Project Management

IT project management terms you should know

This glossary will help your IT project teams standardize on frequently used project management terms, from critical path to work breakdown structure to scrum.

Note: This article is based on and an update of Tom Mochal's article, Mini-glossary: Project management terms you should know.

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Every discipline has its own vocabulary, and project management is no exception. Part of the process of successfully deploying project management in your organization is to standardize the terminology. That way, when one person talks about risks, scope, issues, requirements, and other project management concerns, everyone else knows what he or she is referring to. This glossary contains common terms used in project management and can help start the standardization process in your organization.

Assumption

There may be external circumstances or events that must occur for the project to be successful (or that should happen to increase your chances of success). If you believe that the probability of the event occurring is acceptable, you could list it as an assumption. An assumption has a probability between 0 and 100%; that is, it is not impossible that the event will occur (0%), and it is not a fact (100%) -- it is somewhere in between. Assumptions are important because they set the context in which the entire remainder of the project is defined. If an assumption doesn't come through, the estimate and the rest of the project definition may no longer be valid.

Client / customers

The person or group that is the direct beneficiary of a project or service is the client / customer. These are the people for whom the project is being undertaken (indirect beneficiaries are stakeholders). In many organizations, internal beneficiaries are called "clients" and external beneficiaries are called "customers," but this is not a hard and fast rule.

Constraints

Constraints are limitations that are outside the control of the project team and need to be managed around. They are not necessarily problems. However, the project manager should be aware of constraints because they represent limitations that the project must execute within. Date constraints, for instance, imply that certain events (perhaps the end of the project) must occur by certain dates. Resources are almost always a constraint, since they are not available in an unlimited supply.

Cost variance

The cost variance (CV) is used to measure the cost difference between a project's earned value (EV) and the actual cost (AC) to deliver progress to date (CV = EV – AC). In application, positive CVs indicate the project is under budget, since it is delivering more value than incurring cost. If the project has a negative CV, it is over budget. Even positive CVs should be examined for root cause.

Critical path

The critical path is the sequence of activities that must be completed on schedule for the entire project to be completed on schedule. It is the longest duration path through the workplan. If an activity on the critical path is delayed by one day, the entire project will be delayed by one day (unless another activity on the critical path can be accelerated by one day). (Read: Why critical path is critical to project management)

Deliverable

A deliverable is any tangible outcome that is produced by the project. All projects create deliverables, which can be documents, plans, computer systems, buildings, aircraft, etc. Internal deliverables are produced as a consequence of executing the project and are usually needed only by the project team. External deliverables are created for clients and stakeholders. Your project may create one or many deliverables.

Earned value

Earned value (EV) is an EV management term used to determine the total work completed at a specific point in time. A project's EV is determined by adding up all the budgeted costs for every task in the project schedule. The actual EV calculation can use a variety of calculation methods, including 0-100%, 50-50%, or an actual percentage to determine a task's credited value.

Functional manager

The functional manager is the person you report to within your functional organization. Typically, this is the person who does your performance review. The project manager may also be a functional manager, but he or she does not have to be. If your project manager is different from your functional manager, your organization is probably utilizing matrix management.

Gantt chart

A Gantt chart is a bar chart that depicts activities as blocks over time. The beginning and end of the block correspond to the beginning and end-date of the activity.

Issue

An issue is a major problem that will impede the project's progress and that can't be resolved by the project manager and project team without outside help. Project managers should proactively deal with issues through a defined issues management process.

Lifecycle

Lifecycle refers to the process used to build the deliverables produced by the project. There are many models for a project lifecycle. For software development, the entire lifecycle might consist of planning, analysis, design, construct/test, implementation, and support; this is an example of a "waterfall" lifecycle. Other lifecycles include iterative development, package implementation, and research and development. Each of these lifecycle models represents an approach to building on your project's deliverables. (Read: Project managers need to understand lifecycle work)

Milestone

A milestone is a scheduling event that signifies the completion of a major deliverable or a set of related deliverables. A milestone, by definition, has duration of zero and no effort. There is no work associated with a milestone. It is a flag in the workplan to signify that some other work has completed. Usually, a milestone is used as a project checkpoint to validate how the project is progressing. In many cases there is a decision, such as validating that the project is ready to proceed, that needs to be made at a milestone.

Objective

An objective is a concrete statement that describes what the project is trying to achieve. The objective should be written at a low level, so that it can be evaluated at the conclusion of a project to see whether it was achieved. Project success is determined based on whether the project objectives were achieved. A technique for writing an objective is to make sure it is Specific, Measurable, Attainable/Achievable, Realistic, and Timebound (SMART).

Program

A program is the umbrella structure established to manage a series of related projects. The program does not produce any project deliverables -- the project teams produce them all. The purpose of the program is to provide overall direction and guidance, to make sure the related projects are communicating effectively, to provide a central point of contact and focus for the client and the project teams, and to determine how individual projects should be defined to ensure that all the work gets completed successfully.

Program manager

A program manager is the person with the authority to manage a program. (Note that this is a role. The program manager may also be responsible for one or more of the projects within the program.) The program manager leads the overall planning and management of the program. All project managers within the program report to the program manager.

Project

A project is a temporary structure to organize and manage work and ultimately to build a specific defined deliverable or set of deliverables. By definition, all projects are unique, which is one reason it is difficult to compare different projects to one another.

Project baseline

The project baseline is used to establish the original set of budget and schedule estimates based on the approved project scope prior to project execution. Effective project managers compare the project baseline to the current project status to determine specific cost or schedule variances.

Project definition (charter)

Before you start a project, it is important to know the overall objectives of the project, as well as the scope, deliverables, risks, assumptions, project organization chart, etc. The project definition (or charter) is the document that holds this relevant information. The project manager is responsible for creating the project definition. The document should be approved by the sponsor to signify that the project manager and the sponsor are in agreement on these important aspects of the project.

Project Management Office

The Project Management Office (PMO) is an organization within a company that develops and enforces project management processes, tools, and techniques. A PMO may form at a program level, a department level, or at an enterprise level. A PMO typically provides support for program or portfolio governance, project portfolio management, resource management, and issue and risk management.

Project manager

The project manager is the person with the authority to manage a project. The project manager is 100% responsible for the processes used to manage the project. He or she also has people management responsibilities for team members, although this is shared with the team member's functional manager. The processes used to manage the project include defining the work, building the workplan and budget, managing the workplan and budget, scope management, issues management, risk management, etc.

Project phase

A phase is a major logical grouping of work on a project. It also represents the completion of a major deliverable or set of related deliverables. On an IT development project, logical phases might be planning, analysis, design, construct (including testing), and implementation.

Project plan

The project plan (not to be confused with the project schedule) is the document that describes the processes, tools, and techniques used to manage and control the project. Common processes include specific project level processes such as change management, issue management, risk management, document management, and time management for project schedule updates.

Project schedule / work schedule

The project schedule is commonly associated with Microsoft Project or a similar scheduling tool.  The project schedule is the series of tasks with durations, resources, and specific dependencies that forecasts the project end date.

Project team

The project team consists of the full-time and part-time resources assigned to work on the deliverables of the project. They are responsible for understanding the work to be completed; completing assigned work within the budget, timeline, and quality expectations; informing the project manager of issues, scope changes, and risk and quality concerns; and proactively communicating status and managing expectations.

Request for proposal

The request for proposal (RFP) is a formal request used by organizations to identify potential solutions and services from a list of vendors. Based on the RFP, the organization will identify a smaller list of vendors to issue a request for quotation. (Read: Five tips to a better Request for Proposal)

Request for quotation

A request for quotation is a formal request for a vendor to provide actual costs for a specific service or scope of work. The client typically provides a vendor with a set of requirements and instructions on how to respond to the request. The vendor provides its response, including details about the solution, assumptions, and pricing.

Requirements

Requirements are descriptions of how a product or service should act, appear, or perform. Requirements generally refer to the features and functions of the deliverables you are building on your project. Requirements are considered to be a part of project scope. High-level scope is defined in your project definition (charter). The requirements form the detailed scope. After your requirements are approved, they can be changed through the scope change management process.

Risk

There may be potential external events that will have a negative impact on your project if they occur. Risk refers to the combination of the probability the event will occur and the impact on the project if the event occurs. If the combination of the probability of the occurrence and the impact to the project is too high, you should identify the potential event as a risk and put a proactive plan in place to manage the risk.

Schedule variance

The schedule variance (SV) is an EV management term used to measure the project’s schedule performance by comparing the project's EV to the project baselined planned value (PV). The formula is SV = EV - PV. A positive SV indicates the project is ahead of schedule, while a negative SV indicates the project is behind schedule.

Scope

Scope is the way you describe the boundaries of the project; it defines what the project will deliver and what it will not deliver. High-level scope is set in your project definition (charter) and includes all of your deliverables and the boundaries of your project. The detailed scope is identified through your business requirements. Any changes to your project deliverables, boundaries, or requirements would require approval through scope change management.

Scope change management

The purpose of scope change management is to manage change that occurs to previously approved scope statements and requirements. Scope is defined and approved in the scope section of the project definition (charter) and the more detailed business requirements. If the scope or the business requirements change during the project (and usually this means the client wants additional items), the estimates for cost, effort, and duration may no longer be valid. If the sponsor agrees to include the new work in the project scope, the project manager has the right to expect that the current budget and deadline will be modified (usually increased) to reflect this additional work. This new estimated cost, effort, and duration become the approved target.

Sometimes the project manager thinks that scope management means having to tell the client "no." That makes the project manager nervous and uncomfortable. However, the good news is that managing scope is all about getting the sponsor to make the decisions that will result in changes to project scope. (Read: Learn the secret of effective scope change management)

Sponsor (executive sponsor and project sponsor)

The sponsor is the person who has ultimate authority over the project. The executive sponsor provides project funding, resolves issues and scope changes, approves major deliverables, and provides high-level direction. He or she also champions the project within the organization. Depending on the project and the organizational level of the executive sponsor, he or she may delegate day-to-day tactical management to a project sponsor. If assigned, the project sponsor represents the executive sponsor on a day-to-day basis and makes most of the decisions requiring sponsor approval. If the decision is large enough, the project sponsor will take it to the executive sponsor.

Stakeholder

Specific people or groups who have a stake in the outcome of the project are stakeholders. Normally stakeholders are from within the company and may include internal clients, management, employees, administrators, etc. A project can also have external stakeholders, including suppliers, investors, community groups, and government organizations.

Steering committee

A steering committee is usually a group of high-level stakeholders who are responsible for providing guidance on overall strategic direction. They don't take the place of a sponsor but help spread the strategic input and buy-in to a larger portion of the organization. The steering committee is especially valuable if your project has an impact in multiple organizations because it allows input from those organizations into decisions that affect them.

Waterfall methodology

A waterfall methodology is a predictive life cycle methodology with sequential phases, which include Analysis, Design, Development, Testing, and Deployment. Predictive methodologies work well when the requirements and design are well defined, as found in the construction or manufacturing processes. For software projects, an agile methodology is recommended despite the abundance of waterfall methodologies found across industries.

Work breakdown structure

The work breakdown structure (WBS) is a list of major deliverables that the project team will complete during the project. The WBS is organized in a hierarchy and is typically decomposed into several sub-levels. A WBS can be used to visually define the project into smaller chunks, so the team can better understand and plan the activities needed to complete the deliverables. Diagramming tools such as Microsoft Visio or mind mapping tools such as Mindjet or MindGenius can be used to build a visual WBS. (Read: Five tips for building a work breakdown structure)

Workplan (schedule)

The project workplan tells you how you will complete the project. It describes the activities required, the sequence of the work, who is assigned to the work, an estimate of how much effort is required, when the work is due, and other information of interest to the project manager. The workplan allows the project manager to identify the work required to complete the project and also allows the project manager to monitor the work to determine whether the project is on schedule.

Agile project management terminology

Agile methodology

An agile methodology is an adaptive systems development lifecycle methodology that delivers software in incremental chunks known as iterations or sprints. In agile development, time is fixed, and scope is allowed to float from one iteration to another based on the team's user story progress. An agile methodology is best used when requirements are not well defined. (Read: Five agile project management migration tips)

Burn down chart

A burn down chart is a graphical view of the remaining work left versus the time in an iteration.  A project backlog or hours can be expressed on the vertical axis, while time is indicated on the horizontal axis. A burn down chart is often used to determine when work will be completed on a project or an iteration.

Epic

An epic is a set of related user stories. They are also considered a "really big user story." 

Iteration

An iteration is an iterative development concept that establishes a short time frame to deliver a set of software features or user stories. Each iteration includes typical waterfall activities such as analysis, design, development, and testing, yet they are time boxed within a one to four week window. At the end of an iteration, the progress is reviewed with the business customer, and recommended changes can be incorporated into future iterations.

Planning Poker

Planning Poker is an estimation game created by Mike Cohn of Mountain Goat Software.  Planning Poker is used to estimate individual user stories as a team activity. The team gathers and reviews user stories one at a time. As stories are presented, the team discusses the user story and provides an estimate of the work from their own deck of cards. All estimates are presented and discussed until the team arrives at a consensus.

Release

A release is a set of working software delivered to the business customer resulting from a set of iterations. During release planning, teams will review a product backlog to organize user stories into the specific releases and iterations that deliver a functional product to the business customer.

Scrum

Scrum is an iterative development methodology used to manage software projects. In scrum-based projects, there isn't a specific project manager directing project team tasks; the team is self-directed, with co-located team members relying on communication over documentation for effective project delivery. (Read: Get an overview of the Scrum agile project approach)

Sprint

A sprint is a scrum-based agile methodology concept that is similar to an iteration. A sprint is time boxed to deliver a specific set of user stories and produce working features within a set time period. During sprint planning, the business customer or product owner specifies the user story priority, and the development team commits to the scope for a given sprint. During a sprint, user stories can be removed from the sprint scope, but new stories cannot be added; this allows project teams to focus on the goals of the sprint and deliver rapidly.

Story points

A story point is a relative estimation method used to determine the size of user stories so teams can determine how much work can be done during an iteration. Story points can be expressed in a simple Fibonacci sequence, t-shirt sizes, or a relative number. By adding up the number of user stories and associated story points, the project team can establish its velocity for future iteration planning.

User story

A user story is an agile version of a project requirement. A user story is comprised of a couple of sentences that defines who, what, and why for a given requirement and can be documented on index cards or sticky notes. User stories are written by the business user to communicate the software need or want.  User stories are intended to be concise, as communication between the business and development team is used to elaborate the user story and develop working software. Example from Mike Cohn: "As a <role>, I want <goal/desire>". (Read: User stories: The starting point in agile development)

About

Dr. Andrew Makar is an IT program manager and is the author of How To Use Microsoft Project and Project Management Interview Questions Made Easy. For more project management advice visit http://www.tacticalprojectmanagement.com.

5 comments
Ashleycarole
Ashleycarole

Really good especially for a person like myself who is considering a career as a PM. Thanks

YoTeach
YoTeach

I am part of a group that just built a semester course  in modeling and simulation for high school students.  One of the modules for that course is how to manage a project and bring it in on budget and on time.  I was working with industry experts in management, government contracting, modeling & simulation, and programming.  There were many times when they had to stop a  conversation and translate many of the words in this article for me so I would know what they were talking about.  If possible, I would like to include a hard copy of this article in the curriculum materials so the teachers and students can improve their vocabulary as well.

LuisRDuran
LuisRDuran

Great article! Congratulations. Thank you for putting together a list of  definitions used by every IT Project Manager everyday. I would add the definition of Lessons Learned or Post Mortem too.

Regards

DavidHarrisLH
DavidHarrisLH

Good - but a little thin on Risks - they should be managed via a Risk Plan