Defining the Word “Project”

Sometimes, we need to go back to the very basics.

While facilitating a class on project management, I always take the opportunity to spend a few minutes defining some basic concepts since as Plato said, “all knowledge begins with the definition of terms.” Of course, for a project management course, the first term would be project.

What is a project?

According to the Project Management Institute (PMI) a project is “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result.”

In my experience further refining two words in this defintion provides tremendous insight into the topic of project management. They are: temporary and unique.

To understand a project as temporary is to understand that it must have a clearly defined end. Too many projects are allowed to continue on seemingly ad infinitum. More often consultants struggled to obtain sign off from a customer to clearly end the project. These two situations are caused by a lack of or poorly defined project objectives.

One metaphor that has helped me over the years is to think of a project as a temporary company — one that comes into existence for the sole purpose of obtaining the objectives of the project and then goes out of business.

To understand a project as unique is to understand that while you many have participated in similar project each one in truly different. There is no such thing as the “plain vanilla” or standard project. Each project has a different set of goals, objectives, constraints, and of course, personalities. Customers who ask you for the “plain vanilla” project are ignorant of these facts. (Note that the same customer who asks for the “plain vanilla” project will likely state, often times only five minutes later, that their company does this “very differently” from others you many have encountered.)

Projects have characteristics.

In addition to these important clarifications about the definition of a project, there are other characteristics of projects that are not stated outright in the definition. These include:

  • Are often times focused around a team drawing from multiple departments or disciplines

  • Are in most cases business critical
  • Can vary widely in budget, staff size, duration, expected outcomes
  • Have conflict

Regarding this last item, I always pause to give some tough-love advice. People who are truly conflict averse should not be project managers. Projects by their very nature are agents of change. Change in people and in organizations causes conflict. A conflict averse person will often times not address people problems in a timely fashion resulting ultimately in the failure of the project.

Projects are not process.

Companies often fail to recognize that they do in fact have a project which requires better project management. Oone way to assist companies in recognizing projects if to see if the tasks they are working on fit into any of their normal business processes. Whereas projects themselves are linear and have a clear beginning, middle, and end, processes recur at regular intervals. A process could happen once an hour, day, week, month, or even year. A project clearly only happens once.

Projects have processes.

While projects are not processes, projects have processes. It is the consistent application of these individual simple processes that makes even the most complex project attainable. Project management processes call for the identification of inputs, tools and techniques, and outputs. Inputs are the source of the information, which can be new, meaning they never existed before this beginning of the process, or they can be from reuse, meaning their create happened during a previous process. This input data is gathered and then acted upon by the project team using the tools and techniques. The results are the outputs.

Projects have a life cycle.

In order to improve project management control, project managers divide projects into three or more phases. Together, these phases are known as the project management life cycle. The initial phase is devoted to initiating and possibly some planning. The intermediate phase or phases are for detailed planning and execution, while the final phase is centered almost exclusively on closing the project.

Projects are progressively elaborative.

Progressive elaboration is the constant comparing of the progress made during a project against the original plan and then making changes and updates to the plan through the use of change requests.When you really thin about it, It is through progressive elaboration that project managers really do their work. An important point is that progressive elaboration is an art not a science. This is why estimates of project costs are less accurate at the beginning of a project than at the end. It is also why the vast majority of projects should have dozens of change requests. Project managers are not psychics and even if they were we should recall that, as South Boston comedian Dennis Leary put it, “Psychic friends network went out of business. Ya think they shoulda seen that comin’.”


  1. Thanks, Michelle.

    What is amazing is how many firms in technology still don’t get it and they supposedly practice project management. Here is a hint; if you need timesheets you?re not doing very good project management.

    Stated thusly it is may be Kless’ Law – The need to track time is inversely proportional to your project management abilities.

  2. This is great stuff, Ed.

    This message makes me think how project management should be part of the business development process, and how business development folks should collaborate with the project folks even before the contract is signed.

    The business development folks can set up initial diagnostic sessions with potential clients, but it’s the project folks who are skilled in conducting the diagnosis.

    The project folks can focus on technology and the business development folks can focus on linking the technology to strategic business issues, so the value of the project is properly expressed and documented, so, later back home, the pricers can develop the most optimal solution options based on different investment points.

  3. Ed,

    Kless’ Law is BRILLIANT!

    The worth of timesheets is inversely related to your project management skills.

    This is a “knowledge creep”! I’m blown away.

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