Seeking a definition of a project.

Good definitions are short and unambiguous and are essential for almost every aspect of life. Even something as simple as ordering a snack requires a clear understanding of what’ required – this understanding is the basis of a definition. For example, doughnuts and bagels have a lot in common, they are both round and have a hole (a torus), and are made from dough but they are ‘definitely’ very different commodities! If you need a bagel for breakfast or a doughnut for you coffee everyone involved in the transaction needs to understand your requirements if your expectations are to be fulfilled.

bagel

donut

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Definitions serve two interlinked purposes, they describe the subject of the definition in sufficient detail to allow the concept to be recognised and understood and they exclude similar ‘concepts’ that do not fit the definition. Definitions do not explain the subject, merely define it.The simple fact is if you cannot define something precisely, you have real problems explaining what it is, what it does and the value it offers, and this lack of definition/understanding seems to be a key challenge facing the project management community (by the way, the bagel is on the left…… the other picture is a Krispy Kreme donut).

Way back in 2002 we suggested the definition of ‘a project’ was flawed. Almost any temporary work organised to achieve an objective could fit into almost all of the definitions currently in use – unfortunately not much has changed since. PMI’s definition of a ‘project’ is a: temporary endeavour undertaken to create a unique product, service or result. This definition is imprecise, for example, a football team engaged in a match is involved in:

  • A temporary endeavour – the match lasts a defined time.
  • Undertaken to create a unique result – the papers are full of results on the weekend and each match is unique.
  • Undertaken to create a unique product or service – the value is in the entertainment provided to fans, either as a ‘product’ (using a marketing perspective) or as a service to the team’s fans.

Add in elements from other definitions of a project such as a ‘defined start and end’, ‘planned sequence of activities’, etcetera and you still fail to clearly differentiate a team engaged in a project from a football team engaged in a match; but no-one considers a game of football a project. Football captains may be team leaders, but they are not ‘project managers’.

The definition we proposed in 2002 looked at the social and stakeholder aspects of a project and arrived at an augmented description: A project is a temporary endeavour undertaken to create a unique product, service or result which the relevant stakeholders agree shall be managed as a project. This definition would clearly exclude the football team engaged in a match unless everyone of significance decided to treat the match as a project but still suffers from a number of weaknesses. To see how this definition works download the 2002 paper from, www.mosaicprojects.com.au/PDF_Papers/P007_Project_Fact.pdf

 

Updating the definition

Since 2002 there has been a significant amount of academic work undertaken that looks at how projects really function which may provide the basis for a better definition of a project.  The key area of research has been focused on describing projects as temporary organisations that need governing and managing; either as a standalone organisation involving actors from many different ‘permanent organisations’ such as the group of people assembled on a construction site, or as a temporary organisation within a larger organisation such a an internal project team (particularly cross-functional project teams). The research suggests that all projects are undertaken by temporary teams that are assembled to undertake the work and then dissipate at the end of the project.

My feeling is recognising the concept of a project as a particular type of temporary organisation provides the basis for a precise and unambiguous definition of ‘a project’. But on its own this is insufficient – whilst every project involves a temporary organisation, many temporary organisations are not involved in projects.

Another fundamental problem with the basic PMBOK definition is the concept of an ‘endeavour’.  The definition of endeavour used as a noun is: an attempt to achieve a goal; as a verb it is: try hard to do or achieve something.  But, ‘making an effort to do something’ is completely intangible; projects involve people! Hitting a nail with a hammer is an endeavour to drive it into a piece of wood but this information is not a lot of use on its own; you need to know who is endeavouring to drive the nail and for what purpose?

Nail-Quote-Abraham-Maslow

Another issue is the focus on outputs – a product service or result; the output is not the project, the project is the work needed to create the output. Once the output is finished, the project ceases to exist!  A building project is the work involved in creating the building, once the building is finished it is a building, not a project. But confronted with the need to create a new building different people will create different projects to achieve similar results:

  • One organisation may choose to create two projects, one to design the building, another to construct it;
  • A different organisation may choose to create a single ‘design and construct’ project;
  • Another organisation may simply treat the work as ‘business as usual’.

The scope of the work involved in any particular project is determined by its stakeholders – projects are a construct created by people for their mutual convenience, not by some immutable fact of nature.

 

A concise definition of a project

Unpacking the elements involved in a project we find:

  • A temporary organisation is always involved, but not all temporary organisations are project teams.
  • The requirements and scope of work included in a project have to be defined and agreed by the relevant stakeholders – there are no pre-set parameters.
  • The stakeholders have to agree that the work to accomplish the scope will be managed as ‘a project’ for the project to exist; the alternative is ‘business as usual’ or some other form of activity.

Modifying our 2002 definition to incorporate these factors suggests a definition along these lines:

A project is a temporary organisation established to deliver a defined set of requirements and scope of work, which the relevant stakeholders agree shall be managed as a project.

This definition overcomes many of the fundamental problems with the existing options:

  • It recognises projects are done by people for people, they are not amorphous expenditures of ‘energy’.
  • It allows for the fact that projects do not exist in nature, they are ‘artificial constructs’ created by people for their mutual convenience, and different people confronting similar objectives can create very different arrangements to accomplish the work.
  • It recognises that projects are only projects if the people doing the work and the people overseeing the work decide to treat the work as a project.

What do you think a good project definition may be that is concise and unambiguous?

The challenge is to craft a technically correct definition, and then apply the Socratic method of thinking outlined in our 2002 paper at:  hwww.mosaicprojects.com.au/PDF_Papers/P007_Project_Fact.pdf.

I look forward to your thoughts!

One Response to Seeking a definition of a project.

  1. I fully agree with your conclusion on the current definition of project. It simply doesn’t discriminate itself for other type of work. I also believe in a more scientific take: a definition must clearly distinguish itself of what it isn’t, and other items should be excluded by that same definition.

    Rather concentrating on what the definition of a project is, my approach was to define Project Management. The reason is simple to concentrate on the Management part: there is no clear counter part of a project and all the training etc focuses on management. A project would be that what is managed by Project Management.

    The definition of Project Management must clearly help to define Operations Management, Strategic Management and Crisis Management as well for those are of the same family.

    I have looked at the tools, techniques, reporting, focus attitude that comes with the different kinds of management and reached the conclusion in the form of a rule of thumb:

    All work that has an 80+% chance of successful completion WITHOUT intervention should be managed by Operations Management, all other work with Project Management.

    The first part of the definition of Operations Management draws on the findings of Demming et al (tampering with the system, etc).

    This rule of thumb also explains why people in Operations hate a Project Management approach; too much focus on what might go wrong while almost nothing goes wrong and thus too much intervention …and vice versa.

    But also other practical rules are explained with this. A Project Manager that deviates less than 10% is a hero. An Operations Manager that deviates more than 5% has to updates its resume. In projects nearly everything should be 100% (or otherwise it is smart not to include it in the project), in Operations a percentage of failure is known to happen and can easily be absorbed without any deviation of the plan.

    The rule of thumb also predicts that whether to use project management or operations management depends also on the situation. In cases where you have really strong skilled people with the right attitude, you can manage the work as if it was operational work. On the other side, work that is executed operationally must be managed with project management in cases like: it is done by trainees, or that particular order has a failure tolllerance of 0% (like if it is for the Pope or President); project management techniques are required here.

    This leaves two more definitions to tackle in the Management Family: Strategic and Crisis Management:

    Strategic Management: ‘operationally’ managing the goals for Operations and Projects (Programmes, etc) **

    Crisis Management: doing whatever it takes to bring the situation sufficiently back in control for the other three to work.

    ** Strategic Management deals with ROI in the widest sense. However, I found that it doesn’t hold when Operations is strictly tied to Return and Projects is strictly tied to Investment …reality is much more mixed.

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