Taking a project from concept to fulfillment is a project manager’s bread and butter, but it might not come easily. Understanding how to make sure projects are fully developed from the start, so they have the best chance of being carried through to completion, is the key to successful projects and navigating the common pitfalls that can derail effective project management.
This article demystifies project development, which is the high-level practice of aligning resources and maturing ideas so a project can reach its goals.
What is project development?
These days, we see organizations of all sizes doing a lot of projects, but with very few seasoned project managers. Strong project development requires a certain level of experience and a higher level, or “zoomed out” view of all the work it takes to even plan and initiate projects before they get off the ground. Think of it as a role slightly different from the project manager’s role, one that’ll set them up for success when the project gets underway. When it comes to project development, it’s smart to think of two distinct roles: a project manager (PM) role and a project developer role. In the workplace, a project developer could be a master project planner and a professional "hall monitor" for all those projects.
The project developer will help the project manager by ensuring the path forward is well thought out, clear, and mature. Once the project is initiated, it’s time for the PM to take the helm and see the project through to completion. Project development smooths the way for a project manager when it’s initiation time.
But, project development considers the entire project life cycle. So even when the PM takes the helm, the project developer is one step ahead to make sure the project manager has what they need.
How is it different from a project lifecycle?
The Project Management Institute recognizes five key phases in the project management process: initiation, planning, execution, control, and closing. These steps take place over a linear timeline as the project progresses. Another way of looking at project development is through the lens of the project lifecycle. A project's steps, or phases, need to be completed for successful delivery.
It’s important to remember that the lifecycle names are the same for both the PM and the project developer. A project developer specializes in the planning required and assesses the success of the planning throughout the project lifecycle.
The person acting in the project manager role runs the project through the same phases. The project developer is like an alter-ego, or someone who sits on the project manager’s shoulder and works to smooth the way for the one out on the front lines (the project manager).
Make sure to decide on a methodology or framework to help shape and guide the project's structure. Will this project be run with Agile or waterfall principles in mind? Following a waterfall methodology, a project that uses a project development role is likely more complex.
How does project development fit into the five stages of project management?
Let’s dig into how project development paves the way for the five stages of project management: initiating, planning, execution, monitoring, and closing. Project development covers each stage of project management by maturing each stage as the project goes through its lifecycle.
This might look like feeding up plans: doing dirty work, like obtaining permits (e.g., for a construction site) or shrinking in horror and then taking swift action when realizing the planned budget or schedule is just a little off. This higher oversight can save a project from disaster before the PM gets it off the ground, providing tons of value immediately.
This is the project management-centric discovery phase. The project developer will pave the way for the project manager to build a general project outline, starting with a high-level vision and identifying the problem and possible solutions. This might look like examining whether the project is viable and ensuring that the proposed solutions will have the desired outcomes for business problems or project goals. This is like a first-pass sense check before handing the project over to the designated project manager.
Be careful not to confuse “project development” with the planning stage because they share similar names. During the planning stage of project development, the project scope, timeline, and initial budget are defined or refined by the project manager. Depending on the project, there may also be a project management plan to guide all the project processes. These make up the project plan.
Project development is a level up from the planning stage that the PM will tackle, taking more of that 40,000-foot view of the project. Project development includes how the planning stage comes to fruition: the strategies, methods, and research or discovery needed to arrive at those project timelines, scopes, and budgets. This is a great way to help mitigate risks to scope, schedule, and budget as soon as possible.
Now that the project has been initiated and planned, it’s time for the project team to get to work. The execution phase follows the carefully detailed project plan the project manager put together and emphasizes effective communication, quality management and deliverable creation. The project developer’s role here is to provide light oversight to help the PM with another set of eyes, helping to make sure the systems and plan the PM has put into place are being executed and helping to flag issues before they become problems.
The control phase overlaps with the execution phase. While the project’s work is being carried out, that work is being monitored or controlled. This phase focuses on reporting progress and adjusting for course corrections. The project manager and developer can tag team on some of these items. While the PM is responsible for project reporting, and documenting and addressing issues, the project developer is consulted, ensuring the status and adjustments are accurate and effective. The project developer is providing an additional level of QA for the PM.
When the project’s work ends, and deliverables have been handed off, it’s time for the closing phase. This phase is for offboarding, retrospectives and post-mortems, and final reporting. This phase is also important for taking lessons into future projects. The PM is again responsible for these items.
The project developer should be consulted and involved to provide more seasoned guidance and help close the project successfully. The project developer may have some unique insights for lessons learned, too.
Tips and tools for success
Keep stakeholders in the loop
Communication is key! Utilize apps that encourage asynchronous communication, like Slack or Zoom, and take advantage of at-a-glance views of work progress, like Kanban boards or other apps. The project developer may find that certain clients require specific apps to protect their security or other needs.
Getting access or setting those up so the project manager role is ready to roll for on-the-fly quick comms will save time, and teammates can quickly ping each other while completing tasks, as well as more official communications with higher-level stakeholders who need to make decisions and follow work progress through completion.
Make sure the team is organized by using the right tools
Motion supports organizations with its smart task prioritization and scheduling features, making it a natural choice in the search for project management software. Motion can track and organize your team’s projects and tasks, replacing the need for multiple apps and reducing confusion.
Navigate obstacles like a pro
Everyone who’s managed a project knows that the unexpected comes up. Common pitfalls in projects include scope creep and communication breakdown. A well-developed project can avoid these problems before they have a chance to crop up. The oversight of an experienced project developer provides the guidance needed to help the project manager with a big caseload lead their projects to success.
Think about it this way -- every project is a flight, and all the resources it needs, on its way from point A to point B. The project developers find the right airplane for the job, and provision and fuel it. The project manager is the pilot who flies it where it's going. As the project takes flight, the project developer tracks it along its route, like an air traffic controller, providing guidance and course correction so that the PM pilot can navigate around storms and other obstacles.
So imagine trying to fly without a fueled airplane and air traffic control. That's like trying to deliver lots of projects without an infrastructure to carry and support them. So having those things is what project development is all about. And although it's not yet on the tip of everyone's tongue, it might be someday soon.
Up your project development game
Project development from concept to completion is crucial for success. With guidance and the right tools, you can assess everything an approved project needs to succeed, ensure those things are in place, and then follow through to help make any adjustments.
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Motion always knows what your team is doing and serves their most important tasks according to priorities, deadlines, and dependencies. So your team doesn’t have to determine what to work on next. Take advantage of a 7-day free trial to see its impact on your next successful project.
You can do this!