Webinar: How to apply best practices in project management


This Horticulture Innovation Lab webinar outlines best practices in project management and how to apply them for development professionals. This was the fourth webinar in the Horticulture for Development Professional Series, held live on August 15, 2019.

Maureen MacCarthy, with Mission Critical Development, was the presenter of this webinar. She provided some baseline definitions of project management and outlined six critical phases in the life cycle of a project. Along the way, MacCarthy shared important qualities of project managers, useful tools to become more efficient and effective in managing projects, and key considerations that are imperative to successful project management.

This summary includes the recorded webinar video presentation and the presenter's slides.

What is project management?

In order to understand what project management is, it is necessary to define a project. A project is commonly defined as a temporary endeavor to carry out a specific aim or goal. MacCarthy introduced the concept of a project through the project constraint triangle. This visualization has three forces that interplay and can categorize work efforts as a project. These include:

  • Scope: Specific set of goals or objectives
  • Schedule: Definite time period with a clear start and finish
  • Resources: Set amount of financial and other resources required to carry out the defined tasks

Project management then can be better understood by combining knowledge, tools, and skills to complete a project. Knowledge entails particular types of approaches or procedures that help projects be managed and executed systematically. In order to help projects be managed and executed, numerous tools exists to aid project managers in tracking and delivering results. To ensure that projects are managed effectively, skills need to be established and applied to not only make sure projects function, but that they function well.

Six key phases of a project

Projects can be broken down into six key phases in order of identification and design, start-up, planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation, and closeout. Regardless of the size of the project, these are common segments that each contain specific tasks and considerations when managing projects.

Phase 1: Identification and design

Phase 1 of project management includes identification and design of the project. This is most commonly referred to as the "proposal" stage. Key elements of this phase entail staying up-to-date on new grant proposal opportunities and then more heavily working on developing a scope, activity timeline, management structure, and budget that will serve as the foundation for a project. This phase can often begin as far as a year in advance of a project being awarded a grant. 

One key to success during identification and design is knowing your organization's donors and staying organized. Different donors have varying degrees of priorities and structures in place for how grants and projects are awarded. The more you can become familiar with these priorities and new opportunities as they become available, the better prepared you can be in designing a new project. In addition, assigning clear roles, scheduling capture trips, and frequent check-ins with the donor organization will ensure successful identification and design of a new project.

Phase 2: Starting up

The start-up phase is a critical component of the project management life cycle and often regarded as one of the most important. While you have not had the opportunity to achieve the goals you set out for the project yet, this phase is essential for ensuring successful implementation and outcomes. Starting up entails establishing infrastructure for the project including offices, personnel, equipment, reporting protocols, and beginning activities within a very short period. Because so many of these components are dependent on each other, they often happen in parallel. Having a strong core project management team is essential for a successful project start-up.

One tool that MacCarthy discussed which can help provide structure during the start-up phase of a project is a charter. A charter document serves to highlight the main details of a project including personnel, management hierarchy, project goals and project deliverables, as well as more general details of the project such as the period of performance and funding amount. A project charter ensures that all project members are operating with the same baseline of information. 

Phase 3: Planning

Once you have gotten through the start-up phase and established offices, hired local staff, and have management and other operational procedures in place, it is time to focus on planning. This entails working on the activities you outlined in the proposal that lead to overall goals and outcomes you wish to achieve. Implementation involves organizing the following key areas:

  • Scope
  • Schedule
  • Budget
  • Risks
  • Stakeholders

An easy and traditional way to develop an implementation plan is to create a work breakdown structure. This will help you map out the major goals and end products and build out the sub activities required for each. This can then be transferred to a Gantt chart that details major tasks, who is responsible, the timeline for completion, as well as milestones to assess progress.

Other tools that can be used to prepare for implementation and work plans as well as tracking other activities and milestones are Microsoft Project, Smartsheet, Asana, and Trello. Many of these programs and services are cloud-based online, which can allow for collaboration between team members and locations simultaneously. 

Other important parts of planning include resource allocation as well as communication and managing risk. A large factor in having a successful project comes down to managing the project's budget well. This includes monitoring labor, procurement, and planning effectively for what will be needed for project activities.

Stakeholder communication is also important so that you can establish a plan to keep them informed throughout the project and have consistent avenues for receiving integrating feedback into project activities.

Planning for possible risks is also essential to mitigating future issues that may arise. Risk assessment matrices can help in identifying and prioritizing risks and establishing procedures to prevent them.

Phase 4: Implementation

The implementation stage of project management is the most important as it focuses on achieving the goals and targets that you and the donor have agreed upon. Implementation is focused on executing the activities you have established and managing them well.

During this phase the project manager must make sure they are communicating vision, fostering collaboration of the project team, and identifying and resolving issues that arise. One way to reduce some of the burden on the project manager is to create internal controls and processes that govern how the project operates.

Many organizations have internal controls for approval and purchasing authority, as well as risk escalation and communication. Having these clearly defined will enable project managers to focus on higher value tasks or areas that are prone to higher risk.

Phase 5: Monitoring and evaluation

The fifth phase of a project focuses on the monitoring and evaluation of project activities and tracking progress of the project. While monitoring and evaluation are often discussed as a whole, they are fundamentally different.

MacCarthy defined the difference between monitoring and evaluation as:

  • Monitoring: Continuous review of progress against outputs to analyze the current situation, measure progress, and make program decisions 
  • Evaluation: Periodic gathering and analysis of data to measure the project's effectiveness and determine whether progress toward outcomes/goals has been achieved

Monitoring focuses on tracking operational activities, inputs, and outputs through field visits and reports.

Evaluation on the other hand, assesses whether the relationship between outcomes, objectives, and goals are accurate. Monitoring often takes the form of internal or external evaluations that establish this causal relationship. 

Phase 6: Close-out and transition

At the end of a project, the emphasis is on ensuring all deliverables have been met and communicating impact. This entails completing the project's final report, evaluation, and any other remaining activities within 6-9 months prior to an end date.

Additional tasks will include plans for personnel, disposition of property, and careful monitoring of the project budget. Completing an internal audit or review to ensure you have all documents, approvals, as well as migrating data and files to a central location will help ensure information can be accessed in the future.

This final stage is often a critical time to engage stakeholders on transition and sustainability plans to carry on activities after the end of the project. Often overlooked during this phase is establishing time for debriefs and lessons learned within project teams, allowing learning to be incorporated into future projects that may follow.