What Is a Project: A Comprehensive Project Definition

March 13, 2024 ยท 5 min read

What exactly is a project, and what is not? For managers, it's crucial to understand. Imagine your boss says: Here's a project. Do it. The first thing every manager should start with is to assess whether this is truly a project, or if it's just considered one by the management.

Defining a Project: The PMBOK Perspective

The PMBOK project definition is described as a temporary endeavor undertaken to create unique products, services, or results. However, this definition doesn't always help clearly separate a project from non-projects. 

In our view, a project is characterized not only by time constraints and resource availability but also by a high degree of uncertainty.

 Job sites provide a good illustration of this definition's accuracy. 

Overview Across Industries

If we search for a Project Manager position without limiting the industry, we'll find that a significant portion of such vacancies are across three sectors: IT, construction, and applied science. Why is that? Let's delve into it.

what-is-projectIn all three sectors, tasks are limited by time, budget, and resources, and are associated with high uncertainty. For example, we have to create toothpaste. We have a goal, but we don't have a clear answer on how to achieve it, leading to many unknowns. Plus, we're likely required to estimate the timeframe and adhere to a certain budget. The same awaits us in IT when it comes to software development.

Construction might seem different at first glance because it usually involves standard projects where we know what to do. However, even in the construction of typical buildings, there's a very high level of uncertainty due to the large number of project participants, making coordination complex. Unlike IT and research groups, where teams are often very small, construction involves hundreds of people needing coordination to achieve results.

Project Management vs. Product Management

But what if there's high uncertainty but no definite end? In such cases, project management approaches can still be used, but they typically become inefficient. It's better to apply product management approaches like Scrum. 

If project management is about accomplishing something complex within constraints, then product management is when there are no critical constraints but high uncertainty. 

For example, we're developing Google Maps. In Google's case, budget constraints are likely less critical, especially compared to contracting with a customer or being a significantly smaller company. Is it important for Google to meet deadlines? Probably not, as a few months' delays are also not critical. What's significant is making the product perfect, ensuring people like it, and avoiding user churn. There's no pronounced end, but uncertainty exists, and we're fully focused on the content, making product approaches more logical.

Operations Management: The Counterpoint to Project Management

project_managementAnother case, which is actually the antithesis of project management, is operations management, like the assembly line in car manufacturing. This is not a project at all. There's no time constraint, no high uncertainty, and tasks repeat day after day. Activities can be broken down into simple, understandable instructions. These enterprises are easy to manage, and operational managers are not needed in large numbers; even one person can manage 500โ€“700 people. While in IT, a team might consist of 10 โ€” max 20 people.

However, if an enterprise begins to expand or introduces new products, elements of project activity emerge, as specific time and resource constraints appear, and tasks become unique, requiring project management.


Thus, the key to understanding project meaning lies in the combination of definitive ends and high uncertainty. If a task has clear time constraints and is associated with unknowns that make its completion complex and unpredictable, it's most likely a project and project management approaches should be applied. Otherwise, if a task is regular and predictable, or does not have a clear time constraint, it likely does not fall under project activities.

๐Ÿ”Ž Read our next article in this series: โ€œHow Does a Good Project Manager Differ from a Bad One?โ€

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