What Is A Project? – Goldilocks Edition

What is a project

Many people ask the question “What is a project?” every day.

For some, the first time you may have heard of such a thing was due to finding a posting on a job board somewhere for a project manager.

Curious, you are now asking what a project actually is. What is this thing you would manage?

The excellent Wideman Comparative Glossary of Project Management Terms gives us some great definitions to choose from.

Too Hot

An endeavor in which human, material and financial resources are organized in a novel way, to undertake a unique scope of work of given specification, within constraints of cost and time, so as to achieve unitary, beneficial change, through delivery of quantified and qualitative objectives.

-Turner, J.R. The Handbook of Project Based Management: Improving Processes for Achieving Your Strategic Objectives. 1992

This kind of definition seems a bit restrictive to me, and seems to make far too many assumptions. A ‘super dictionary’ definition of what a project is shouldn’t exclude examples which the majority of managers would consider to be projects. For example, what if cost were not constrained – there’s always a limit but what if a project were so important that the available funding was so large you could never possibly use it all in the time frame allowed? That could certainly still be a project. What if you have no financial resources involved at all, as in organizing an event for a non-profit organization held in their facilities and without any money ever changing hands? That is still a project.

Too Cold

A temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product or service.

-Various original authors quoted in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (known as “PMBOK®”) 1996

Now this one just sounds good. I can’t refute the truth of it, and can’t think of an example which falls outside of this definition for what a project is.

However, I think it’s too broad.

It’s fine for a standard dictionary definition for the general term “project” but just doesn’t tell you enough in the context of project management. According to this definition, painting a unique scene with watercolors is a project. But that’s not what we mean when we say “project” in the context of what you manage as a project manager.

Just Right

A process or undertaking that encompasses an entire set of activities having a definable starting point and well defined objectives the delivery of which signal the completion of the project. Projects are usually required to be accomplished within limited resources.

-Wideman, R. M. Cost Control of Capital Projects, BiTech Publishers Ltd, Richmond, BC, Canada, 1995

Now this definition helps tell me what a project is, and fits every example I can think of. It also excludes examples that may have snuck in under the ‘too cold’ definition of what a project is.

So, what is a project to you? Leave a comment below.

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