What is a Project? A Simple Question with a Very Difficult Answer

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What is a Project? A Simple Question with a Very Difficult Answer

Written by: Jamal Moustafaev

This is a seemingly simple question, at least, for a certified project manager. After all we all know that a project is an “endeavor that has a definite start and an end, undertaken to deliver a unique product a service”. Usually this definition is followed by a couple of illustrative examples:

  • Creation of the first prototype of the Formula One car is a project since it does have a defined start, an end and produces a unique product.
  • Mass production of, say, canned soup is not a project, since while it has a defined start it does not have a defined end. Also, thousands of cans can’t be considered a unique product since all of them are identical.     

These examples unfortunately do not reflect the complexities that are usually encountered when deploying project management at various organizations. I remember a consulting engagement when we were working together with a focus group of the employees at a large government organization. One of the tasks on our agenda was to determine what would be considered a project by the company standards and thus require the application of the project management methodology. The following conversation took place between one of the employees and me:


Me: Project is an endeavor that has a definite start and an end undertaken to deliver a unique
product a service.

Employee: Wait a second! So, according to this definition the act of sending an e-mail is a project, right? It has a defined start and an end and represents a unique product …

Me: Well, you can look at it this way …
Employee: Does this mean I have to write a project charter, requirements document and a project
plan every time I intend to create an email?  

Although I appreciated the humor in his inquiry, the “what is a project?” issue is one of the most hotly
contested topics during the project management implementation initiatives at almost all organizations. The standard approach is to establish some kind of threshold expressed in terms of dollars or man-months and agree that an endeavor exceeding this threshold would be treated as a project. For example, any initiative with a budget of more than $100,000 (or with an effort of more than 10 man-months) shall be considered a project and will require adherence to the project management methodology.

Discussion of these thresholds usually takes a long time especially at the organizations where metrics gathering is not a very popular practice. Some of the questions that arise are:

  • We do not estimate the cost of our internal projects. How do we apply the threshold rule?
  • We do not estimate or plan the total human effort for our projects. How do we apply thethreshold rule?
  • Should we include the human effort required into the overall cost of the project (i.e. do we assume that the employees are free or calculate their daily/monthly cost to the company?)

Another issue that is very frequently brought up is the size of the threshold. Put it too high and the company will end up with too few projects that will require project management methodology. Put it too low and you will discover that you need to hire between 30 and 50 professional project managers!
The way to address these questions is to involve the executives into the discussion and to work closely with the employees of the organization in order to find the optimal solution.

About the Author:

Jamal Moustafaev, MBA, PMP – president and founder of Thinktank Consulting is an internationally acclaimed expert and speaker in the areas of project/portfolio management, scope definition, process improvement and corporate training. Jamal Moustafaev has done work for private-sector companies and government organizations in Canada, US, Asia, Europe and Middle East.  Read Jamal’s Blog @ www.thinktankconsulting.ca If you have a Twitter account, please follow Jamal there: https://twitter.com/ThinktankConsul

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