental concerns or possible future threats that can jeopardize future operations (such as the Y2K bug), and other preventive-maintenance projects.

I work in the manufacturing industry where safety is paramount concern. If a machine operator is injured due to a safety issue, the company can face a potential lawsuit. In addition, OSHA records each Loss Time Accident (LTA) -- companies do not want to accumulate these “black marks”. Finally, if a person is on medical leave for an LTA, the company must go through the process of hiring/training a replacement (which means having to spend money). These and many other reasons are why various safety-related projects are constantly being implemented throughout our plant (and most other industrial plants). This can include configuring machine programming (my job) in order to reduce unsafe conditions. It is interesting to note that our company has two operating budgets. One is a day-to-day operating budget; the other is a corporate-level capital-improvements budget (it is used to pay for projects such as the previously-mentioned HVAC system or safety upgrades). In a way, a safety modification project costs the independent operation company (IOC) “nothing”!

Other reasons companies implement projects are: