What is a project?

These days, the word “project” is applied to an enormous range of activities.
17 Mar 2015

What is a project?

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These days, the word “project” is applied to an enormous range of activities – from building a facility, developing software, rolling out a new service, launching a product, running an event, implementing a new policy, executing a merger, restoring an ecosystem, and so on. So what makes these things “projects”? What distinguishes them from the ordinary, day-to-day work of the organisation? What are the characteristics of these pieces of work that make them different to operational, or “business as usual” (BAU), work? Well, there are a number of things.

Firstly, projects are temporary. They don’t go on for ever. They have a clear start and end point. In other words, they are constrained by limited time. Projects are also constrained by limited funds – meaning, we usually have a certain amount of money with which to do the work. We may also be constrained by the available skillsets and the way in which the project team is brought together. Often resources are drawn from across an organisation’s various departments to work together as a temporary team on the project. Or they may come from different organisations.

Within these constraints – that is, the agreed time, money and human resources allocated to the project – we need to achieve a goal of some sort. So projects are also characterised by having a particular goal or objective. This means that we’re trying to achieve something specific with a project, defined by agreed success criteria. Often, the objective of a project involves bringing about a change. Whereas operational work (BAU) is about keeping the business chugging along in the same direction, doing the same things in the same way (according to standard operational procedures and policies); projects are about changing ‘business as usual’. For example, changing the way the organisation operates to become more efficient or comply with new legislation; or changing the products offered by the business; or changing the culture of the organisation; or changing its broader environment; and so on.

Because projects are about change, they often involve high levels of risk – including both positive risk (which we call “opportunities”) and negative risk (which we call “threats”). Project managers and project team members must be aware of risk in order to manage the work in a way that protects the people, the project, and the organisations, communities and environments involved, while taking best advantage of the opportunities involved.

Even if the project is relatively low in risk, each project is unique. For example, a type of work that we do regularly and have lots of experience with (such as a simple event for an events management company) may have a low level of risk. But even these ‘repeat’ projects are unique because they have a unique set of dates, circumstances, stakeholders, costs, and deliverables – that is, the project’s products, services and/or results. So this is another characteristic of projects that differentiates them from ‘business as usual’ – they are unique.

In summary, then: projects are temporary, constrained by limited resources, objective-focused, associated with change and higher levels of risk, and they are unique. In fact, the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBoK) Guide, which is the global standard for project management theory, produced by the Project Management Institute, defines a project as “A temporary endeavour undertaken to create a unique product, service or result.” As you can see, this definition touches on many of the characteristics we talked about.