Definition of a Project

When is a project not a project? When it doesn’t meet the following criteria.

Definitions include:

  • any non-repetitive activity
  • a low-volume, high-variety activity
  • a temporary endeavour undertaken to create a unique product or service (PMl, 2000)
  • any activity with a start and a finish
  • A unique set of co-ordinated activities, with definite starting and finishing points, undertaken by an individual or organisation to meet specific performance objectives within defined schedule, cost and performance parameters (BS 6079: 2000).

The first of these is a very constrained view (see below) and does not describe well the true nature of projects. The idea of assessing volume and variety of activities comes from the study of operations management (see Brown et al., 2001). This definition is worth exploring further as it concentrates on the activity rather than the outcome and is a process view of projects.

The relationship between volume and variety is shown in figure. As you can see in the figure, there is generally an inverse relationship between volume and variety.

Volume-versus Variety and Projects

For example, McDonald’s is a high-volume, low-variety business – they provide a high volume of products that are (depressingly) the same wherever in the world you go (very low variety). A management consultant, on the other hand, operates at the other end of the scale – providing a low volume of services, carried out according to the needs of each client, having a high variety.

The traditional project management area is low-volume, high-variety processes, where the notion of uniqueness prevailed. These are indicated on the figure as first timers. Examples of these are the first moon landing and the development of the first computer.

It is noticeable with the wider adoption of project management that individuals and organisations are running projects, often over time periods as short as a few weeks or months, and that these are being carried out on a regular basis as part of ordinary business activity. Here, the end product may be different, but the process by which it is delivered is often repeated over time. Two scenarios are identified here.

The first is where there is some similarity to previous work, in terms of either the process followed or the product being delivered. These are referred to in Figure as ‘as … but …’, that is, as the job we did last time, but with the following differences.

The second of these is where there is a high degree of commonality in both process and outcome. These are termed painting by numbers projects because the process and the outcome are well known. The project team has the task of following the path to the required outcome. Projects such as carrying out a financial audit of a company will be project-based, but the processes and the outcomes (a set of reports and accounts) are well known in advance. Marketing research projects are similarly painting by numbers projects in many instances.

While it is a characteristic of projects that there will be a degree of uniqueness, the removal of focus from the product and onto the process means that there is considerable scope for ongoing improvement – particularly if the organisation adopts le 4-D model of projects shown later in this chapter.

It is for this reason that the PMI definition is also rather limited, as again it focuses on the uniqueness rather than the consistent elements of process. There is an ongoing discussion as to what actually constitutes a project. For the purpose of this article, the widest view of what constitutes a project will be taken – encompassing all three of the categories of projects from the figure.

Having a defined start and finish is undoubtedly a characteristic of projects, though it is insufficient to define them on its own. It is a useful discipline though, as it is often seen that projects do not have a defined start point, they just emerge from other activities. Organisations also often appear reluctant to put a finish date on projects, resulting in activities that continue to consume time and resources.

For individuals, this is also vital – personal projects are often started with no notion of when they will be completed. They then add to an already full to-do list, causing stress and frustration. Not starting further projects without some sort of selection process and then putting deadlines on these is a good discipline, therefore, for both individuals and organisations.

The last definition is more of a wish-list for many project managers than a de-facto definition. As shown in the figure there is a significant group of projects that do not have these characteristics, at least at the outset. While they may develop them over time, it would be wrong to exclude them from our consideration of projects.

The above definitions have provided a range of characteristics of projects and when the characteristics of project management are compared with general management. It can also be seen that there is no completely consistent agreement as to what is ‘a project’ and what is not. Some characteristics about which there is agreement include: t

  • here are constraints (usually centred around time and resources, but also including all aspects of the process and the outcome);
  • projects are a process – in many cases a core business process for organisations
  • the particular goal in mind shows that it is a focused activity and often this is change. Organisations carry out many different types of change through projects, and are a major area for application of the principles and practices of project management.

Having defined a project, we can now consider the evolution of the subject area, leading to the current issues for project management, in both practitioner and academic environments.

Next Article: An Historical Perspective on Project Management

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