Projects are everywhere.
Businesses, nonprofits, schools — even governments — are all just projects in disguise. The device you’re reading this on? It’s the result of thousands of projects coming together. From the raw materials used to make the chips, to the design of the box in which it came.
If goals are destinations we hope to reach, projects fuel the car that gets us there. Which is why one of the most valuable skills you can develop is project management.
Here at Basecamp, we believe in the power of projects. Which is why we put together a series of project management resources, starting with this guide to project management. The goal of this guide is to show you project management principles, methodologies, tools, terms, and everything else you need to run projects that work.
The Basecamp Guide to Project Management — like all our project management resources — is a “choose your own adventure” experience. Take what works for you, and leave the rest.
What is Project Management?
Project Management is the process of creating structure for projects.
Without structure, projects are vulnerable. And this vulnerability can lead projects into common traps that chip away at their utility. You know the ones… the dead-end status update meetings. The disorganized list of to-dos scribbled on a notepad. The email threads that just won’t quit.
Project management (and project management tools) provide a foundation and framework on which solid projects can be built.
Of course, it’s tempting to think that you’re skilled enough to execute projects without such a framework. I set a goal and my team gets it done… no questions asked! This may be true, but it comes at a cost. The cost of time, money, and resources.
Project management is like cooking with a recipe. A recipe doesn’t guarantee success, but your chances of making a delicious meal are significantly higher.
Our Stance on Project Management
As you explore project management, you’ll encounter a lot of rules. Some project management methodologies contain hundreds of them (we’ll get into these later). But here at Basecamp, we believe most projects do just fine without all this rigidness.
It’s important you find the style of project management that works best for you and your team. But before you commit to one, here are a few truths we’ve learned in our 18 years of helping people run better projects:
1. Don’t Overthink It
There are a ton of great project management resources out there. But don’t let your studying get in the way of your learning. The best way to become a better project manager is to just get started.
2. Spend Your Time on Outcomes, Not Paperwork
If you find yourself spending just as much time managing the project as you do actually working on the project, something’s wrong. Project management should help organize and streamline your work, not add to it.
3. Try Before You Buy
There’s no need to commit to one style of project management prematurely. Try different systems and project management tools on for size and see what fits best.
4. Take Manageable Bites
Even the best project managers in the world will struggle with projects that are too long or too large in scope. One of the easiest ways to ensure successful projects is to break them down into manageable bites.
Here at Basecamp, we break everything down into six-week cycles. Meaning projects as complex as the multi-year development of a new software product get split up into a series of projects that run six weeks at a time. This keeps us lean, fast, organized, and most importantly, flexible as we move through the project management phases.
5. Be Flexible
Speaking of flexibility, it’s important to remember that when it comes to projects, nothing ever goes 100% to plan. Deadlines get missed. Team members leave the company. Stakeholders make last-minute changes. And on and on it goes.
Don’t let a change in plans derail your entire project. Be flexible and expect the unexpected. Because with projects, the unexpected will most certainly come.
Project Management Platforms
Managing projects is tough. Managing projects without a project management platform to keep things organized is almost impossible.
If you’re looking for the refreshingly simple way to take back control of your projects, get started with Basecamp today. It only takes 30 seconds to sign up (no credit card required):
Project Management Principles
In addition to our own takes on project management, there are a handful of principles shared by nearly all project management methodologies. These serve as a “North Star” in guiding your projects to success:
Define your goals
Every project needs a goal. It doesn’t have to be complicated — “I will deliver x by y date” is plenty to get you started. But you need to point the boat in a direction before you begin rowing.
No matter how well defined and managed a project may be, it’s worthless if it doesn’t align and support the greater mission of your organization (and have the buy-in of your stakeholders).
Build your team
Few projects exist in a vacuum. Before you begin scoping a project, think about the people required to help you see it through, and how your project will slot with their existing tasks and responsibilities.
Once you’ve assembled a team, it’s important that everyone understands their role in the project. Now, your instinct might be to set and assign very detailed tasks to each team member, however in our experience we’ve found that people working on projects perform much better when given the responsibility of creating and assigning tasks among themselves.
However you choose to divvy up tasks, make sure your project to-do list is always visible to the team, be it through a shared Work Breakdown Structure (WBS), or by assigning tasks in project management software.
Create a project roadmap
Project roadmaps are an important project management tool that outline how you intend to reach your goal(s). Roadmaps should be accessible to all on the project team, highlighting deliverables, responsible parties, project timelines, and more. (Here at Basecamp, we use Hill Charts to map our progress.)
Make sure everyone shares the same idea of success
Even with clearly defined goals and roadmaps, the success of a project can look remarkably different in the minds of different team members (and stakeholders). Don’t wait until the end of the project to determine whether you were successful or not — sketch out your vision for success ahead of time, and share it with your team to ensure everyone sees the same target.
Communication is the most important ingredient of successful projects. We’re big believers in the power of asynchronous, written communication, but ultimately, you’re the one who will know what cadence and medium works best for your project team.
If you’re interested in learning more about the principles of project management, check out our full guide on the topic: What Are the Principles of Project Management?
The Benefits of Project Management
We can already hear it. “This seems like a lot of work…”. But it’s work worth doing. And once you put a system in place, project management becomes second nature.
More importantly, the benefits of project management are remarkable. Just look at the night & day difference achieved by the thousands of people who have used Basecamp over the past two decades to bring structure to their projects.
Need more convincing? Here are just a few of the many benefits of project management you can expect to see in your organization:
Project Management Keeps Employees Happy
Keeping employees happy is complicated business. Countless surveys and studies from major consulting firms and business schools paint a confusing, often conflicting picture of what drives employee happiness and engagement. But two important factors you’ll find near the top of almost any employee survey are:
- A clear system for measuring performance, and
- A clear understanding of how an employee’s work contributes to the overall company mission.
Project management can aid in both these measures. By providing a clear set of objectives (and the tasks to get there), employees can attack their workday with a sense of purpose and direction, knowing exactly what they need to contribute in order to move the project forward, and why this work matters in achieving the project’s goals.
Project Management Keeps Clients Happy
Back when we were just a small web design agency with employees located across multiple countries and time zones, we felt like much of our work was getting lost in endless email threads. So, we built a project management tool called Basecamp to help us keep our projects and clients organized.
It wasn’t long before our clients noticed a difference in our performance. In fact, there was such a shift in our ability to deliver great work to our clients that many began asking if they could use this “magic” project management tool for themselves. Soon enough, we pivoted away from web design to focus completely on project management software.
When our projects got organized, our work got better, and our clients got happier.
Project Management Improves Focus
When you hire great employees, there will be no shortage of great ideas flowing through your organization. The real challenge will be focusing on the ideas that have the greatest return on effort.
Any project management methodology you follow will force you to hone ideas and goals before the work begins, creating clarity and improving focus that aids your organization with both ideas and execution.
Project Management Methodologies
Now that we understand the what and why of project management, let’s talk about the how.
Project Management comes in many flavors. On one end of the spectrum, it can be as simple as organizing your files and to-do’s using a project management tool. On the other end there is a whole world of project manager certifications and rigid frameworks and methodologies for running projects.
Here at Basecamp, like most things, we take a unique approach to project management. We do kickoffs, not project charters. We use to-dos and hill charts to track our progress, not Gantt Charts. We believe in asynchronous communication, not weekly stand-up meetings.
(You can learn more about our own project management methodology, which we call Shape Up, here.)
That said, we respect everyone’s right to pick the project management methodology that works for them, and have built Basecamp features in a way that they can be used with nearly all of the traditional project management systems.
Not sure what style is best for you? Here’s a quick look at some of the most common project management methodologies your organization may want to explore:
Waterfall Project Management
Waterfall Project Management is a classic style of project management traditionally used by software development teams. Everything in a waterfall approach goes in order, with each new phase only beginning once the previous phase is complete. While the Waterfall Project Management approach can help control costs, scope creep, and confusion, its rigidity makes it difficult (and expensive) to adjust or make changes throughout the project process.
Agile Project Management
In many ways, Agile Project Management is the exact opposite of Waterfall. Created by a team of software developers tired of the strictness of Waterfall, Agile is a flexible methodology that allows for adjustments throughout the project based on the real time feedback of the project team, as well as customers/users.
Scrum Project Management
Though Scrum Project Management predates Agile, the two are very much interconnected these days. Scrum projects use Agile Project Management frameworks, but run on cycles known as “sprints”. These sprints generally last no more than two weeks, and include a daily 15-minute “stand up” meeting where everyone on the team can provide immediate feedback on the previous day’s work.
The Project Management Institute (PMI) is a nonprofit organization that sets a variety of standards and certifications for the world of project management. While being a certified Project Management Professional (PMP) is absolutely not required to run great projects, many find it helpful. PMI has its own methodology known as the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK).
Critical Path Method
The Critical Path Method is a project management style that focuses on the duration of key tasks and deliverables. After outlining all the pieces of the project, the expected duration of each, and the dependencies between tasks, project managers using the Critical Path Method can then calculate the longest “path” of the project, and schedule tasks accordingly to ensure the project is completed in the shortest possible duration.
Kanban Project Management
Kanban Project Management is built on a visual system where Kanban “Cards” — each representing a key task — are organized on a Kanban Board based on their current status, so that everyone on the team can quickly see where each of the tasks stand. As progress is made, cards are moved physically (or virtually, if using project management software) from one status to another.
Lean Project Management
Lean Project Management focuses on maximizing value and eliminating waste. This is accomplished through a few key steps, including specifying the project’s value, mapping the “value stream” (i.e., the entire process of creating value), and identifying and reducing waste. The entire Lean Project Management methodology relies heavily on speed and end-user feedback that comes early and often.
Challenges of Project Management
Like anything worth doing, project management will have its challenges along the way. Here are some of the most common pitfalls project managers will encounter, and how you can push past them:
There will always be more projects than resources needed to complete them. Knowing how to prioritize your projects is crucial. We use a series of clarifying questions here at Basecamp to help us prioritize projects (and decide if we even want to pursue them at all):
- Does the problem matter? If so, how much? Not all problems need solving. And among those that do, some problems will matter more than others (for example, solving a major pain point with customers matters more than solving a pet peeve with an internal tool or system).
- Is the appetite right? Here at Basecamp, we’re big on setting an “appetite” for projects before we dive in. It’s not a question of “Should we pursue this project?” but, “If we pursue this project, how much time are we willing to allocate? What’s the appetite?” By setting an appetite up front (say, six weeks), we can better gauge the importance of your projects, and slot your resources accordingly.
- Is this the right time? There’s a time and a place for everything. Even the most important projects could be wrong for that particular time. For example, an ecommerce store might be woefully overdue for a new homepage. But if work on that homepage would take away from executing plans for Black Friday (AKA the ecommerce Super Bowl), then it probably makes sense to push the homepage project to another time.
(Want to know more? Check out our full guide on How to Prioritize Projects)
Avoiding Scope Creep
Scope creep is when the goals of the project change after it’s already underway. It is one of the most common (and frustrating) challenges you’ll encounter as a project manager, but there are a few tools you can use to avoid it:
- Get it in writing Before your project launches, make sure you put all the goals/expected outcomes into a pitch and share it with stakeholders. This helps avoid situations where someone chimes in mid-project to say, “Oh, I thought we were going to do x or y as part of this project”. Simply refer them back to the original pitch and let them know that any additional requests will have to come as part of a separate project.
- Set the right appetite As we outlined above, setting an appetite (or duration) for projects is one of the best ways to ensure scope creep is limited. With a deadline looming, it’s hard to justify adding more deliverables. That said, appetite only works if your organization agrees to keep it sacred. Here at Basecamp, any project that does not get completed within the specific appetite is not extended by default. This ensures we prevent issues of scope creep and never-ending projects.
- Explain the true costs Everything has a cost — but sometimes it’s hard to see. If you’re dealing with a stakeholder who is trying to add to an ongoing project, explain to them that adding to this project will steal you and other resources away from future projects. If possible, try to explain this loss in terms of dollars. Scope creep that adds two weeks to a project, at the very minimum, adds the cost of two weeks’ salary for you and everyone else working on the project. Are the additional requests really worth the thousands of dollars this is going to cost? Your stakeholders might not think so once it’s explained this way.
Common Project Management Terms
The world of project management has developed its own language and terminology over the years. Here’s a look at some common phrases you might see, and what they mean:
- Bottleneck A Project Bottleneck is any point/person/resource in a project where the capacity is less than what’s needed to move the project forward. For example, if a software project relies on a developer to review daily code updates, and that developer can only review 80% of what’s written each day, that code review stage is now a bottleneck for the rest of the project, as demand exceeds capacity.
- Deliverable Project Deliverables are tangible outcomes of a project. Deliverables take many forms, including documents, reports, pieces of software, presentations, and even physical goods.
- Dependency A Dependency is any task or deliverable in a project that relies on another task or deliverable in order to be completed. For example, if you were building a house, wiring all the outlets and framing the walls are dependencies, as an electrician cannot do their wiring until the walls are in place. In this instance, framing would be known as a “predecessor” to wiring.
- Gantt Chart A Gantt Chart is a style of Work Breakdown Structure that uses visual progress bars to help project team members see where they are in the project lifecycle, what tasks have been completed, what deliverables are to come, and if anything is overdue.
- Kickoff Meeting A Project Kickoff Meeting is the first official gathering of the project team. During this meeting, the Project Manager will share the Project Charter, discuss the WBS, review project tasks and roles, and answer any questions the team has about goals, outcomes, etc.
- Milestone A Project Milestone refers to a major event in the project process. Shipping a piece of software, for example, would be a major milestone of a software project.
- Project Charter A Project Charter is a formal document that specifies the goals and deliverables of a project. The charter works as an agreement between the Project Manager and the Key Stakeholder, ensuring all parties are aligned on the scope (and outcomes) before the project begins.
- Project Plan A Project Plan is a document that helps shape a project before it begins, outlining important elements such as cost, schedule, project scope, resources, and more.
- Sprint A Sprint is a style of time-boxing project work that’s popular in Agile Project Management. Many Agile Project Managers use two-week sprints, where the team aims to complete a specific set of deliverables during those two weeks.
- Stakeholder A Project Stakeholder is the person who ultimately signs off on the success of a project. Stakeholders can be Managers, Executives, Clients, and on some occasions, yourself. It’s important that Project Managers have alignment with Stakeholders prior to launching a project, in order to avoid scope creep and ensure all parties have the same idea of what constitutes success.
- Stand-Up Meeting Stand-Up Meetings are a popular style of check-in meetings in Agile Project Management. Meant to last no more than 15 minutes (a rule that’s enforced by having all participants “stand up” during the meeting), this daily meeting reviews the previous day’s progress, any challenges encountered, and what’s on tap for the day ahead.
- Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) A Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) is a tool that breaks down the to-dos and deliverables of a project into individual tasks. The WBS helps everyone working on the project get a clear look at where the project stands at any given moment.
Getting Started with Project Management
Projects are powerful.
But they can also be unruly. Which is why bringing structure to projects through project management tools and principles is a must.
We hope this guide gives you some direction on your project management journey. But remember… it’s best to not overthink things. If you’re facing strong internal headwinds, start with a single project (maybe even a one-person project). Pick a few project management tools, create a roadmap, follow the project management principles, and just get started. Before long, you’ll have a sense of what works for you.
Oh, and if you want a tool that’s helped millions run better projects, take 30 seconds to get started with Basecamp right now: