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The Nature of Projects: Understanding the Definition of a Project and the Need for Structured Project Management

by | reviewed 09/08/2021

By Mark Romanelli

16 August 2018

Project management is a specialized, multidisciplinary, and cross functional discipline combining management, business administration, strategy, specialized subject areas, and other fields toward the achievement of project goals. Before diving any deeper into project management, it is important to have a complete understanding of the nature of projects in general. With this understanding as a starting point, it is possible to have a more comprehensive view of what is a project, what is not a project, and the extent to which project management tools and techniques need to be used.

There are a number of project management methodologies and organizations existing that are dedicated to furthering the field. Each of them includes its own, often slightly different, formal definition of what exactly is a project. The Project Management Institute (PMI) defines a project as,
a temporary endeavour undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result. Project Management Institute (PMI)
The International Project Management Association (IPMA) defines a project as,
a unique, temporary, multi-disciplinary, and organized endeavour to realize agreed deliverables within predefined requirements and constraints.International Project Management Association (IPMA)
These two definitions were selected because they are fairly representative of most commonly accepted definitions of the term 'project.' More organizational specific definitions can also be found. While examining various definitions, several commonalities begin to emerge; three characteristics that are commonly accepted as the defining features of projects:
  • Temporary
  • Unique
  • Creating Output
Temporary – The temporary nature of a project indicates that a project has a definite beginning and a definite end. The beginning is marked by the start of the project and the end is reached when the project's objectives have been achieved or when the project is terminated for some other reason. 'Temporary' is also one of the characteristics distinguishing a project from normal operations.

Temporary does not necessarily mean that the duration of a project is short. It only refers to the engagement of a project, and not to the product, service, or resulting deliverable.

The temporary aspect of a project can be conceptualized by thinking of a building construction project. The construction of a building takes a specific amount of time. However, the building will continue to be in place much longer after the construction project has ended.

Unique – Every project is unique and different. This is another aspect that differentiates a project from normal operations. Repetitive elements may be present in project deliverables and activities, but there is always something different about those elements or the way in which they are combined.

Once again, a building construction project can serve as a conceptual example. A specific structure may be designed by people who have designed other buildings, constructed by people who have built other buildings, and made from the same materials as other buildings. Yet, an individual building project brings those elements together in a unique way; A particular building of a specific design for an exact purpose using selected materials all combine to create a unique construction project.

Creating Output – Every project creates some type of product, service, or end result. These outputs are called deliverables and they are the reason projects exist and take place.

Project output can be both tangible and intangible. An example of tangible project output is the building resulting from a construction project. Examples of intangible projects include new services or events.

Projects have other features as well. They can be large or small, involving a single person or multiple organizations. Projects can also be undertaken at all different organizational levels.

A project only qualifies as a project if it meets the three criteria of being
  1. temporary,
  2. unique, and
  3. creating output.
the criteria that makes a project different from operations

The next obvious question is how to label items that do not meet the three qualifying criteria. Output creating endeavours that are not unique (or are repetitive) and/or are not temporary (or are ongoing) can be labelled as operations. It is important to remember that the distinction is not binary or always easy to make. Therefore, it is best to conceptualize the difference as a continuum, with an endeavour having more project or operational characteristics.

continuum of projects vs operations

With the definition of a project clearly explained, the other concept to examine is project management itself. Defined in the PMI PMBOK Guide, 6th Edition, project management is,
The application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements. PMI PMBOK Guide
While this is only one single definition among many, it is once again fairly representative of most commonly accepted definitions of the term. Since projects can come in all levels of size, scale, and complexity, it is important to note the relationship between these things and the need for a formal, structured application of project management.

Not ever endeavour qualifying as a project can, or even should, be formally managed. Simple projects can be managed without the use of any recognised tools and techniques; 'hands-free' project management. As the scale of projects increases, the need for formal project management structure, tools, and techniques increases proportionally toward the use of an approach to project management as suggested by the stated definition.

The graphic below shows three general categories of projects with two specific project examples each; one simple and one complex. While the examples are exaggerated for simplicity, they clearly show that the need for formal project management increases with the complexity of the project. Not illustrated, but also important to note, is that many mid points between the two extremes of highly simple and highly complex projects exist as well.

when to use informal and structured project management

Being able to recognize a project and the need for the level of application of project management tools and techniques is an important starting point for beginning project managers. These concepts are central to the foundations of project management and understanding them will be useful as more information and experience on project management is acquired.

About the Author: Mark Romanelli is a full time lecturer in the Sports, Culture, and Events Management program at the University of Applied Science Kufstein Tirol (FH Kufstien Tirol) in Kufstein, Austria. His curriculum includes courses in Project Management and Strategic Project Development. He is a member of the Project Management Institute and a Certified Associate in Project Management.