So… What is a Project?

“All is flux, nothing stays still.” – Heraclitus

“The art of progress is to preserve order amid change and to preserve change amid order.” – Alfred North Whitehead

When I ask “what is a project?” I enjoy the different perspectives and interpretations. Concepts like work packages, ongoing operational tasks and even programmes are often perceived as projects. Recently, in my role as convenor for ISO 21500 and as one of the writers for the new GPM Global “Sustainable Project Management: The GPM Reference Guide” I have seen this discussion continue. A significant portion of this post stems from the herculean work Bill Duncan has done with his research (an example is shown here) and editing for our new guide.

This post will highlight several challenges with coming up with a universally understood agreement on specifically what a project is. This is in spite of the fact that humans have been managing projects for thousands of years.

For context, the focus will be on “what is a project?”, not project management, nor what is a project manager, nor the business of developing the product.

Different Perspectives on Projects

The definition of a project has had a number of interesting variations over the years. Another “shout-out” to Max Wideman for his PM Glossary and listings for projects at: Some of the following references came from this great source.

GPM Global Sustainable Project Management 2018: A project is an investment that requires a set of coordinated activities performed over a finite period of time in order to accomplish a unique result in support of a desired outcome.

Merriam-Webster 2017: A specific plan or design.

Oxford Dictionary 2017: An individual or collaborative enterprise that is carefully planned to achieve a particular aim.

Cambridge Dictionary 2017: A piece of planned work or an activity that is finished over a period of time and intended to achieve a particular purpose.

AXELOS PRINCE2 2017 Edition: A temporary organization that is created for the purpose of delivering one or more business products according to a specified Business Case.

Max Wideman Composite additions from various sources 1998-2017: A novel undertaking or systematic process to create a new product or service the delivery of which signals completion. Projects involve risk and are typically constrained by limited resources.

PMI PMBOK Guide 6th Edition 2017: A project is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result.

ISO 10006-2017: Unique process undertaken to achieve an objective (there are 6 Notes to this entry).

IPMA ICB4 2015: A project is a unique, temporary, multi-disciplinary and organized endeavour to realize agreed deliverables within predefined requirements and constraints.

ISO 21500-2012: A project consists of a unique set of processes consisting of coordinated and controlled activities with start and end dates, performed to achieve project objectives.

APM Body of Knowledge 6th edition 2012: A project is a unique, transient endeavour, undertaken to achieve planned objectives, which could be defined in terms of outputs, outcomes or benefits.

Cooke-Davies, T. J., From an unpublished thesis, August 2000: A human endeavor legitimately regarded by its stakeholders as a project (because) it encompasses a unique scope of work that is constrained by cost and time (and) the purpose of which is to create or modify a product or service to achieve beneficial change defined by quantitative and qualitative objectives

British Standard BS6079-1996: A unique set of coordinated activities, with definite starting and finishing points, undertaken by an individual or organization to meet specific objectives within a defined schedule of cost and performance parameters.

Similarities in the Definitions

Some of the interesting similarities are shown below from this word cloud based on the previous definitions (only the top 75 most used words were selected):

Word Cloud created from (Orientations: 1, Orientations from 0, Spiral: Rectangular, Scale: n, Number of words: Top 75, Font: Impact)

The Impact of Different Project Contexts and Industries

Thomas and Mullaly’s 2008 work “Researching the Value of Project Management” offers an interesting perspective. Despite the attempts of standards, methods, and frameworks to provide a generic “one-size-fits-all” “best practice” for projects, it is critical to remember there are different types of projects that take place in different cultures, industries and markets which have different contexts, stakeholders, priorities, strategic drivers, success criteria and success factors. This has been a significant discussion point for the ISO 21500 refresh. Ensuring the definition is context independent but still generally relevant is a challenge.

Operations / Business as Usual

As mentioned before, another interesting challenge is whether or not it is important to differentiate a project from operations / business as usual, work-packages, or even programmes. Should a pilot flying a plane from point A to point B be considered a project? Or a surgeon replacing someone’s heart? Or managing a birthday party event, or any event for that matter? Some have even suggested making a meal like breakfast could be considered a project. Does it even matter the nature of the project’s complexity? Is there, should there be, a cost of entry to be considered a project?

There is a generally agreed perspective in programme management that a programme can be operationally focused, as outlined in the GAPPS Program Typology:

A programme management operational focus is also referenced in the ISO 21503 Guidance on Programme Management:

Personally I would like to exclude operations and work packages from the project definition. That bias is probably based on my methological training. The concern is how do you differentiate from what a project is to what a project is not. That discussion was a major source of debates for the ISO 21503:2017 Guidance on Programme Management, in terms of what differentiates a project from a programme. However, I recognize that with most of the definitions some attention has been made to distinguish between what is a project and what is not a project.

Owner vs. Contractor Projects

As Dr. Paul Giammalvo has frequently pointed out there is also the notion that the “definition has to work for both owners (for whom a project is a cost or investment center and who realize their RoI/RoA from the product of the project) as well as for contractors (for whom a project is a profit center)”. This may have a serious impact on the suppliers, project teams and project managers interpretation and perspective of the project.

The GPM Global Recommended Definition

In the recently updated GPM Global “Sustainable Project Management: The GPM Reference Guide,” we describe a project as “an investment that requiresx`a set of coordinated activities performed over a finite period of time in order to accomplish a unique result in support of a desired outcome.”

To help out, we expanded on the components of this definition by providing the following:

  • A project may be simple (making breakfast), complicated (design and construction of a commercial airport), or complex (development and implementation of an enterprise resource planning system).
  • As an investment, each project requires a commitment of financial resources, non-financial resources, or both.
  • Coordinated means that the work of the project is done in an organized way to ensure effective and efficient use of the committed resources.
  • The finite period of time may be defined in advance as a constraint, determined by planning, or predicted through analysis of actual performance.
  • Unique means that the characteristics of the result are different in some identifiable way.
  • The desired outcome is expected to benefit one or more of the stakeholders.
  • The activities, the period of time, the result, and the outcome are typically described in general terms at the start of the project, then in more detail, as the project progresses through the phases of the project lifecycle in-use.

Please let us know what your thoughts are!

Peter Milsom

Peter Milsom is an entrepreneurial advocate for sensible, sustainable change delivery practice. Peter has come to realize that sustainability is the perfect catalyst for Project / Programme / Portfolio / Risk / Value / Business Case and Benefits Management improvement. As an entrepreneurial methodologist Peter's unique value proposition is the vast array of tools and techniques that he brings to every engagement using the most cost effective and efficient methods based on the situation and tailored to meet your needs. This is based on his unique combination of experience and extensive training / certifications in change delivery, value / risk / benefits management business case, and business architecture.

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