Project management techniques and stages are critical to getting complex projects completed on time and on budget. While project management is often brushed off as a task for those who have certification as “Project Manager”, basic project management practices by non-managers make the overall management of large projects easier and more effective. This article explores the different stages and methods in project management together with their implementations and examples.


Even though some sort of project management has been used for centuries, it wasn’t until the 1950s that project management became formally recognized as distinct from the general idea of management (Cleland, 2006). Project sizes vary widely in the world of engineering and can range from large projects like successfully placing a satellite in orbit to a simple Arduino project. Regardless of the size of the project being undertaken, it is necessary that the engineers or designers behind the task have a solid understanding of project management concepts. The first question to be answered is ‘What is project management?’

What is Project Management?

Project management is the application of knowledge, skills, tools and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements/goals (PMI, 2011). The set of skills, tools and techniques is not absolute and depends on the stakeholders, project type, project life cycle, and several other variables.

Why is Project Management important?

Why should you care about project management techniques for relatively small and sometimes personal projects? It is because without management the risk of failure increases considerably.

Without proper risk assessment (contingency plans), time will be wasted trying to find the solution to a problem which could have been prevented (or better handled) with proper planning. For example, in developing system with several parts, care must be taken to ensure the compatibility of parts and there must be a backup plan should certain parts prove to be incompatible. Should compatibility issues arise where contingency plans are lacking, time will be wasted researching new parts at the expense of time/manpower allotted to other project phases. This could delay the whole product and increase cost unnecessarily.

If the project manager lacks a clear understanding of people who affect/can be affected by the project, the project will most likely not properly satisfy the target audience. The list goes on and on. No matter the project size, some form of management is necessary to minimize chances of failure from poor management techniques.

The Project Manager

The project manager is the person who has the responsibility of planning, executing and closing a given project. In addition, s/he is responsible for ensuring that everyone on the team executes the assigned roles properly, and managing other tasks such as developing the project budget and schedule.

Training of the Project Manager

It is common for project managers to obtain professional certifications from various organizations such as the Project Management Institute (PMI) and some universities. The training process of a project manager could be on-the-job, formal, online or even via a project management simulation (i.e. analyzing real projects and evaluating the possible outcomes of decisions).

The content of the training programs (either self-taught or in an office space/institution) often cover industry standards, professional standards (such as the Project Management Body of Knowledge Guide or Projects In Controlled Environments) and private standards (i.e. standards that are employed by the organization in question and not necessarily widely known or accepted) and software tools like Microsoft® Project.

The Stakeholders

A stakeholder in any project is any person (or group) who is either actively involved in executing the project in question or will be somehow impacted by final product. This could be anyone from the project manager to the customer. The customer is always a stakeholder – and oftentimes the most important. All projects end in delivering a final product and the designer/engineer has to ensure that in the end, customer/client’s requirements are met as well as possible.

Project Life Cycle

In engineering, the success (measured by quality in this case) of a project depends heavily on proper management of the project’s life cycle. A project’s life cycle refers to the phases that the project undergoes from the conception of the idea to its completion, maintenance, marketing and retirement from the market (Maley, 2012). While there are many models for showing a project’s life cycle, care must be taken to ensure that the chosen model properly reflects the type of product in question so as to make management easier and more accurate. For most projects the incremental model serves as an excellent model provided the project manager is invested in keeping the project alive. This model focuses on iterating through the design process (from the analysis of the problem statement to the final delivery, as shown in Figure 1, and making necessary incremental improvements. This method is observed when large software companies keep releasing frequent patches and updates.

Figure 1

Project Life Cycle: Incremental Method. Source: Maley, 2012.


  • Fewer people needed for the early increments
  • More focus can be placed on the higher risks
  • Cheaper and faster initial delivery


  • Planning/Design has to be more thorough to ensure that incremental updates are possible
  • Total cost of the complete system might be higher in the long run due to accumulating costs of increments

Another popular model is the Waterfall Model or the Linear Sequential Development Model. A core feature of the Waterfall Model (Figure 2) is that the next stage cannot be initiated without the completion of the previous stage. This is often found in software development though it is discouraged by those who believe that software can never truly be “finished” in its development.

Figure 2

Project Life Cycle: Waterfall Model. Source: Maley, 2012.


  • Simplicity makes it appropriate for smaller projects.
  • Easier management due to discrete and well-defined structure
  • Clearer milestones


  • High risk of method changes can result in slower adoption of new industry standards and updates
  • Unclear definitions of milestones can heavily impact the entire project.
  • Unrealistic model as most projects rarely follow such a well-defined and sequential flow.

Regardless of the method chosen, what is important is that the project manager realizes that the project will undergo changes throughout its lifecycle, and as such, the chosen method should make it relatively easy to go through and make changes in the project where applicable/necessary.

Project Management Triangle (Iron Triangle)

This is a model of the general constraints of project management and proves to be very applicable for various scales when one has to analyze the project goals and make decisions based on the information available. The three constraints which make up the triangle (Figure 3) are scope, time and cost.

Figure 3

The ‘Iron Triangle’ of Project Management.

  • Scope: The scope of a project tells the user what the goal of the project is; i.e. what it is expected to accomplish if successful. Sometimes, the scope is referred to as the specifications of the product (though specifications are a subset of scope). The scope includes both the quality and performance of the product as well as the range of applicability. Without a clear idea of what the product is expected to deliver upon completion, things are guaranteed to go wrong as the whole project will lack a sense of proper direction.
  • Time: Even if not too restrictive, a successful project must have an expected timeframe for delivery. This schedule should ideally have a list of realistic milestones when a particular phase or detail of the development process is expected to be completed and how many man-hours will be required. From the Project Time Management process outlined in the PMBOK, there are 6 aspects of the time constraint:
    • Activity definition: The process of identifying the specific activities that have to be performed in order the produce the project’s deliverables. For example, “Ensure that LEDs work within target voltage range” etc.
    • Activity Sequencing: Creating/Identifying the relationship between various activities within the project. For instance, testing can’t happen before the part is acquired. In larger scenarios, it has to be ensured that if Part B depends on Part A, then Part A is guaranteed to be working before testing Part B. Even though these ideas may seem basic, failure to properly identify relationships between different activities can hinder project completion significantly.
    • Resource Estimation: A reasonable estimate of the type and quantities of material, tools and human resource needed for the activities.
    • Activity Duration: A reasonable estimate of how many man hours individual milestones/activities need to be completed. For this stage, it is necessary that the project manager sets realistic targets and factors in potential slowdowns. It is generally better to overcompensate here than to assume much less time is needed for the activity. If the project manager lacks proper information to make a realistic estimate, he/she should talk to someone with more experience in the field, as well as the stakeholders involved in implementing the project.
    • Developing a Schedule: Using the four parts covered above to develop a realistic project schedule.
    • Control Schedule: It would be incomplete to have just one schedule for the development cycle. A control schedule is a model/plan that allows changes in the core schedule to be made as necessary. This involves more direct management and connection with the project (checking status reports, etc.) to ensure that the schedule is followed or that it changes to fit the current situation.
  • Cost:  Without a proper cost estimate, the project could easily be underfunded/resourced or waste resources. These costs range from human resources to material/parts/equipment costs and should be documented. When deciding on a particular unit/material’s cost, it is necessary to also factor in things such as the reputation of the vendor (with regards to price) and the intended lifetime of the product just to name a few. One must also account for potential cost escalation and risks (unexpected accidents, human resource issues, etc.) as these can also heavily impact the project’s success. (Badiru, 2005; PMI, 2011)


Proper documentation of the project’s life cycle and development process is essential for future analysis and modifications. Even in an environment with only one person working on a project, it is much easier to review one’s own work when clear documentation exists. For working in teams however, it is imperative that there is proper and coordinated documentation of the project.

Application to Senior Project

The Burgundy Team’s senior design project focused on the personalization and improvement of home automation. Even for a fairly small scale project such as this, project management is essential on many levels:

  • Scope: Without a clear definition of the problem which is being solved (and how the project aims to solve it), the project team will spend the first few weeks or even months being pulled in many directions without making significant progress.
  • Cost: Though with a senior project, the amount of money typically involved is much less than the money spent by large corporations, it is still important to be wise with estimating component monetary costs and ensuring that the right balance between price and quality is found. For a senior project, the biggest cost is usually the human resource: man hours. The time invested in failing, making mistakes, growing and learning must not be overlooked. With a multitude of assignments from other classes among other things, time often becomes the limiting factor in realizing the project and must be realistically accounted for.
  • Working Schedule: Without setting practical dates and times expected for milestones, it is almost guaranteed that the product will be delivered late. This was the experience in the first few months of my senior project where the lack of a realistic schedule resulted in pushing a lot of things back and missing deadlines completely.
  • Documentation: Constant reference and modifications had to be made to the project proposal and plan due to issues that arose (some due to poor planning). Having this documentation was essential to maintaining focus on the goal of the project. Documentation also made making changes to certain milestones easier and their effects clearer.

Cited References

  • Badiru, A. B. (2005). Fundamentals of Project Management. In Badiru, A. B. (Ed.), Handbook of Industrial and Systems Engineering, (13-1 – 13-25). DOI: 10.1201/9781420038347.ch13
  • Cleland, D. I., & Gareis R. (2006). Global Project Management Handbook. New York, N.Y.: McGraw-Hill Professional. OCLC WorldCat Permalink: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/317384344
  • Maley, C. H. (2012). Project management concepts, methods, and techniques. Arlington, Va: ESI International. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/793401613
  • Project Management Institute (PMI). (2008). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK Guide). Newtown Square, Pa: Project Management Institute. OCLC WorldCat Permalink: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/265646743

Additional Sources / Recommended Reading