The current definitions of a project have a common theme, but generally fail to differentiate projects from on-going operations. With governments world-wide starting to legislate about ‘projects’ we need to tighten up these definitions from within our profession before lawyers do the job for us!
There seems to be two elements of a project that clearly separate the practice and profession from operational work. These are:
- Projects are about creating change. Turning a block of land into a building, developing a new business process, or writing a software program. At the end of the project there’s something significantly different in the world.
- Projects are also temporary organisations. The key role of a project manager is to develop the temporary team, lead them in the work of the project and then dissipate the team at the end as the output from the project is transitioned to the client or operational users.
If these two factors are present, the endeavour is almost certainly a project. If one is present, it may be a project.
How do these ideas compare to the current definition of a project? The PMBOK® Guide has the following key elements in its definition:
- It is a temporary endeavour*. Whilst this is true of a project, all endeavours are temporary. Endeavour is synonymous with ‘work’ and all work is temporary. The work by the accounts department to process the end of month accounts in a business is temporary but highly unlikely to be a project.
- To create a unique product, service or result. Again whilst this is true, virtually every product, service or result is ‘unique’. Every Ford motorcar rolling off a production line is unique; it has a unique chassis number, a unique engine number, and has been made at a different time to the cars before it and after it. The difference between a project and an operational production item is the project is intended to create a distinct change. Producing a routine set of monthly accounts or another car from a production line is business as usual – the operation’s management may be looking for incremental improvements in their process but not change. The result of a project is a change in the environment (eg, a new building) or a change in the way the organisation works.
Other standards add additional factors to the PMBOK’s starting point such as the need for coordinated activities over time (dates), the use of resources and the presence of risk. None of these additional factors differentiate a project from operational work; all endeavours involve coordinating the activities of resources over time to achieve the intended outcome, and the outcome is always at risk.
The change needed to existing definitions of a project to actively differentiate projects from operational work is not great. The PMBOK definition could be amended from:
A temporary endeavor to create a unique product, service or result.
An endeavor, undertaken by a temporary team to create a new or changed, product, service or result.
This definition may not be perfect but it’s a lot closer to differentiating projects from operational work.
Your comments will be appreciated.
*Definitions of endeavour (various sources)=
- a purposeful or industrious undertaking
- an earnest and conscientious activity intended to do or accomplish something
- an effort to do something
- an attempt by employing effort