What is a project ?

We all tend to forget those literal definitions we rarely revise, or those complex acronyms which we struggle to keep in mind right after a test.
And yet, every day we manage things represented by those definitions and we strive to cope with issues represented by those acronyms.

If the word "project" falls in the bunch of forgotten terminology for you, let's prompt skip back to the ABC!


It is worth to note that the word project comes from the ancient latin expression "proicere", that basically referred to something to be thrown forward. That's exactly what project managers and the team do in kicking off a project.
The current literature is plenty of good definitions of project, more or less aligned each other. Enough for a project manager not to publicly fail in replying to the question "What is a project?"

Whether you look at the Project Management Book Of Knowledge (PMBOK© Guide, currently in its 4th edition) or at the Oxford dictionary, at Wikipedia, at any other accredited encyclopedia, at IPMA (International Project Management Academy) publications or anywhere else over the web, the basic idea is common and encompasses the following criteria.

A project is globally recognized as an operation that:
- leads to achieve unique and defined deliverables
- is constrained by predetermined budget, time and requirements

Let's examine closely what the above means, in simple words.

1) Every project is unique
It is the requirement that should feature the outcome of the project. It needs to be unique, even if the project execution leverages on permanent or repetitive actions. I made in another post an example of a unique (and unprecedented) outcome produced by a prestigious project called "Curiosity" by NASA.

2) Every project must be "not endless"
The temporary nature is what determines if the endevour can be considered as a project or any other kind of service. No matters whether the execution is going to be short or long lasting (even decades), a true "project" must have a start and an end.
The "natural" closure of a project occurs when the work is completed against the project plan and the objectives are met.
Nevertheless, a project can be also suspended and risen again after a while, based upon decisions taken with and by the stakeholders (see the following paragraphs). Still, the project suspended and then resumed must have an end to be so defined.
Eventually, a project can be terminated earlier than expected (and again, it has an end) in case it is ascertained that the targets cannot be met or because stakeholders no longer need for it. Implications can vary, from reallocation of residual budget to other projects, up to lesson learn analysis and reorganization of the project's resources.

3) Every project has constrains
By definition, a project must have a budget to spend and quality/technical requirements to be met. Those data should be predetermined so that the project can start its execution and the project team is aware about which resources can be consumed and with targets must  be achieved.


Concrete examples of what CAN be considered as a project:
  • Burj Khalifa, the highest skyscraper in the world (Dubai). It is definitely unique. You may think to any other monument that you like, provided that it's completed in a certain timeframe and it is not just the momentary fancy of an artist.
  • A journey that you plan with a given budget, a timeframe allocated, a list of destinations that you want to reach before you go back home and close your picture book.
  • A political campaign, no matters who wins
  • The development of a new online customer service center

Palazzo Vecchio square, Florence (Italy)

Examples of what CANNOT be considered as a project :
  • Manufacturing of the materials (eg. cement) used for the Burj Khalifa, because it is a serial operation.
  • Surfing on the web to select the destinations for a journey, because there is not an assigned budget to do that for instance.
  • Procurement of the manifests to support a political campaign  because even if you have a budget the operation does not produce unique and long lasting results.
  • The activity of a new online customer service center, because it does not bring to unique results, just repetitive tasks once it goes live.
At a glance, we are in front of a project when the endeavor of a person or a team is temporary, not institutionalized in repetitive tasks, and it produces a unique result, which can be a new product, a new system to produce similar products, or the structure for a new service.


Those who did not know anything about the meaning of the word project should have few elements now to understand what it stands for, while those who were already familiar with management probably just felt school memories resurfacing.

Said that, let's leave definitions to the books and let's focus on the context a project will need to survive in.

It is worth to note that the context, the rules and the circumstances are not always black or white like the theory sometime claims. The complexity of the environment where a project is launched, including expectations of stakeholders, is  something to be carefully examined from time to time to make the right choices in the interest of a project.

If you win a ticket to manage a new project, you'd better take into serious consideration the organization that surrounds you for example. There are easy projects that become complex because the company structure is not adequate to cope with the challenges. It may happen to see complex projects which are easy to be managed because appropriately staffed and sponsored by a strong leader since the very first moment the clock starts.
In other words, projects intersect with contextual elements that challenge the aseptic definitions given above.

Let's consider a company which elects to kick off a project. Beyond its intrinsic degree of complexity, different organizational structures are possible (mainly...a pure functional organizational structure, a projectized organizational structure or a matrix organizational structure). This will make the difference on how the project will be managed.

A detailed analysis of those organizational models is posted here.

  1. A project can be defined as a temporary operation that, with given budget, time and requirements, brings to a unique and long lasting result.
  2. The organizational functions which support the project execution benefit of its achievements when the project meets the company strategy.
  3. There is always an interaction in between project managers and functions, whose extension is strongly affected by the organization models.
  4. Projects do not have always a permanent organizational substrate to support them. Also, project and functional managers do not always have mutual interests.
  5. A key competence of the successful project manager is a wide vision of the business and the organization s/he works in.