“Interesting, but what is a Project?”

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.


About Dale Myers

A San Francisco Bay Area Project and Program Expert
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10 Responses to “Interesting, but what is a Project?”

  1. Mandri S. Apriatni says:

    Hemmm..that is indeed a quite difficult to answer your new acquaintance question. Usually, when they heard about your post as project manager the next question will be “so what project are you in now?” or maybe something like “tell me then about your project?”. Anyway, if some new people asking me about what is a project then my answer perhaps will be like this: a project is a purposely activity implemented by a group of people in relation to answer their question or inquiry.

  2. simon says:

    Horrifying that result is last in your list
    Revealing that objective its described in threat/ pressure terms
    Misleading to start/limit leadership with accountability rather than vision and reward
    Sad that result is defined as unique rather than ‘of value’

    For me the revealed world view explains why projects so often disappoints investors while depositing a fee in supplier.s pockets


    • Dale Myers says:

      Thank you Simon for reading and commenting. I never like to see a dissapointed investor, but this sometimes happen. Why? Is it because the focus is not on results or deliverying value – no. Investors are often dissapointed because they do not understand (or have been improperly informed), about the risks of the investment that they are making. As someone whose main focus is to deliver results – I always make painfully sure my stakeholders understand the risks (as well as the rewards). There should be checks along the way, adjustments – and mitigating actions when things go wrong. But, if investors fail to understand that not everything goes to plan (despite the best efforts of the team), then they will face dissapontments for which I have little sympathy. Thanks again for your thoughts – best regards. DM

  3. Barry Milberg says:

    Great article BUT your example does not reflect the needs of the client. How I would change it-
    Endeavor – raise x$ for the ARC (set a target)
    Group of people – the project team is the event committee
    Unique output – event plus funds raised (event is mechanism)
    Time – from now till event (target deadline)


    • Dale Myers says:

      Barry – thank you for reading and bringing the clarifications. You have said it better than I. Thanks and best wishes. DM

  4. Dale, for purposes of bounding the discipline, I think it important to differentiate between just doing miscellaneous planned work and projects. Accordingly, one thing that I always hasten add to the typical definition is “…and is of sufficient size and/or significance to warrant the use of a formally established project management process to control it.”

    Otherwise, baking a cake becomes ‘a project.’ After all, it fits the parameters you identify, yet we do not formally apply commonly accepted PM practices or controls to such an activity (even though I am always keen to ‘sponsor’ such a tasty treat!).

    In Taming Change with Portfoliio Management, one of the key practices we promote is the definition of all planned work by type. What differentiates one type from another are 1) the degree of oversight and control needed, and 2) the level of the organization that management is performed. This ensures you have the flexibility to apply the right level of process guidance, while maintaining consistency. Projects are just one (or more) type of planned work.

  5. Patrick Beyer, PMP PhD says:

    I have to categorically disagree that we only define projects based on degree of control or need….As I have taught in introductory pm seminars every thing can be viewed as a project. It is up to the project manger to apply the requisite level of rigor required!

    • Dale Myers says:

      Patrick, thank you for reading and commenting. Your point is a good one – is everything a project? Clearly, the disciplines of PM are valuable for most initiatives. As you say the rigor is different – but, the approach should be the same. To me the distinction is in repetitive effort. This even gets cloudy. An example…creating a yearly marketing plan. This is repetitive in nature, but clearly you would manage it as a project. In any case – the disciplines that a PM approach brings are what’s important. Leaders that see the value will reap the benefits. Thanks again for your thoughts. DM

  6. Nigam Vaid says:

    I teach PM 101 to NGO and not for profit on a pro bono basis. My definition: eating aregular dinner everyday at home is business as usual it becomes a project when you invite family or friends over for a special meal. This event has all the elements of a project, easy to discuss and get input and explain budgeting, scope etc

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