Good definitions are short and unambiguous and are essential for almost every aspect of life. Even something as simple as ordering a snack requires a clear understanding of what’ required – this understanding is the basis of a definition. For example, doughnuts and bagels have a lot in common, they are both round and have a hole (a torus), and are made from dough but they are ‘definitely’ very different commodities! If you need a bagel for breakfast or a doughnut for you coffee everyone involved in the transaction needs to understand your requirements if your expectations are to be fulfilled.
The simple fact is if you cannot define something precisely, you have real problems explaining what it is, what it does and the value it offers, and this lack of definition/understanding seems to be a key challenge facing the project management community (by the way, the bagel is on the left…… the other picture is a Krispy Kreme donut).
Definitions serve two interlinked purposes, they describe the subject of the definition in sufficient detail to allow the concept to be recognised and understood and they exclude similar ‘concepts’ that do not fit the definition. Definitions do not explain the subject, merely define it.
Way back in 2002 we suggested the definition of ‘a project’ was flawed. Almost any temporary work organised to achieve an objective could fit into almost all of the definitions currently in use – unfortunately not much has changed since. PMI’s definition of a ‘project’ is still a: temporary endeavour undertaken to create a unique product, service or result. This definition is imprecise, for example, a football team engaged in a match is involved in:
- A temporary endeavour – the match lasts a defined time.
- Undertaken to create a unique result – the papers are full of results on the weekend and each match is unique.
- Undertaken to create a unique product or service – the value is in the entertainment provided to fans, either as a ‘product’ (using a marketing perspective) or as a service to the team’s fans.
Add in elements from other definitions of a project such as a ‘defined start and end’, ‘planned sequence of activities’, etcetera and you still fail to clearly differentiate a team engaged in a project from a football team engaged in a match; but no-one considers a game of football a project. Football captains may be team leaders, but they are not ‘project managers’.
The definition we proposed in 2002 looked at the social and stakeholder aspects of a project and arrived at an augmented description: A project is a temporary endeavour undertaken to create a unique product, service or result which the relevant stakeholders agree shall be managed as a project. This definition would clearly exclude the football team engaged in a match unless everyone of significance decided to treat the match as a project but still suffers from a number of weaknesses. To see how this definition works download the 2002 paper from, www.mosaicprojects.com.au/PDF_Papers/P007_Project_Fact.pdf
Updating the definition
Since 2002 there has been a significant amount of academic work undertaken that looks at how projects really function which may provide the basis for a better definition of a project. The key area of research has been focused on describing projects as temporary organisations that need governing and managing; either as a standalone organisation involving actors from many different ‘permanent organisations’ such as the group of people assembled on a construction site, or as a temporary organisation within a larger organisation such a an internal project team (particularly cross-functional project teams). The research suggests that all projects are undertaken by temporary teams that are assembled to undertake the work and then dissipate at the end of the project.
My feeling is recognising the concept of a project as a particular type of temporary organisation provides the basis for a precise and unambiguous definition of ‘a project’. But on its own this is insufficient – whilst every project involves a temporary organisation, many temporary organisations are not involved in projects.
Another fundamental problem with the basic PMBOK definition is the concept of an ‘endeavour’. The definition of endeavour used as a noun is: an attempt to achieve a goal; as a verb it is: try hard to do or achieve something. But, ‘making an effort to do something’ is completely intangible; projects involve people! Hitting a nail with a hammer is an endeavour to drive it into a piece of wood but this information is not a lot of use on its own; you need to know who is endeavouring to drive the nail and for what purpose?
Another issue is the focus on outputs – a product service or result; the output is not the project, the project is the work needed to create the output. Once the output is finished, the project ceases to exist! A building project is the work involved in creating the building, once the building is finished it is a building, not a project. But confronted with the need to create a new building different people will create different projects to achieve similar results:
- One organisation may choose to create two projects, one to design the building, another to construct it;
- A different organisation may choose to create a single ‘design and construct’ project;
- Another organisation may simply treat the work as ‘business as usual’.
The scope of the work involved in any particular project is determined by its stakeholders – projects are a construct created by people for their mutual convenience, not by some immutable fact of nature.
A concise definition of a project
Unpacking the elements involved in a project we find:
- A temporary organisation is always involved, but not all temporary organisations are project teams.
- Projects cause a change by creating something new or different – this objective defines the work to be accomplished and usually includes constraints such as the time and money available for the work. These requirements and scope of work included in a project have to be defined and agreed by the relevant stakeholders at some point – there are no pre-set parameters.
- The stakeholders have to agree that the work to accomplish the scope will be managed as ‘a project’ for the project to exist; the alternative is ‘business as usual’ or some other form of activity.
Modifying our 2002 definition to incorporate these factors suggests a definition along these lines:
A project is a temporary organisation established to deliver a defined set of requirements and scope of work, which the relevant stakeholders agree shall be managed as a project.
The definition originally proposed has been updated based on discussions with colleagues to:
Project: A temporary organisation established to accomplish an objective, under the leadership of a person (or people) nominated to fulfil the role of project manager.
Project manager: A person (or people) appointed to lead and direct the work of a project organisation on behalf of its stakeholders, to achieve its objective. The job title and the degree of authority and autonomy granted to the project manager are determined by the governance arrangements established by the project’s stakeholders.
Project management: The application of knowledge, skills tools and techniques to lead and direct the work of a project organisation.
This definition overcomes many of the fundamental problems with the existing options:
- It recognises projects are done by people for people, they are not amorphous expenditures of ‘energy’.
- It allows for the fact that projects do not exist in nature, they are ‘artificial constructs’ created by people for their mutual convenience, and different people confronting similar objectives can create very different arrangements to accomplish the work.
- It recognises that projects are only projects if the people doing the work and the people overseeing the work decide to treat the work as a project. The ‘always present’ factors are:
- People decide to call the work a project (but just calling it a project is not enough)
- The work is directed to achieving an objective that involves a change in something (new, altered, improved, demolished, etc)
- The people doing the work are part of a temporary organisation (team / contract / ad hoc / etc) created to facilitate achieving the objective.
- The work is led by a person fulfilling the role of a project manager and the work is managed as a project (PMBOK / ISO 21500 / Agile / etc).
What do you think a good project definition may be that is concise and unambiguous?
The challenge is to craft a technically correct definition, and then apply the Socratic method of thinking outlined in our 2002 paper at: www.mosaicprojects.com.au/PDF_Papers/P007_Project_Fact.pdf.
I look forward to your thoughts!