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Last modified date

Jul 19, 2024

How to manage projects from start to finish [tips & step by step guide]

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Laurențiu Bancu

Blog average read time

9 min

Last modified date

July 19, 2024

If you’ve ever tried to manage projects, you know there’s more to it than just following a textbook. Sure, theory is essential, but things don’t always go according to plan in the real world. In this article, we’ll take a hands-on approach to project management (no vague or abstract stuff included).

You can also find yourself in a project manager position with little experience and no project management certifications. If that’s your situation, this practical guide will help you start the engine. Also, it will help you make sure your project is on – what you believe to be – the right track. We’ll take a look at every detail. You can create a free Paymo account—the software I’ve used—if you want to follow along. I’ll also give you some handy tips, and ultimately, you’ll see precisely how you can manage a project step by step, from initiation to payment.

Managing projects in a nutshell

Project management theory is complicated, and sometimes project managers don’t get the respect they deserve. And a project manager’s job is not a walk in the park. But if you’re in charge of a project, there’s a simple plan you can follow to make your job easier and increase the project’s chances of success. Therefore, you should start by answering these questions:

  • what’s the project’s purpose? (what problem or need does the project address)
  • what needs to be done? get a detailed list of project specifications as detailed as possible
  • who’s going to work on the project?
  • how long will it take to complete?
  • how much will it cost?
  • what could go wrong?
  • what do we do if things don’t go according to plan?
  • what tool(s) do we use for communication and tracking progress?
  • what lessons did we learn?

While this plan is simple, getting the right answers can be difficult sometimes. Let’s have a look at each of these questions.

The project’s purpose

No matter who the project sponsor is (aka, the person who pays for the project), understanding the project’s purpose can boost your motivation, understand requirements more clearly, help you develop a better plan, and even decide whether you accept the job. Unless there’s no one else to do the job, and you have no choice but to accept the role. For example, ask yourself if you would accept being the Pegasus Pipeline project manager.

What needs to be done

This is oftentimes the most overlooked step in the whole process. And that’s probably because the project specifications are too vague or too general. You should have an extensive meeting with the project sponsor and ensure you write down all the specs in detail. It is possible that during this “exercise,” the initial project requirements will be changed or adjusted.

Who’s going to work on the project?

The most important step in the project’s life is assembling the team to do the job. Look at the jobs to be performed, check the skills and availability of your team, and determine if you have all the necessary resources to complete the project or if you have to hire contractors.

How long will the project take to complete

If it’s something you’ve done before, depending on the team’s experience and availability, it will be easier to come up with a more accurate estimate. If it’s something new, you’ll have to gather the team, review each task, “negotiate,” and decide together upon a start and end date, then map all the tasks on a timeline and create a critical path (which will basically tell you how long will it take to complete the project).

How much will the project cost

The project cost is the amount you pay for the time spent working by the team and the materials used. Other not-so-obvious costs (for example, insurance premiums or property taxes) might exist depending on the project’s complexity. To ensure you’re not missing something, the safest way to determine the project’s total cost is to go through tasks individually, think about all the associated costs, and then sum up the amounts.

What could go wrong, and what are the risks

Because it’s hard to determine the probability of something bad happening during the project lifecycle, many project managers prefer to say what Peter Griffin once said: “We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.” Without spending too much time, you can think of the most probable things that could go wrong and write them down.

What do we do if things don’t go according to plan?

Now that you’ve written down the risks, having a plan B is never bad. For example, if an essential team member is excessively slowing down the project, you might consider replacing him. Ask yourself: do I have someone else to do the job if this happens? You don’t want to be in the middle of the project, spending too much time looking for a replacement and delaying the project even more.

What tool(s) do we use for communication and tracking progress?

You can’t manage projects with pen and paper anymore. So you will need project management software to help you keep track of everything that’s going on. Also, communication is critical; therefore, you need to decide from the start how you will communicate with the stakeholders.

What lessons did we learn?

Congrats: the project is now completed! Hopefully, in time and within budget and scope. It’s more than fine to celebrate, but there’s one more thing you need to do: assemble the team to hold a meeting where you discuss the good, the bad, and the ugly. Consider what you’ve learned that might help you in future projects, and write down these lessons.

How to manage projects – an example

In project management theory, the steps I’ve mentioned before are grouped into 4 (or sometimes 5) steps or phases:

  1. Project initiation – when you need to find out the goals and requirements of your client to determine the importance of a project for your company’s growth and whether you have the necessary resources to complete the project
  2. Project planning – when you assemble the team, identify risks, create a communication plan and the project’s schedule
  3. Project execution and monitoring – when the team effectively works on the tasks, and you ensure the project moves according to the plan
  4.  Project closure – work is completed, and, together with the team, you draw the conclusions

Step 1 – Project initiation

In our example, the fictional client is “Natwater,” a company that contacted PurpleDog—our outsourcing company— for a new website. We create the client in Paymo with all the info we need. We meet with the client to decide on the project scope. We’ll find out precisely what the client wants, when the project needs to be delivered, how much time we’ll invest, and how much it will cost. We will write this info down and attach the document to the project later (usually, this document is a project charter, and you can find a downloadable template here).

Adding a client to Paymo

There should always be a written agreement or contract between the parties involved in a project. You HAVE TO make sure that everyone’s on the same page. Not only does writing an agreement help avoid miscommunication, but if a problem does arise, the agreement helps identify each party’s responsibilities regarding scope, budget, and other issues. There are a lot of reasons why this step is so “underrated”:

  • Lack of experience in managing projects. When you’re inexperienced, you might think this is only paperwork. They say, “The longer you are in business, the better your contracts will become.” You might believe every project will be unique and rely only on clients’ verbal promises.
  • the client is somebody you’ve already done business with;
  • the project seems pretty straightforward, or you underestimate the potential risks.

When you meet with the client, grab a pen and paper or create a document and write down as many things as possible in detail. After you agree, sign the document and attach it to the project. Agreements usually happen after a few meetings. For example, you’ll need to evaluate all tasks first to make an accurate budget estimation.

Step 2 – Project planning

After discovering exactly what the client wants, it’s time to create a list of tasks, group them by purpose, and assign the responsible person for each activity. The trickiest part is ‘negotiating’ a time frame and writing down how long each task will take. And this is probably the most challenging part of project management (or “the most controversial”). Why? Because it can cause the biggest headaches for those involved.

Fact: you’ll be wrong in your estimates. The less experienced you and your team are, the higher the chance that your estimates will be wrong. The fun part is when you have to come up with reasons why your estimates were (so) wrong. The good thing is that you’ll get better at estimating as you learn and gain insights from previous projects.

Based on your experience, there are three types of tasks: tasks you’ve done before, tasks you haven’t done but know what needs to be done, and tasks you haven’t done but need to research to learn more about.

Returning to the software, we start by adding a new project and defining the task workflow (the stages a task goes through from creation to completion).
In our scenario, we’re going to use the “New website” workflow that looks like this:

To Do > In Progress > Waiting for Approval > Approved > Complete

We create a custom workflow, which we use to indicate the stages a task goes through

When we create the new project, there are a few things we need to configure. Besides the regular stuff, like name, description, client, workflow, or ID, we need to specify how we will bill the client. We have the deadline, and even if we have a rough idea of how many hours we’ll invest, we don’t know exactly; therefore, the budget hour is set to “Adjusted Automatically,” and we will bill at the standard company hourly rate of $75.

We create the project in Paymo with all the required info

Next, we add the people working on the tasks to the project. We’ve also invited the project owner, Felicia, as a “Guest” so she can receive real-time updates on the project’s progress.

Adding a “Guest” allows the client to be updated on the project’s progress

After creating and grouping the tasks into task lists, we assign each team member to the corresponding tasks.

We group the tasks into task lists by purpose

The Gantt view is the best for understanding how tasks depend on each other and how long it will take to complete the project. Also, it allows you to automatically adjust the duration (start/end dates) for all dependent tasks when one takes more time than the initial estimate.

The Gantt gives us a visual representation of the project

Step 3 – Project execution and monitoring

The real work begins now that we know who’s working on what and how long the project will take. To ensure we’re on track, each member must track the time spent on their tasks and, as the project goes on, see how it compares to the initial estimate.

In Paymo, several ways of tracking time exist, including a web timer, desktop app, or mobile app. The most straightforward is to start the time for a task when you begin working and stop it when you’ve finished.

You can add notes to a time entry

The board view (Kanban) gives you an overview of the tasks’ status. Each time a task’s status changes, the project manager is notified so he can take action if necessary.

The project’s tasks and their corresponding status

A few useful features in Paymo will help the assignee focus on his work while keeping the project on track. The alerts, for example, will notify the assignee when the due date is approaching.

The assignee will receive an alert the day before the task is due

The time reports are another tool for the project manager to keep an eye on the velocity and project’s progress. The report will tell you how much time each member has worked to date and compare it to the initial plan.

This report shows us how much time we’ve worked on the given period

When we grouped tasks into task lists by purpose, we also attached a milestone to each task list to mark the completion of an essential stage in the project’s development.

This milestone will mark the end of the planning phase

To facilitate the collaboration between team members, Paymo allows you to leave comments on specific tasks or create general discussions attached to the project.

The task comments facilitate the collaboration between team members

When a new comment is added, those involved in a task will be notified in-app. The notification area is where you get all the updates regarding the tasks and projects you’re involved in.

Notifications keep you updated with the latest project changes

One of the most important things in project management is ensuring everything related to the project is kept in the same place and easily accessible. We’ve attached the files to the corresponding tasks – and all the files can be found in the Files section in the project overview.

A list of files attached to the project

Step 4 – Project closure & payment

When the last task has been completed, and the client is pleased with the final result, there’s one more thing left to do: create an invoice and get paid.

The invoice has been sent to the client

The closing of a project is often overlooked. The truth is that this can be the most crucial part of your following projects. The information you’ve gained during a previous project could prove crucial for your next ones.

You might rush into celebrating the end of the project. However, don’t forget one important thing: a retrospective analysis. Hold a retrospective meeting to ensure you’ve gathered all the data. Use your client’s feedback and your team’s insights for further projects. This will help you and your organization alike.

Write these ideas down and keep them safely in your archives. Put down all your opinions and motivations. For example, consider the good and bad decisions you made in your last project. A good one would be that you estimate deadlines based on the time estimations from similar previous projects. On the other hand, a bad one that causes problems is when you assign a difficult task to an inexperienced team member. Attach these documents to a project to make them easily accessible for everyone.

No project is complete without getting your client’s approval to close the project. This includes ending your contracts with all outsourced workers or resource providers. You must keep several contracts in place when dealing with a long-term project.

Now, the project can be archived, and you can finally go on and celebrate!

Laurențiu Bancu


Laurențiu started his marketing journey over 18 years ago and now leads a marketing team. He has extensive experience in work and project management, and content strategy. When not working, he’s probably playing board games or binge-watching mini-series.

Alexandra Martin


Drawing from a background in cognitive linguistics and armed with 10+ years of content writing experience, Alexandra Martin combines her expertise with a newfound interest in productivity and project management. In her spare time, she dabbles in all things creative.

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