What is a project? Definition, Elements, Stages

Published Categorized as Project Management
what is a project
what is a project

From what I have experienced so far, there is a lot of confusion related to what is a project and what is not a project. So I just feel that I should write down a few ideas to clarify it. So let’s start at the outset and zoom in on the issues.

What do these have in common?

  1. A citywide WiFi system set to go online
  2. Microsoft’s new Surface hits the market
  3. London receives funds to expand the tube system

Well, they all are projects.

Projects are unique endeavors undertaken to create unique products, services or results. Like most organizational effort, the major goal of a project is to satisfy the customer’s need. Beyond the fundamental similarity, characteristics of a project help differentiate them from other endeavors of the organization. Typically projects have these characteristics:

  • an established objective
  • a defined lifespan with a beginning and an end
  • usually involving several departments and professionals
  • doing something that has never been done before
  • specific time, cost and performance requirements

So what is a project?

First off, projects have a defined objective -weather it is building a house by 28th of September or releasing a second version of a software as soon as possible.This singular purpose is often missing in daily organizational life in which individuals perform repetitive tasks each day.

Second, because of the specified objective projects will have a defined endpoint, which is conflicting to the ongoing duties and responsibilities of traditional jobs. In most cases employees will move from one project to the next, as supposed to staying in the same job. For example, after helping to install a security system, an IT engineer may be assigned to develop a new security feature for an upcoming release.

Third, unlike much organizational work that is segmented according to functional specialty, projects typically require the combined effort of a variety of specialists from different departments. In an ideal situation the project participants will be in the same location working under one project manager to accomplish the project’s objective, but as we know from practice team are usually spread out several timezones, and  language barriers and politics can have a negative impact on the outcome.

The fourth characteristic of a project is that it is a non-routine and has some unique elements. Obviously accomplishing something that has never done before, like sending people to Mars,  requires solving previously unsolved problems and innovation. On the other hand, even the basic construction projects that involve established set of routines and procedures will require some level of customization that in turn make them unique.

Finally, specific time cost and performance requirements bind projects. Normally projects are evaluated based on time spent, costs and accomplishments.  There triple constraints impose a higher level of accountability that you will typically find in most jobs. These three constraints also highlight one of the primary functions of project management, which is balancing the trade-offs between time, cost and performance while satisfying the customer’s needs.

What a project is not.

You should not confuse a project with everyday work. A project is not a routine! Ordinary daily work requires doing the same task over and over, while a project is done only once; a new product, service or result will exist when the project is finished.

Recognizing the difference is important because too often resources can be used up on daily operations which may not contribute to longer range organizational strategies that require innovative new projects.

Review of Project Elements

We have talked about what a project is and is not above and now I just want to do a review of the project elements that come into play whenever we tackle a new project. These items will have to be taken into account in order to improve the chances of a project to succeed.

Core Project Elements

  1. Well defined goal
  2. Expectation of time commitment
  3. Underlying costs to achieve
  4. Described plan of achievement
  5. Listing of goal’s major sub-elements
  6. Description of risks or unknown factors
  7. Success measurement techniques

Additional Elements in Defining the Project

  1. Funding sources and expectations
  2. Problem background information
  3. Critical reference document
  4. Project methodologies – management and operation
  5. Required capital equipment
  6. Necessary computer hardware & software

Critical Project Factors

  1. Computer system as major technology component
  2. New characteristic – requires research
  3. Narrow domain to fit imposed semester deadline
  4. Commercial competition
  5. Acceptable risk factors

What is a project? In Depth Analysis

Phases of a Project

  1. Conceptualization
  2. Feasibility
  3. Preliminary planning
  4. Detailed planning
  5. Execution
  6. Testing
  7. Termination

Phase 1: Project Initiating

  1. Recognize the project should be done
  2. Determine what the project should accomplish
  3. Define the overall project goal
  4. Define general expectations of customers, management, or other stakeholders as appropriate
  5. Define the general project scope
  6. Select initial members of the project team

Phase 2: Project Planning

  1. Refining the project scope
  2. Listing tasks and activities
  3. Optimally Sequencing activities
  4. Developing a working schedule and budget for assigning resources
  5. Getting the plan approved by stakeholders

Phase 3 – Project Execution

  1. Leading the team
  2. Meeting with team members
  3. Communicating with stakeholders
  4. Fire-fighting to resolve problems
  5. Securing necessary resources to complete the project plan

Phase 4 – Project Control

  1. Monitoring deviation from the plan
  2. Taking corrective action to match actual progress with the plan
  3. Receiving and evaluating project changes requested
  4. Rescheduling the project as necessary
  5. Adapting resource levels as necessary
  6. Changing the project scope
  7. Returning to the planning stage

Phase 5 – Project Closing

  1. Acknowledging achievement and results
  2. Shutting down the operations and disbanding the team
  3. Learning from the project experience
  4. Reviewing the project process and outcomes
  5. Writing a final project report

Image courtesy of Freepik

By Alex Puscasu

I am a Project Management practitioner with more than 5 years experience in hardware and software implementation projects. Also a bit of a geek and a great WordPress enthusiast. I hope you enjoy the content, and I encourage you to share your knowledge with the world.