Seeking a definition of a project.

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,


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:

I look forward to your thoughts!

16 responses to “Seeking a definition of a project.

  1. Nice article, Linda……..

    I think your definition still misses some important points…..

    If we look to any standard English Language dictionary (i.e. Merriam Webster or Oxford) we can combine the definitions of “Project” and “Management” to come up with a complete definition.

    Just for fun this is what I came up with using the Merriam Webster dictionary:

    project + management: “the administration, supervision or executive function to plan, organize, coordinate, direct and control a proposed or planned undertaking to achieve a particular aim or objective within a specific time frame, with some reasonable expectation for success, through the skillful handling or use of limited or constrained resources and the successful organization, administration and controlling these affairs in a business-like manner.”

    While I agree this definition is klunky to say the least, ultimately whatever definition we end up using (and I agree that PMI’s definition is far too broad) needs to address or incorporate the key terms coming to us from the dictionary definitions.

    Dr. PDG, Jakarta, Indonesia

    • Your proposition suggests ‘project management’ is following the same path as ‘quality management’ and will simply be absorbed into ‘management’ as part of the overall toolkit required by every manager. That is one potential future. Other see projects as having a distinct difference, the project is set up as a temporary organisation with the explicit intention of closing the temporary organisation down once its work has been accomplished (or is no longer needed). Most so-called ‘projectized organisations’ are simply doing the functions of management defined 100 years ago in a more flexible structure (ie, a post-bureaucratic org structure) – see

      • Yes Pat, that pretty much sums it up….

        What PMI and many other organizations have failed to do is differentiate between CONTRACTORS for whom a project is a PROFIT center and OWNERS for whom a project is a COST or INVESTMENT center and for whom the project is nothing more than the means to an end- the delivery system of choice…..

        Frankly, I don’t have a problem with this at all PROVIDED everyone understands that the context or perspective between an “OWNER” and a “CONTRACTOR” is significant and that to try to talk about project management without addressing that context is a sure road to failure……

        Actually Pat, the more clients who “projectize” their operations the more work there is for guys like us….. Both as Trainers and Consultants…..

        PDG Jakarta….

      • I subscribe to that idea!!

      • I’ve been pushing for both PMI and AACE to incorporate these two often divergent views and thus far, only the Guild has recognized the importance of doing do.

        HOPEFULLY when PMI’s new PMBOK Guide 2016 is actually published, they will incorporate it? So far, I have yet to see any evidence of it…..????

        PDG Jakarta

  2. The problem with your definition Paul is that it fails to distinguish a project from any other well-managed business activity. For example, the company accountant organising her accounts department to process the ‘end of month’ run would fit all of the elements of the description (if the person is any good) and would never consider the routine close off a ‘project’ it is just BAU that needs planning and controlling to achieve completion by a defined date (without disrupting other aspects of the departments work). This is a very difficult problem,,,,,,,,, 🙂

    • Good point Pat but I hate to tell you how many of our clients have “projectized” operations…….. (What you call Business as Usual) Here is an example from Freeport

      But there are many, many other examples……

      Commercial piloting- Flying a plane from City A to City B is without question a PROJECT (even requiring the filing of a flight plan prior to departure and closing it out upon landing), thus this is a perfect example where “BaU” has been projectized.

      Lawyering- Isn’t each case a PROJECT and isn’t doing different cases for the same client a PROGRAM? And taking it one step further, assuming a law office offers multiple areas of specialty- i.e. divorces, real estate closings and wills, doesn’t that represent a PORTFOLIO?

      Medicine- Isn’t the removal of an inflamed appendix a PROJECT? And assuming your family doctor takes care of all your medical needs from birth to death, aren’t you a “PROGRAM” for that Doc? And if the family doc takes care of your entire family then isn’t that a PORTFOLIO? But there is more…… From the hospital’s perspective, assuming they have more than one operating theater, isn’t that a PORTFOLIO of ASSETS and if those operating theaters are being used by more than one doctor in the course of a day, then isn’t that an example of a PORTFOLIO of PROJECTS which goes into the Operating Theater PROGRAM?

      School Teachers/Professors (doesn’t each of our classes count as a project? And assuming we offer more than one course, isn’t that a PORTFOLIO of ASSETS and if we deliver those courses to the same clients, then doesn’t that meet the definition of a PROGRAM? (GAPPS definition, not PMI’s)

      And the list goes on and on….
      Tax accountants….
      Fabrication shops…..
      Automobile mechanics…

      Bottom line Pat, now that PMI has finally woken up and are updating their relatively useless PMBOK Guide 2015 and earlier and REPLACING it with the PMBOK Guide 2016, which is an Asset centric approach, that INTEGRATES Asset, Portfolio (Operations), Program and Project management into a single comprehensions methodology, I think you will find my definition fits rather nicely with the fact that in so many businesses (including ours- training and consulting) where project management is part and parcel of “Business as Usual”.

      Dr. PDG, Jakarta, Indonesia

  3. the original proposal focused on ‘constraints. Post modified to change this to ‘requirements’ based on feedback 15th Aug. The original definition now superseded was: ‘A project is a temporary organisation established to accomplish an agreed scope of work, within defined constraints, which the relevant stakeholders agree shall be managed as a project’.

    • Hmmmmmmm…….. Still doesn’t excite me much…..

      “A project is a temporary organisation” OK…..

      “established to accomplish an agreed scope of work,” Hmmmmmm….. Is it REALLY about a supposedly “agreed scope of work” or is it really about “achieve(ing) a particular aim or objective”?

      “within defined constraints,” Pretty vague……. I’d rather see the constraints more clearly defined “within a specific time frame” and “skillful handling or use of limited or constrained resources”. This parses time from money, people, materials and other resources.

      “which the relevant stakeholders agree” Hmmmm….. Dicey….. How often to the relevant stakeholders agree? This needs to be more clearly defined

      “shall be managed as a project” ??? What other options are there? Managed as on-going operations? Not managed at all?

      Going back to our English Language dictionary definition (restated) what about “with some reasonable expectation for success”? Your proposed definition ignores the risks involved.

      And your definition as proposed totally ignores the fact that projects are undertaken (whether by Owners or Contractors) to achieve some BUSINESS OBJECTIVE “organization, administration and controlling these affairs in a business-like manner.”

      Bottom line- I don’t see how we can rationalize or justify creating a definition which is NOT consistent with any standard American Language dictionary. (i.e. Oxford or Merriam Webster) One of the problems PMI, AACE and all the other professional organizations are making is they keep inventing new definitions without ever bothering to check to see if those definitions are consistent with the “official” versions of our language. No wonder we end up with a “Tower of Babylon” in terms of project management terms!!!!

      Dr. PDG, Jakarta, Indonesia

  4. All of your comments are true in a limited set of circumstances. Good definitions are not ‘limited’. Whilst you keep going back to standard dictionaries their definition of a ‘project’ has no merit and fail to define a project any differently to any other business function. The definition as it now stands requires three elements
    A temporary organisation (projects are by definition temporary)
    An agreed set of requirements and scope
    An agreement to run the work as a project (possibly tautological but unless the work is treated as a project, it cannot be a project)
    If these three elements are present you have a project – if any are missing you do not have a project.

    • Hmmmmmm……… I for one am not comfortable taking the “lowest common denominator” approach…….

      I especially have a hard time accepting the premise that there has to be agreement to scope (why do so many projects run late and over budget if this was true?) as opposed to having an objective or outcome (which works whether you are a contractor or owner) and I also don’t see how there has to be “agreement to run the work as a project”? Look at flying a plane from City A to City B or removing an inflamed appendix? Both are projects but where did anyone say “Oh, I have a great idea, let’s run this as a project?”

      Sorry but with all due respect, I think your definition is fatally flawed and the only valid or credible way to approach this is to build on what linguists have already agreed forms the basis of the English Language. As I see it, you are allowing the tail to wag the dog……

      To do anything less is to bastardize the language, which we have already done badly enough already……. (See Wideman’s Comparative Glossary and count how many definitions there are for “Project” or “Project Manager” to see exactly why I think taking your approach is wrong)

      Dr. PDG, Jakarta, Indonesia

  5. PS Pat, this is what I think your “lowest common denominator approach” is producing…..

    We must look at project management in a more HOLISTIC manner and your definition just doesn’t achieve that……..

    And yes, I totally agree that project management is nothing more than a subset of general management, which is OK…… That doesn’t diminish the importance of project management as a delivery system…. All it does is put in the appropriate context…..

    Good debate regardless…..

    Dr. PDG, Jakarta, Indonesia

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