Recently, I volunteered at a fundraising gala for my favorite charity the American Red Cross. During this event I started talking with a guest who was very elegant, with perfect hair, makeup and posture. What struck me about her was the symmetrical shape of her jaw and chin. And, when she spoke, her lips parted and the words spilled out of her mouth in an orderley and synchronized fashion, with a voice that sounded like it was spoken in harmony. I asked her (with my rough New Jersey accent) how she learned to speak so gracefully, and she answered with a sly smile, “I’m from Iowa.”
Anyway, she asked what I did professionally, and I told her “I’m a Project Manager – and, work with clients to identify their needs and problems, that I solve using a defined project methodology.” I could see her eyes squint as she tried to process this definition. Finally, she looked at me with great intensity and said with perfect diction, “interesting, but what is a project?”
Just then the event hall lights flashed and from the stage the gala host called the guests to their seats. My new acquaintance from Iowa said, “good night” and sped away to enjoy the rest of her evening. I was left thinking about her question, and how best to answer.
The Project Management Institute (PMI) says that a project, “Is temporary in that it has a defined beginning and end in time, and therefore defined scope and resources.” To me, there are 6 requirements for an initiative to be called a project:
- Objective: every project has to have a “reason for being.” Usually it starts with a problem or need that is to be answered by the project. The solution may not be known until later, but from the beginning there is a (sometimes loosely) defined objective that the undertaking will address.
- Leadership Structure: a project must have an owner(s) that is held accountable for the actions taken on behalf of the initiative. Usually there is a project sponsor or sponsor committee who are the overseers, and the day-to-day work is lead by a Project Manager. The project team completes the tasks of the initiative under the direction of the Project Manager.
- Specific Effort: there are a defined set of tasks to be completed under the banner of a project that are separate from the on-going activities of an organization. The processes used may be the same (example, filing a 510k for a new product idea), but the effort is specific to a project.
- Resources: are the people and assets that complete the work of a project. The resources can be 100% dedicated to the project, or share time with other duties. Resources can be internal to a company or external (contract workers, consultants, customers). Non-human project assets include things like a production line that is used to generate a prototype.
- Duration: a project requires time. At the beginning, the end point may be not be known (it will be determined when more information is available). The end signifies a project is closed and no further work can be completed on behalf of the project. The total project duration can be short or long, and is a function of the complexity of the outcome, and the commitments and investments made to the project.
- Outcome: what a project produces is something unique. It is typically a product or service. The product can be physical (such as a new building), or a strategy, or even a procedure. At the end of a project something exists that was not there before the initiative was undertaken.
So, what is a simple definition of a project? What answer should I have ready for my next gala? I will say that a project is, “an endeavor undertaken by a group of people that creates a unique output, over time.”
Well, with this in my pocket I’m ready for my next gala event! Now, I just need to do something about my New Jersey accent. Maybe my new friend from Iowa can help.
How do you define a project? I am interested in your thoughts.