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Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
October 19, 2021 · 21 min read

How to manage projects from kickoff to launch


How to manage projects from kickoff to launch

There’s no denying that ‘projects’ are the currency of the modern workplace. And whether you’re a designer, developer, team lead, or administrator, your job requires many of the same skills that separate the best project managers: organization, effective collaboration, and being goal-oriented.

Unfortunately, project management has become unnecessarily complicated over the years.

Not only are you expected to know about Agile, scrum, and waterfall, but PMBOK, PRINCE2, Gantt Charts, and Cumulative Flow Diagrams! The jargon, acronyms, and frameworks are enough to make your head spin.

However, at its core, project management should be simple. Managing any project is really about making complex problems easier, clearer, and more actionable. As a project manager (or team leader of any type), you do this by coordinating resources, tools, and teammates in a way that ensures your project’s success.

So let’s strip project management back to its basics.

Jump to a section:

What is project management?

Project management is the process of planning, organizing, and managing the resources and people needed to complete a project successfully.

A project could be anything from a new piece of software to a website redesign or even the construction of a new building. Every project is unique and requires a delicate balance between the product owner’s expectations and the constraints of your team, budget, and schedule.

However, it’s a mistake to think that project management starts and ends with the tasks associated with hitting your goals.

Project management is as much about managing people and relationships as tasks, deadlines, and stand-ups. One day, you’re working full-time on a project plan. Next, you’re thrust into conflict resolution mode when two of your team members clash.

Yet while every day as a project manager brings unique challenges, every project requires the same elements:


The Elements of a project

  1. Goal: What are you trying to achieve, and why is it important that you do so?
  2. Timeline: When does the goal need to be achieved?
  3. Resources: What do you need to do the work, and how much will it cost?
  4. Stakeholders: Who has an interest in your project’s completion?
  5. Project manager: Who is going to make sure everything gets done as planned?

As a project manager, you’re the glue that holds all these pieces of the project together. But what does that mean in practice?

Project management is as much about managing people and relationships as tasks, deadlines, and stand-ups.

What does a project manager do?

The roots of project management can be traced back to ancient times. (How do you think they built the Pyramids or the Colossus of Rhodes?) And while times have certainly changed, project managers still have many of the same responsibilities:

  1. Understand the triple constraint of project management and assess whether a project can succeed on time and to the proposed budget
  2. Create a clear and cohesive project plan and get buy-in from your team and project stakeholders
  3. Identify the project deliverables and break them down into manageable chunks (epics, milestones, sprints, tasks)
  4. Empower your team to be more efficient, productive, and creative
  5. Recognize potential project risks and put plans in place to mitigate them
  6. Manage and monitor daily work to keep the project on track and avoid scope creep
  7. Run effective meetings (like kick-offs, sprint planning sessions, and standups) to keep everyone on the same page

It’s no overstatement to say that, as a project manager, you have the fate of the company on your shoulders. Your role is a complex blend of organization, analytical planning, and leadership skills designed to keep your team motivated and efficient.

The 5 phases of the project management process

Some projects have a short, clear scope and happen quickly (like fixing a bug or another urgent issue). While others happen over months or even years and evolve along the way.

Yet, no matter the scope or complexity of your project, it’s widely agreed they all flow through a series of five ‘phases’ from start to end. (Also known as the project lifecycle.)

The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK–one of our must-read project management books) defines the five phases of the project management process as:


The 5 phases of the project management process

Let’s dive into the specifics of each phase.

Phase 1: Initiation

Every project starts with a business purpose. Before rushing into creating a project plan or charter, you need to know what you’re building and why it’s a good idea.

This means revisiting your product strategy and vision, looking for gaps in the market, talking to users, and digging into your backlog to prioritize new features.

As Mina Radhakrishnan, the first Head of Product at Uber, writes:

“A big part of product leadership is thinking about why we are doing this-and-that to set the basis for saying ‘no, we shouldn’t do that.’”

Once you have an idea for a project, ask a few questions to see how it aligns with your larger goals:

At the end of the initiation phase, you should have a clear idea of what you want to build, why it’s a good idea, and the resources you’ll need. You can even put together a one-pager to help get buy-in from stakeholders.

Deliverable: One-page PRD (product requirements document) or a longer project proposal.

Phase 2: Planning

There’s an old saying attributed to Abraham Lincoln that says:

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax.”

The planning phase of a project is where project managers get to flex their specialized skill set. With a clear business case, the next step is to put together a roadmap everyone will follow.

During the project planning phase, you’ll define key responsibilities, clarify how the project will be completed, and create a few critical shared documents for your team. This is by far the most labor-intensive part of the project management process and includes several critical deliverables.

Deliverables:

Phase 3: Execution

Even the best planning can’t prepare you 100% for the realities of a project.

At this point, it’s time to put your plans into place. As a project manager, you’ll be responsible for keeping project documents updated, tracking progress in a project management tool like Planio, organizing and (sometimes) running meetings, and doing everything you can to keep your team productive.

Deliverables: Setting up tracking systems and providing ongoing support and motivation for your team.

Even the best planning can’t prepare you 100% for the realities of a project.

Phase 4: Monitoring & Control

If you think of your project plan as a map, then the monitoring and control phase is the GPS telling you if you’ve gone off course.

Throughout every project, it’s critical that you perform regular and consistent check-ins. As a project manager, you have several tools at your disposal for monitoring progress:

Not only will these tools and processes keep your team motivated and on track, but they’re essential for maintaining stakeholder support. Along the way, you may need to modify or update your plan or ask for more resources. It’s much easier to do this when you have data to back up your requests.

Deliverables: Agile reports like burndown and velocity charts as well as processes for running regular and effective meetings.

Phase 5: Closing

Once you’ve completed all the necessary deliverables, it’s time to hand off the project to your client (an internal team or external stakeholder).

The official ‘closing’ phase of a project is a time for celebration. But it’s also an opportunity to review what went well, where you could improve, and document lessons learned for future projects.

Deliverables: Lessons learned in a public place (like a Planio wiki) and an approved definition of done.

What project management methodology should you use? Waterfall vs. Agile vs. Kanban

Every project goes through those five phases. However, they don’t necessarily happen in sequence. Instead, the way you approach the phases of your project depends on the project management methodology you use.

A methodology is essentially a set of rules and workflows that determines how you’ll approach your project, structure your team, and define success.

Beyond giving you a playbook for how you and your team work together, choosing the right software development process does several important things, such as:

In most cases, your company will already have an agreed-upon process. But if not, here’s a primer on the best ones to help you choose.

Traditional/waterfall project management


Waterfall project management

In the Waterfall process, each step of your project is completed in sequence before moving onto the next one, with testing happening only at the end. This means you’ll need to know everything that needs to be done and in what order before you start.

Who it’s great for: Teams with rigid structures and documentation needs.

Who it’s not so good for: Teams who want to be more dynamic in their process and implement user feedback along the way.

Agile project management


Agile Toolchain

As opposed to the Waterfall process’ strict, sequential flow, in Agile project management, cross-functional teams work in ‘sprints’ of 2 weeks to 2 months to build and release usable software to customers for feedback.

Agile is all about moving fast, releasing often, and responding to the real needs of your users. This means you don’t need a full list of requirements and a complete SOW before starting work.

Instead, each sprint ends with a retrospective where you focus on what you’ve learned and plan the next iteration.

Who it’s great for: Teams doing continuous updates to products (or want more user feedback throughout the development process).

Who it’s not so good for: Teams with a tight budget or resource restrictions.

Kanban


Kanban Board

Kanban is one of the many ways to implement agile project management.

A Kanban or agile board breaks up tasks into different ‘states’ as they flow through your workflow. For example, the simplest agile boards would categorize tasks as:

(This is a pretty basic example. But the power of Kanban is that you can create a board that mirrors your project and your workflows. For example, a content calendar might use categories like ideas, writing, editing, designing, ready to publish, promoting, and closed.)

Who it’s great for: Teams that want to release continuously but don’t want to be stuck in time-bound sprints. Kanban boards are also great visual tools for keeping your work-in-progress limited as you can quickly see if you’re committing to too much at once.

Who it’s not so good for: Teams who aren’t good at estimating task effort or dealing with many moving parts at once.

Scrum


Scrum

Scrum is another way to organize and run agile projects. In Scrum, teams work in shorter sprints and use ‘ceremonies’ to keep on track:

  1. Sprint planning: A team meeting to decide what to include in the current sprint. Once the team has agreed on what to include in the sprint, nothing else can be added except by the team.
  2. Sprint demo: A sharing meeting where the team shows off what they’ve shipped.
  3. Daily standup: Regular 10–15 meetings to sync up and talk about progress and roadblocks.
  4. Sprint retrospective: A review of the results of the previous sprint to tweak your process.

Who it’s great for: Scrum works best for teams who need structure and are good at estimating how much work can get done within a sprint. Estimation and team consensus are critical to making Scrum work properly.

Who it’s not so good for: Teams who can’t commit to shipping in shorter intervals. This includes under-resourced teams struggling to keep up with their workload.

V-shaped


V-shaped Process

The V-shaped software development process is a take on the classic Waterfall method that makes up for its biggest downfall: A lack of testing.

Rather than working through each step of the development process in sequence, each stage is followed by a strict ‘validation and verification’ step where requirements are tested before moving on.

Who it’s great for: Teams working on smaller projects with a tight scope.

Who it’s not so good for: Teams working on larger projects where you can’t create an in-depth plan beforehand.

How to manage a project from idea to finished product

So far, we’ve talked about project management theory and frameworks. But as any PM will tell you, theory will only get you 10% of the way. To truly understand what it’s like to manage a project successfully, you need to get your hands dirty.

So what does it look like to manage a project in the real world?

Every project is unique and requires a delicate balance of expectations and constraints.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to the steps you’ll take as a project manager from ideation to a finished product out in the world.

Step 1: Find a business need for your project

Your project starts with a clear business need. What problem are you trying to solve? Why is it important to focus and put resources towards it now?

Project managers aren’t always responsible for this stage (it could be a product owner, product manager, or executive). However, it’s still a good idea to know where good project ideas come from.

A business need can come from several places:

  1. Feature (or bug fix) requests from your users
  2. Market research
  3. Internal stakeholder requests
  4. Prioritizing features from your backlog
  5. Reacting to competition or a changing industry

Step 2: Write your vision statement

Next, you’ll want to distill your project idea down to its core. This is called a project vision statement.

You can think of a vision statement like an elevator pitch for your project. In a few short sentences, you should be able to convey the high-level goals, purpose, and requirements for your project. Here’s a simple formula you can follow:

In Making Things Happen: Mastering Project Management, Scott Berkun gives an example of how concise a vision statement can be:

“SuperEdit 3.0, the editing tool for experienced copy editors, will make the top five most frequent customer scenarios easier to use, more reliable, and faster to operate than SuperEdit 2.0.”

A good vision makes it easy for a designer to know whether to grab an off-the-shelf WordPress theme or spend hours on user research to create a ground-breaking experience.

A developer should be able to tell whether they should build infrastructure capable of handling billions of requests per second or bang out a scaffold Rails app.

Step 3: Talk to your team and create a project plan

Now it’s time to flesh out your vision into a plan of action. Speak with a few colleagues to help understand requirements, deadlines, and any company context that could impact your project (like other projects that will be competing for resources).

Then, bring all this information together into a project plan.

Project plans come in many different shapes and sizes depending on your needs and company culture. For some, a one-pager is enough to get going. While other companies will want an in-depth plan before considering the project.

Here are a few of the more common project plan templates you can use:

Step 4: Get stakeholder approval

Now, it’s time to get approval on your project. Depending on your company’s structure, you might have a single stakeholder to deal with (like a product owner) or several.

Simply put, a stakeholder is an individual, group, or organization that is impacted by the outcome of a project and can sway its success either way.

Stakeholder management is critical to your project’s success (and keeping your sanity). Read our full guide on how to identify and work with stakeholders here.

Step 5: Build out your product roadmap


Build out your product roadmap

Now that your project has (hopefully) been approved, you need to revisit your plan and start to build out a roadmap of tasks, requirements, milestones, and features.

The detail of your roadmap will depend on the methodology you’re using.

For Agile teams: A roadmap should be goal-oriented. This means you’re more likely to see a high-level view of requirements, updated user stories, goals, objectives, and outcomes than individual tasks.

As product management expert Roman Pichler explains:

“Goal-oriented roadmaps focus on goals, objectives, and outcomes like acquiring customers, increasing engagement, and removing technical debt. Features still exist, but they are derived from the goals and should be used sparingly. Use no more than three to five features per goal, as a rule of thumb.”

For Traditional teams: A roadmap needs to cover more detail, so you know every step to take from start to finish. There are several methods you can use to help uncover all the pieces of your project’s puzzle:

Step 6: Break large items down into actionable tasks and put them in your project management tool

A roadmap is full of features and ‘super tasks’ that are too big to assign to someone on your team. Instead, each task should go into enough detail so anyone looking at them knows what needs to be done, how important it is, when it’s due, and who’s working on it.

In Planio, you can create a new task simply by pressing the + button and including basic information like task subject and a detailed description:


Use the green + button to create a new issue

Next, go into detail about task status, priority, assignee (aka, who’s responsible), category, milestone, and start and finish dates:


New issue with details

Finally, you can attach any supporting documents and files, as well as select other teammates who should be updated on changes or progress:


Add watchers and documents to issues when creating them

Don’t worry if you can’t do all of this right away. The goal is simply to clarify expectations and responsibilities as much as possible.

Step 7: Estimate time and effort for each task

A crucial part of project management is working within the triple constraints of a project: scope, time, and budget. To do that, you first need a rough understanding of how much effort each task will take to complete.

Estimation is a project management skill that you’ll develop over time. First, you need to know how you’re going to measure effort. The two most common options are time and story points.

Story points are an agreed-upon system that helps you measure effort without getting stuck talking about hours. Some teams use the Fibonacci sequence of 0, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, etc. This way, instead of arguing over whether a story is a 7 or an 8, you can quickly agree that it’s more of an 8 than a 5, but not a 13-pointer.


Story points being set up in Planio

Once you’ve chosen your effort scale, pick a task and ask yourself, ‘have we done this before?’

Then, estimate your effort based on your experience and then multiply that figure by:

Step 8: Structure tasks into milestones and releases

Now, it’s time to get your tasks in order. Take your big list of tasks and start to divide them into milestones or releases.

At this point, you should start to see a clear map of how your project should play out.

As an Agile team, you’ll most likely break up your project into sprints of releases. Those sprints or iterations will go on an Agile board that shows each task’s progress from our backlog to completion. This way, you get a quick view of where you are at any moment.


Product launch agile board

Step 9: Check to see if you have adequate resources

This is where you do a ‘reality check’ on your project. Does your plan match up with the reality of your team and resources?

For Agile teams, you’ll work in sprints to consistently ship software and can use each retrospective to check in on your plan and adjust as needed.

However, for traditional teams who plan everything up front, it can be harder to know if you have the resources you need. One option is to use a Gantt chart to visualize the flow of tasks and milestones and see where there’s overlap, gaps, or roadblocks.



Now, what happens when you realize that you’re aren’t going to come in under the budget or you won’t manage the deadline?

Fundamentally, there are three options:

  1. You can move back the deadline.
  2. You can increase the budget to meet the deadline, so you can hire more people*.
  3. You reduce the scope of the project so you meet the deadline or the budget.

* Bear in mind however: There isn’t always a direct link between more people and the project going faster. In fact, in the Mythical Man-Month, Fred Brooks wrote that adding programmers to one software project actually delayed it even further.

Step 10: Create a risk management plan

You’re almost ready to kick off your project! But first, you need to think through what could go wrong and create a risk management plan.

While you’ll never be able to mitigate every risk, it’s good practice to think about risks from a few different perspectives:

  1. Technical. This includes risks based on requirements, the technology being used, interfaces, performance, and quality.
  2. Management. This includes any risks that come up from planning, scheduling, estimating, or communication.
  3. Organizational. This includes any project dependencies, logistics, resources, budget, etc...
  4. External risks. These are risks that come from your customers, users, contractors, or even the market itself.

You can use a Planio Wiki to document and share your risk management plan so everyone has access to it. (And grab our free risk management plan template here!)

For a project manager one small misstep can bring the whole project crashing down, the ability to keep on track with your projects and know what to do next is essential.

Step 11: Run a project kick-off meeting

It’s finally time to get started.

Gather your team together and run a project kick-off meeting. For a large internal project, you should block out about an hour to cover:

  1. Introductions: Who’s here? (5-10 minutes)
  2. Client and/or context: Why are you here? (5 minutes)
  3. Scope and deliverables: What are you building? (20 minutes)
  4. Approach: How are you going to build it? (10 minutes)
  5. Roles and responsibilities: Who’s responsible for what? (5 minutes)
  6. Teamwork: How are you going to work together? (5 minutes)
  7. Timelines, schedules, and milestones: What’s the project’s timeline? (5 minutes)
  8. Next steps: What’s next? (5 minutes)
  9. Q&A: What haven’t you covered? (5–10 minutes)

Step 12: Plan your first sprint as a team

Agile teams are self-managing and decide how much work can fit into each sprint. Working with your team, you’ll want to organize your tasks into your first sprint, set deadlines, and decide on a time for your daily standup (if you’re doing one).

Planio makes sprint planning super easy. There is a whole feature dedicated to assigning your sprintless issues (your backlog) to a sprint/milestone. Just go to your Agile board or issue list and click on Sprint Planning in the sidebar on the right. Then, your backlog issues will show up in the left column and all you have to do is drag-and-drop tasks to the right sprint columns. They’ll be updated right away and be visible to everyone.


Planning your first sprint

Step 13: Review progress and adjust your plan

Now that the project is in full swing, you’ll move into the monitor and control phase. This means keeping your team motivated and unblocked, updating tasks, and monitoring progress.

In Planio, the roadmap feature lets you quickly see your progress on a sprint or milestone’s tasks, spent time, and due date. As a project manager, this is your ideal progress dashboard and is super useful to gauge if everything is going to plan.


Roadmap view of Milestone in Planio

And if things aren’t going to plan? Adjust. Being informed and having data at your fingertips means you’ll be in a better position to change your plan, ask for more resources, or reduce the scope.

Step 14: Keep stakeholders happy and informed

Along the way, you’ll send updates to stakeholders about progress. As with any relationship, it’s best to set expectations upfront.

A communication plan breaks down when, how, and to whom you need to send updates. It’s like a roadmap to successful stakeholder relationships. You can grab our free communication plan template here!

Step 15: Release and run a project post-mortem

Congratulations! You just handed off a massive project. And while you deserve to take a moment to bask in the glory of keeping your team on track, there’s still one more task to complete.

In project management, a lesson learned is knowledge gained from the experience of performing a project. In other words, they’re tips, guides, rules, and workflows you learn from experience that help make sure you’re not falling into the same traps over and over.

We wrote a full guide on how to document lessons learned right here.


Lessons learned issue

As a final tip, knowledge is only helpful if it’s accessible to everyone. Make sure to keep your lessons learned organized in a Planio wiki so you don’t make the same mistakes in the future.

How to get the most out of your project management software

The right project management tool lets you organize your team to do their best work. It helps you plan sprints (or tasks) and track who’s doing what to make sure you’re working in the most efficient way possible.

Especially for technical teams, where one small misstep can bring the whole project crashing down, the ability to keep on track with your projects and know what to do next is essential.

While there are plenty of options for project management tools out there, the best ones share some key features:

The tool that’s right for you has the features that work with your workflow, integrates with the rest of your stack, and gives feedback on the progress of your project so you can steer the ship in the right direction.

If you’re looking for a project management tool that ticks all the boxes, check out Planio. You can even get started for free for 30 days to see if Planio is right for your team.

The 11 most important project management skills to master

The essential project management skills include the technical ones you’d expect (like planning, task management, and scheduling) as well as ‘soft’ skills like relationship management, communication, and motivation.

Balancing the two is never easy. But the more you develop both sides, the better you’ll be at keeping projects (and people) on track.

Here’s a quick rundown of the skills you should focus on as you progress in your project manager career:

  1. Leadership: Project managers are leaders. While the rest of your team is heads-down on specific tasks, you’re keeping everything else moving while focusing on the bigger picture. Project leadership comes down to team motivation, negotiation, coaching, and conflict resolution (when necessary!)
  2. Communication: Between emails, updates, calls, and meetings, it can feel like all project managers do is communicate. As a project manager, you’ll need to learn how to understand and navigate different communication styles, manage stakeholders, and write clear, cohesive, and concise content.
  3. Planning: The success of a project comes down to your ability to properly plan. But planning is so much more than estimating tasks, writing planning docs like a scope of work or project proposal, and running sprints. Plans need to connect to your company’s larger vision and product strategy. If your team doesn’t agree on the big picture, they certainly won’t be inspired to work on a single feature.
  4. Scheduling: The best project managers know how to turn a plan into daily tasks, monitor progress, and adjust schedules where needed. Your project schedule is the map that will guide you, but you can use tons of other tools from Gantt charts to sprint retrospectives.
  5. Time management: Scheduling is all about setting an ideal path to project completion. But time management is what keeps you on that path each day. As a project manager, it’s your job to not only manage your own time as efficiently as possible but also to insulate your team from the distractions that chip away at their focus.
  6. Task management: Tasks are the smallest unit of work that move parts of your project forward. As a project manager, task management involves assigning, monitoring, and tracking the outcome of every task, so you always know you’re working towards the finish line.
  7. Risk mitigation: No project is free from risks. While it’s impossible to see every potential issue upfront, the more you’re able to create a process for handling bumps in the road (i.e., a risk mitigation plan), the better equipped you’ll be.
  8. Decision-making: Project managers are faced with hundreds of decisions every day–both big and small. You’ll want to be aware of some of the more popular decision-making frameworks like RACI charts, S.P.A.D.E, and BCM.
  9. Quality management: Quality management is a skill that often gets overlooked by project managers who are too focused on just getting through each day. But the best PMs know how to keep their eye on the quality of what’s being done, listen to negative feedback, and constantly ship value.
  10. Critical thinking: Thinking critically simply means being objective when you analyze or evaluate an issue. Instead of relying on emotions or received knowledge, you’re letting yourself be impartial. In the end, the best decision is what’s best for the project.
  11. Collaboration: Last but certainly not least, project managers are team players. They know how to collaborate across teams, get the most out of collaboration software, and use asynchronous communication to keep in touch.
It’s no overstatement to say that, as a project manager, you have the fate of the company on your shoulders.

Getting started: Our best free project management templates, ebooks, and resources

Over the past 10 years, Planio has supported project managers from thousands of companies around the globe. But it’s not just our software that will help you get a jump start on your next project.

We’ve also distilled our decade of experience into free templates, ebooks, and resources that you can start using today. Take whatever you need. They’re absolutely free!

Agile templates

Project planning templates

Project launch templates

Remote work and career resources

The future of project management

Project management is an essential part of every company. But it’s also a critical part of living in a society. The more we work together, the more we’ll need people who can organize, plan, manage, and motivate.

As a career and a set of life skills, there are few better paths you could choose. And according to one report from the Project Management Institute, there will be 22 million new project management jobs by 2027! So whatever way you look at it, the future for project managers looks exciting.

With this guide, you should have everything you need to start managing projects and run a project from start to finish. But project management is an ever-evolving role. As the industry and the role change and adapts, we’ll continue to update this guide to be as relevant and up-to-date as possible.