Project management

There are many definitions of what constitutes a project such as ‘a unique set of co-ordinated activities, with definite starting and finishing points, undertaken by an individual or team to meet specific objectives within defined time, cost and performance parameters’ (Office of Government Commerce).

We are all aware that our organisations undertake projects and, rather than debate the merits of different definitions, it is perhaps more helpful to look at a few of the characteristics that make projects different from other work. Projects are usually characterised by being:

  • Instruments of change
  • Non-routine
  • Unique
  • Composed of inter-dependent activities
  • Carried out by people who don’t normally work together
  • Temporary with defined start and end dates
  • Intended to achieve a specific outcome
  • Frequently risky and involving uncertainties

Many of you may already be ‘accidental project managers’ who carry out many of the activities outlined here but view it as simply ‘getting things done’ whilst recognising that you also rely heavily on luck, perseverance and strength of will. What we are offering is a structured approach and a set of tools that help you to ‘get things done better

Mullaly, M.E. ‘The Accidental Project Manager: Coming in from the Cold’, 2003

There is no magic formula for ensuring that a project is successful, but there are well proven techniques available to help plan and manage projects. No one need feel daunted at taking on their first project – project management is not a ‘black art’, nor does it need to be a minefield of jargon and bureaucracy. Most of project management is plain, common sense and a lot of what we describe is simply a structured approach to what you would do instinctively. Project management gives you a framework – at certain points it prompts you to take a step back and think ‘have I done this?’, ‘have I considered that?’, ‘do I understand this fully?’, ‘what will we do should “x” happen?’, ‘how should I deal with this?’

There are many formal project management methodologies that combine a framework or approach with a set of project tools and guidelines. Some are ‘proprietary’ approaches developed by consulting firms and software houses whilst others are in the public domain. They vary in scale and complexity but all are based around a small core of common sense principles.

A methodology that is commonly used in the public sector and forms the basis of this infoKit is PRINCE2 (PRojects IN Controlled Environments). PRINCE2 is a very comprehensive methodology that can be applied to projects no matter how large and complex. The JISC infoNet method pares down PRINCE2 to the bare bones of a framework suitable for managing any project. We have tried to ensure that the method is scalable and hence we highlight areas where you may go into greater or lesser amounts of detail. The important thing is to make the methodology work for you. Properly applied it should be a user-friendly framework that matches the size, risk level and complexity of your project.

Another key difference about the JISC infoNet approach is the emphasis on people and behaviour. One thing that stands out in the analysis of all projects, whether successful or otherwise, is that projects are about people. Few information systems projects fail for technical reasons. They fail because of people’s perceptions of what to expect from technology or because of their belief that technology can somehow adapt to their way of doing things without the need for associated business process change. We aim to give due emphasis on the skills required to manage the people aspects and the organisational change that any project will inevitably bring about.

The diagram below shows the main components of the JISC infoNet project management methodology. Some elements, namely Project Start-up and Project Closure, occur only once. The remaining elements, Planning, Managing Phases and Controlling, form an iterative cycle that may repeat many times before the project is complete.

JISC infoNet Project Management Methodology
JISC infoNet Project Management Methodology

It must be stressed that the methodology is a framework and nothing more. It is a tried and tested, structured approach that will give you a sound basis for running a successful project. It is not, however, a substitute for creativity. Projects are always unique; they necessarily involve uncertainty and risk and they will require all your flexibility and ingenuity if they are to succeed. That’s what’s exciting about managing a project!

PRINCE2 (PRojects IN Controlled Environments)

PRINCE2 (PRojects IN Controlled Environments) is the methodology approved by government for public sector projects and was originally designed to aid the development and implementation of information systems, a useful overview is available below. PRINCE2 is such a well established and common methodology that we show the links between the JISC infoNet methodology and the relevant PRINCE2 process throughout this infoKit.


Published: 5 January 2008 | Last updated: 8 May 2014