What is a project??????

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

6 responses to “What is a project??????

  1. Pat,

    I think this is a great distinction between operational and project work and probably the best definition I have seen. I have two comments.

    First, your use of temporary team may be invalidated by the same logic you use regarding temporary endeavor unique value proposition.

    Second, how is your definition distinct from a product development team?

    Given that these two points aren’t problems. I believe that there is some subtle extension of this definition to include additional properties that make a unique set of management practices necessary.

    So something like:

    An endeavor, undertaken by a temporary team to create a new or changed, product, service or result utilizing some constrained budget within some expected time frame.

    I haven’t spent a lot of time on this, but think the extension may be useful. Also, there is something wrong with your spell checker. Endeavor is not spelled using the letter u. 😉

    Dennis Stevens

    • The spelling depends on which side of the Pacific/Atlantic you are based Dennnis – The English and Australian spelling has the u. I was borne in the UK and live in Australia (and was never very good at spelling).

  2. Erling S Andersen

    I refer to my book:
    Erling S. Andersen: Rethinking Project Management, Prentice Hall, Harlow 2008, ch. 1.5:

    In this book we approach project management from an organizational perspective. This perspective’s project definition is:
    “A project is a temporary organization, established by its base organization to carry out an assignment on its behalf.”
    By temporary organization we mean an officially sanctioned activity, but we apply a low threshold about what counts as an official sanction. It is enough if the organizational setup is backed by some kind of decision and consists of more than one person, necessitating an organizational structure and delegation of responsibilities. The definition embraces therefore a range of different organizations with varying degrees of formality. At the same time, it excludes certain procedures (pregnancy, walking the dog) from being conceived as projects because they lack a formally established interorganizational mode of collaboration.
    We call the organization which puts the project in place the base organization (some call it mother organization or parent organization). It is the permanent organization insofar as its lifetime is not limited beforehand. Nothing lasts for ever, though, and we see base organizations folding up all the while either because they’re insolvent, are taken over or merged. But in principle, the base organization is everlasting.
    The project is the temporary organization. From an organizational perspective, project management concerns basically the relationship between the permanent and the temporary organization. The temporary organization performs an assignment, which it gets from the permanent organization. Inherent in the organizational perspective is an understanding of the project’s most important purpose, to facilitate another organization’s progress. This is the basic denominator by which everything else is judged.

    • I think we are thinking along similar lines, ‘temporary team’ and ‘temporary organisation’. This links into another key idea of the project as a temporary knowledge organisation that has to process and crate new knowledge to achieve the new work the project has been created to deliver. Thanks for the feedback.

  3. Ignacio Inchausti


    I concur with your serach for additional qualifications to the PMBOK definition of “project”. Whilst “temporary” or “transient” certainly is required, the need to impose constraints (such as “within a predefined cost”, “in a time-bound manner”, “delivering agreed scope/features”) is also required – and we have these already, as described within the PMBOK project processes.

    The risk imposed by the transient or temporary organisation you suggest (and referred by Dennis Stevens) should also define an additional constraint: within a specified body of knowledge. Now, knowledge is organised in hunderds of categories, subjects, areas of expertise, etc. To benefit and derive value from knowledge, a project needs a planned and organised approach to managing the knowledge used, derived, created, postulated so that it serves the project outcomes.

    In addition, and really underpining a project’s raison d’être, is the notion of delivering or contribtuing to a benefit or benefits. “What benefit(s) does this project deliver or help realise?” Benefit realisation or delivery should also be considered in the definition of a project.

    So in summary, may I propose a refinement to your original adjustment to the PMBOK definition:

    “An endeavor, undertaken by a temporary team to create a new or changed, product, service or result, characterised by defined benefits and that informs and enhances a shared knowledge domain and benefits the organisation.”


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