16 Project Management Terms You Need to Know

Updated December 6, 2019

If project management is a role you or someone in your team happened to step into without much formal training, keeping up with project management terminology can be challenging, especially in the beginning.

Below is a list of project management key terms designed to help your team become familiar with project management lingo. Feel free to bookmark this page and come back to it at any time.

Let’s dive in.

At a glance: The top project management terms any project manager must know

  • Agile
  • Baseline
  • Contingency plan
  • Deliverable
  • Dependencies
  • Gantt chart
  • Iteration
  • Milestone
  • PMBOK
  • PRINCE2
  • Project life cycle
  • Project portfolio management
  • Requirements
  • Scope creep
  • Triple constraint
  • Waterfall method

1. Agile

Agile is a project management methodology in which projects are broken down into small sections or cycles called iterations. The project’s stakeholders evaluate each completed iteration, and the insights are used to guide the next stages of the project.

Agile project management can benefit projects that require a high degree of flexibility. For example, a customer booking app — or most apps, for that matter — will go through a series of iterations based on end-user feedback, which means the final result could be vastly different from what was envisioned in the beginning.

Iterations allow teams to rectify mistakes and produce a better version of the product. Features can be added in increments to address user needs, and a working product can be launched earlier than scheduled.

Project management and workflow frameworks that fall under the agile category include:

  • Scrum
  • Kanban
  • Extreme programming (XP)
  • Lean

2. Baseline

A project’s baseline is the condition or value against which a project’s progress is measured. The baseline is a reference point defined and documented before work on a project begins. Projects have three baselines:

  • Scope baseline
  • Cost baseline
  • Schedule baseline

While tracked and managed separately, together they constitute what is called a performance measurement baseline. Once the baseline has been established, the project is ready to begin. Baselines are fixed standards that must be strictly maintained but can be revised, with approval, as a result of changes to the project’s requirements.

Frequent changes to the baseline, however, will render it meaningless, make the project difficult to control overall, and can mean ineffective project planning, particularly during the initial stages.

3. Contingency plan

Also known as a plan B, a contingency plan is a backup plan put into motion when the primary plan doesn’t go as expected.

Designed mainly in case events arise that could derail the successful delivery of a project (which may or may not happen), contingency plans are part of a broader risk management strategy.

Contingency plans, however, aren’t solely created to respond to disruptive events. There are positive contingency plans that seek to leverage strategic opportunities, such as the passage of favorable legislation.

4. Deliverable

A project management deliverable is the output delivered to the client once a project is completed.

Deliverables take many forms — e.g., a software application, a website, design drawings, a skyscraper, or an engineering report — and can be tangible or intangible. It’s intangible if it’s not a physical product, such as in the case of training provided to a group of employees.

Deliverables can also be internal or external:

  • External: When developed for an external customer.
  • Internal: When created for an in-house "client," such as an IT department or manager working for the same company as the project team.

5. Dependencies

In project management, some tasks are independent of other tasks. But in most cases, tasks overlap in some way.

Dependencies, also known as logical relationships, indicate how previous tasks (predecessor activities) are related to succeeding tasks (successor activities) and determine the sequence in which activities are carried out.

There are four different types of dependency relationships. (For illustration purposes, we’ll refer to the predecessor as task A and the successor as task B.)

  • Finish-to-start dependency: Also called natural dependency, this is the most common form of task dependency and simply means that task A must finish before task B can start. For example, when building a house, you first must prepare the site for construction by removing debris and vegetation before you can begin working on the foundation.
  • Start-to-start dependency: In this scenario, task B cannot begin until task A begins. In other words, the start of task B depends on the start of task A. For example, in a collaborative writing environment, the writer must have started writing for the editor to start editing.
  • Finish-to-finish dependency: In this type of task relationship, task B cannot end until task A ends. Both tasks can run simultaneously, but task A has to end for task B to also end. Using the same writing example above but from a different dependency perspective, the editor cannot finish editing until the writer is done writing. Another example is a baseball broadcast not ending until the actual game finishes.
  • Start-to-finish dependency: This type of dependency means that task A must start before task B can finish. It’s a tricky, rarely used concept that has been the subject of much discussion. The example outlined in the PMBOK Guide (see below for more information) is "the first security guard shift (successor) cannot finish until the second security guard shift (predecessor) starts."

6. Gantt chart

Created by the American inventor Henry Gantt in the 1910s, a Gantt chart is a horizontal bar chart that visually illustrates how project activities are performing against a timeline. It’s an essential tool for tracking tasks and ensuring a project stays on schedule.

A Gantt chart is made up of:

  • A horizontal axis showing a project’s total time broken down into days, weeks, or months
  • A vertical axis that represents the different tasks of a project

Gantt charts can be created using project management software, Excel, or even simple grid paper.

7. Iteration

Used in projects adopting the agile project management methodology, an iteration is one development cycle, usually one to four weeks, when teams complete a specific amount of work, such as a section of a software application.

In an iterative project management process, teams first develop a prototype, then fine-tune the product based on stakeholder feedback after every iteration.

8. Milestone

A milestone is a project management tool that marks a specific point in the project schedule.

It functions as a signpost that signals the beginning or end of a project or the achievement of a significant event or goal. Milestones break down large projects into smaller, more manageable sections, and can also be used to remind you and your team of important schedules, such as:

  • Meetings
  • Workshops
  • Budget reviews
  • Client evaluation

A milestone’s start and finish dates are one and the same, meaning milestones have zero durations. They’re usually symbolized by a diamond on a Gantt chart.

9. PMBOK

PMBOK is short for Project Management Body of Knowledge, a collection of project management guidelines, terminology, and best practices from the Project Management Institute (PMI), a not-for-profit association of project managers around the world.

Considered essential reading to qualify for the Project Management Professional (PMP) and Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM), which are certifications administered by PMI, the PMBOK Guide (A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge) is now in its sixth edition.

10. PRINCE2

PRINCE2 stands for Projects in Controlled Environments and is a project management methodology originally developed as a standard for the U.K. government’s IT projects. Now a generic, process-based system adopted in various regions of the world, PRINCE2 is the relaunched version of the earlier PRINCE methodology.

PRINCE2 focuses on control and organization, with every project starting with a detailed project management plan. It also works in agile environments. PRINCE2 and PRINCE2 Agile certifications are awarded by AXELOS, a joint venture between the U.K.’s Cabinet Office and Capita, a London-based digital services company.

11. Project life cycle

Every project has a beginning and an end. The sequence of activities that a project goes through from the starting gun to the finish line constitute what is called the project life cycle.

A project’s life cycle follows four phases:

  • Initiation: Also known as the conceptualization phase, this stage is where you identify the project’s objectives — the why of the project, so to speak. The project manager then creates a project charter, which is a short, formal document detailing the project’s goals and benefits, the approach for carrying it out, the project’s risks and constraints, the concerned stakeholders, and a general overview of the budget.
  • Planning: This stage is when you further develop the execution strategy and map out a comprehensive plan with the timeline and tasks necessary to accomplish the project. Depending on the needs of your project, key deliverables include a project plan, a financial plan, a resource plan, a communications plan, a quality plan, etc.
  • Implementation: This is when the project plan is executed. The project manager actively monitors tasks and constantly communicates with team members to keep the project moving within schedule and budget. Project performance is continuously assessed and reported through team meetings and status updates.
  • Closure: Also referred to as the termination stage, this phase officially marks the end of the project. Deliverables are released to the client, and a post-mortem analysis is conducted to identify what made the project successful or unsuccessful. The lessons gleaned from the analysis will help project teams pinpoint best practices and improve their processes moving forward.

12. Project portfolio management

Project portfolio management (PPM) is the process of managing current and proposed projects so organizations can pick the right projects at the right time. It analyzes a company’s entire portfolio of projects to:

  • Understand which projects align with their objectives
  • Prioritize the projects that bring the most business benefit

When there are more projects than a company can accommodate, teams are overworked, project quality suffers, deadlines are not met, and projects go over budget. The goal of PPM is to maximize a company’s limited time and resources by saying no to projects that provide little value to the business.

13. Requirements

Project requirements are tasks or conditions that projects must meet. They outline the expected outcome of a project and the activities that must be done to bring it to completion. Project requirements are broken down into several different categories:

  • Business requirements: Discuss what the business needs and why a project is being done.
  • Stakeholder requirements: Specify what stakeholder groups expect from the output.
  • Solution requirements: Outline the features (functional and non-functional) a deliverable must have upon project completion. Functional requirements describe how it should function and behave, while non-functional requirements detail the attributes that make a solution successful, such as availability, scalability, response time, etc.
  • Transition requirements: Explain what is needed to switch from an organization’s current state to the state it envisions with the new product.

14. Scope creep

Scope in project management can refer to two things:

  • Product scope: Defines what a project’s deliverable looks like — its functions, features, and characteristics.
  • Project scope: Details the work needed to deliver the product as specified. It also defines what’s within and out of scope.

Sometimes referred to as requirement creep, scope creep occurs when the project scope increases at any point during the project’s life cycle as a result of unauthorized changes to the project’s requirements. Take note that project requirement changes happen all the time, but as long as the changes are agreed upon, they’re not considered scope creep.

Projects "creeping" beyond scope are a project manager’s nightmare and are often a result of:

  • Vague initial requirements
  • Key stakeholders changing their minds
  • Miscommunication among team members
  • Misjudging the complexity of a project
  • Poor change control

When left uncontrolled, scope creep causes cost overruns and missed deadlines, even reputational damage and hefty fines.

15. Triple constraint

Constraints or restrictions are inherent in project management. All projects operate within certain boundaries, the most significant being:

  • Scope: The amount of work necessary to create the project’s outcome
  • Schedule: The time allocated to complete the project
  • Resources: The people, tools, equipment, and money the project needs

All three combined make up the triple constraint. The triple constraint theory states that a change in one automatically affects the other two. For example, adding more features to a product will require more time or more resources. To speed up the delivery of a product, you’ll have to either decrease the scope or add more resources. If you want to save on costs, you’ll need to work on a much simpler version of the product.

Simply put, it’s all about priorities and compromises. The triple constraint is a reminder that projects cannot be exhaustive, fast, and low cost all at the same time.

16. Waterfall method

The traditional waterfall methodology is a sequential, linear approach to project management. The project is broken down into phases, and a phase cannot begin until the one before it is complete. Each completed phase is final, meaning you can’t go back to make changes unless you absolutely need to, an endeavor that can be extremely expensive.

With waterfall projects, the planning stage is critical. Each phase is mapped out in detail and thoroughly documented. Project requirements are laid out right at the outset, and every team member has clearly defined roles.

The waterfall method is best used in the following scenarios:

  • On projects that have clear scopes, budgets, and timelines
  • With clients who are unlikely to change their minds
  • On projects that are for industries with stiff regulatory requirements
  • If your organization follows a strict set of project management steps

Understanding project management principles and key terms

Project team success is, in part, a result of efficient communication. Speaking a common language, therefore, is critical for everyone to stay on the same page. The above project management glossary has some of the most commonly used project management terms to get you started.

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