When is a Project, a Project?

Setting up a PMO is often one of the first steps of establishing formal Project Management within an organisation – whether that be at department, division or organisation level.  The role of the PMO can vary from simple reporting to developing project delivery capability, but one of the foundation stones is a project delivery framework that allows a consistent, repeatable approach for projects.  An early challenge then, is to decide when this delivery approach it to be used, ie ‘what constitutes a project’?

How hard can that be?

The word ‘project’ has become ubiquitous in almost every context and seems to embrace a wide range of initiatives of polar opposite scales and everything in between.  My granddaughter brings home ‘projects’ from nursery.  I have home improvement projects.  Alan Sugar provides his apprentices with daily projects.  PMO Learning is currently working on a project to implement a Learning Management System.  The HS2 is project currently under review by the government.

It is essential that we provide some clarity on what the PMO is referring to when talking about projects.

The first port of call for clarifying ‘what is a project’ might be looking at the dictionary definition.  Dictionary.com gives us the following:

What about project management best practice and professional bodies?

AXELOS gives us:

a temporary organisation that is created for the purpose of delivering one or more business products according to an agreed business case.

The Association for Project Management (APM) gives us:

A unique, transient endeavour to bring about change and to achieve planned objectives.

And finally, Project Management Institute (PMI) gives us:

A temporary endeavour undertaken to create a unique product, service or result. A project is temporary in that it has a defined beginning and end in time, and therefore defined scope and resources.

These are useful, but only help us understand how the term project has become so widely used.  If you counted up the number of ‘projects’ that fit the above definitions, we’d probably be talking about an awful lot of projects.  So, the question is not ‘what is a project’ but, ‘how does our organisation define a project?’ ie what initiatives are going to be governed by the delivery framework.  This is a question many organisations struggle to answer, and there are ongoing discussions as to whether certain initiatives should be reported on, require a business case etc.

There are some standard characteristics, of course, which we need to spell out, that characterise the initiative as a project in the first place.  These include having a defined end date, agreed outcome/ output etc.  But after that, there are several characteristics and scales we can consider and will be bespoke to any organisation.  These can include:

  • Whether it is internally or externally driven (ie customer-driven)
  • Who is paying for the project
  • The size of the project budget
  • The length of time the project is scheduled to run for
  • What people will be working on the project
  • Who the sponsor is
  • The level of risk associated with it

So, do you know how your organisation defines a project?

This is one of the early exercises we’ll be working through with our delegates on the Setting up a PMO course.  I look forward to seeing what their definitions end up as.


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