I started managing projects before I ever really understood what I was doing. That said, I knew what the outcome was supposed to be and I recognized there were a series of steps that must be followed in order to get there. Here, I’m going to answer a very specific question: What is a Project? From complete novices to experienced professionals, it is always important to come back to the basics. Every time I start a new project, I want to make sure my team understands how to answer this question before we do anything.
My first projects were custom homes and I learned how to manage them by watching. I would listen to the project managers explain the entire process, while taking notes. Even after I started managing my own houses, I didn’t really understand what project management was. I just knew enough to repeat the steps that I had seen performed previously. It worked for a while.
However, there is a definite process to project management. When done correctly, you can tailor this process to any project, regardless of size or scale. The other great thing is the process works in any industry. That’s right, project managers speak a common language that allows them to manage projects anywhere, regardless of specialty.
So, let’s get to it.
What is a Project?
According to PMI®, a project is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result. Project management, then, is the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements.  So, let’s take that one step further in our understanding of what constitutes a project, because this is commonly misunderstood.
Two things in this definition stand out to me. First, a project is temporary. To go through all phases of project management, you have to have a beginning, middle, and end. You can define a project in other terms, but the intent is the same. It will be impossible to define a project accurately without a beginning, middle, and end. To me, this is the easiest way to understand the many complex requirements of project management and this is how I will explain it here.
Second, a project creates something unique. As an FM professional, you’ll be able to define a beginning, middle, and end to a lot of routine tasks you do or assign to others. That said, a routine task does not yield a unique result and thus, is not by definition a project.
In projects, flexibility is key. There is a military adage commonly attributed to 19th Century Prussian General Helmuth von Moltke. He said no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. One reason I believe the United States Army is so successful is because flexibility is a tenet of operations. Detailed instructions exist for every job in the Army. Everything Soldiers are expected to do, from cleaning weapons to complex tactical maneuvers, is spelled out in regulations. Army staffs spend countless hours using those regulations to plan operations in fine detail, but then retain the flexibility to completely throw the regulations and plans out the window when they don’t work. My point is that you can plan every aspect of a project, but it will never go exactly as you anticipate once you begin to execute. So have the flexibility to adapt and change accordingly.
Projects involve risk. As the PM, one of your many jobs will be to identify and manage risk. I have yet to see a project that does not involve some type of risk. We will discuss different ways to mitigate risks, but you should understand the need for a risk management strategy.
Projects do not exist in a vacuum. Projects involve multiple stakeholders and will almost certainly require input from outside the facilities management team. For example, our last major renovation involved four separate departments of employees, representation from end users of the building (members of the club), architects, engineers, general contractors, subcontractors, the local health department, the local planning and development office, the local fire marshal, and numerous suppliers. Decisions made without considering the impact for every stakeholder inevitably will result in a negative impact to other aspects of the project. At best, these negative impacts cause minor delays. At worst, they can lead to budget overruns and deliverables that don’t satisfy the requirement.
Projects require you to start at the end. What I mean is: In order to plan how to get somewhere, you have to know where you’re going. To effectively manage a project, you have to first define the success criteria. That means, you have to know what result, deliverable, or outcome you will achieve upon completion. This is also helpful because it clearly explains the end of the project.
So, there you have it. That is how I view project management at its most basic level. I think it’s important to understand the definition and attributes of a project before we ever talk about how to manage one. That, we will tackle next!
What do you think? What other attributes are important to learn at the beginning?
 “What is Project Management?” PMI. 2017. Accessed February 24, 2017. https://www.pmi.org/about/learn-about-pmi/what-is-project-management