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When is a Project Not a Project?

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Over the course of my career I’ve encountered many people who define something as a “project” even though it’s really not. Sometimes the term is a buzzword that gets tossed around the boardroom, other times it’s an honest misunderstanding of requirements. In every case, I’ve had to  define a real project  and help them set their sights on something concrete.

In order to clear up any other misconceptions out there, here’s a quick and dirty list of what projects are  not:

Not collaborative

You might be able to call your attempt at home improvement a “project”, but for businesses and organizations, the scale is a bit too small. Truly professional-level projects require collaboration between different people or groups in order to achieve the greatest effect. Solo operations aren’t any more “projects” as they are a “team”.


Projects are meant to accomplish a solidly defined goal or set of goals. A scattershot effort with vague objectives is just that–unfocused, non-directed, and most likely not going to be very effective. The problem here is that clients often mistake “benefits” for “objectives”.

One of the easiest project examples to understand is  bridge construction. Yes, building a bridge can increase commerce, speed up travel, promote tourism, and create jobs. But those are all  benefits. The actual  project  is the bridge itself.

It Doesn’t Move the Organization Forward

Projects are supposed to be a benefit to the organization. It’s unfortunate to say, but I’ve handled a couple of projects that were essentially “money sinks”, which were undertaken just because there was some room left in the annual budget, and they needed to spend it otherwise next year’s budget would shrink. Although my company was paid no problem, the project was a waste in all other aspects. The client didn’t care how much time we put into it, nor the quality of the deliverables.

True projects drive things forward. If the organization isn’t better off for having done the project, then why do it in the first place?

It’s An Ongoing Activity

By far the biggest mistake people make when defining a project is confusing them with ongoing operations. Ongoing operations are very different from  ongoing projects. The key difference is that ongoing operations are a normal part of how a company does business (like producing cars), while an ongoing  project  is a project whose end date has been repeatedly extended and delayed. There’s still a definite end to the project– it’s just a long time in coming.

Properly defining a project isn’t just a matter of semantics. It also has very real implications of how a project performs. With the above list, I hope you’ve become just a little bit wiser in what to expect from your PMO.

Image credit, Flickr,  Ethan Lofton


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