What Makes a Project a Project?

13.06.2017 |

Episode #2 of the course Introduction to Project Management by John M. Smith


Welcome to the second lesson of the course. Today, we’re going to discuss what constitutes a project and why that is important.

A project is born out of the need for something that won’t already be created through the normal course of business or life. This does not necessarily include those things that can be had by making simple adjustments. If Company A is making 10,000 widgets a year and suddenly realizes they need to make 15,000 widgets to meet demand, they do not have to create a project to produce extra widgets. They make an adjustment to what they’re already doing to increase production. However, if they want to create a new product, they would benefit by designating the creation of the new product as a project, as it represents a change not realizable by simply making adjustments.

The Project Management Institute defines a project as “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result.” There are two key words in this definition: “temporary” and “unique.”


Projects Are Temporary

A project’s life cycle can be broken down into four phases:

• Initiation – A need for a project is identified, triggering the beginning efforts to start a project.

• Planning – A project plan and schedule are compiled, and resources are selected.

• Execution – The project is launched and the resources are engaged as needed to create the deliverables. The work is then monitored, controlled, and expedited.

• Closure – The project’s deliverables are delivered, any remaining money owed is collected, any remaining expenses are paid, and the project is closed with no additional work to be done.

Image credit: Method 123

A project has defined start and end dates. These dates can be fluid, based on the type of project and the challenges that affect it, but an open-ended endeavor does not fit the format of Project Management.


Projects Create Something Unique

Projects must have well-defined goals. Without specific goals, a project lacks focus, which makes it difficult to move forward. We might refer to “improving our products” or “fixing up our house” as projects, but until we narrow the scope and set goals, the lack of specificity will hamper production. It’s necessary to create milestones, or specific goals within a project. Milestones are indicators of project schedules and their own unique goals, which culminate into bigger goals, e.g. a better product, a nicer house. The unique goals for both milestones and the overall project are deliverables. Deliverables set the stage for the project, allowing the Project Manager to build the plan and draw the map on how to get there. The goals define the projects, not the other way around.


Different Rules Can Apply

Depending on a company’s capability, what may be defined as a project for Company A might just be a “special order” for Company B. Companies with the ability to provide rapid customization can succeed in accomplishing the temporary and unique within the confines of their normal production. However, results can vary, and a high failure rate will not be tolerated with higher cost products.

Companies without standard products or rapid customization abilities achieve almost all production through Project Management. For instance, my engineering firm bids on work based on meeting clients’ specific needs. However, we focus on a limited number of markets, so many of the orders we receive are for very similar work, the difference sometimes being only the clients and their locations. We use two key identifiers that determine what orders go through simple procurement-fulfillment and which become projects: value and standard. A higher value order is more likely to be a project. A more standardized order is less likely to become a project. Although the lines can cross, we have had a lot of success and very few regrets by following this model.



There are important indicators that will help you determine if an endeavor should be considered a project. Correctly identifying work as a project can mean the difference between successful completion or utter failure. In our next lesson, we’ll talk more about why—and when—we would choose to use Project Management.


Recommended reading

Defining Your Project

What Makes a Successful Project?


Recommended book

A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge by Project Management Institute


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