What is a Project?

A project is a temporary venture to produce a new and unique deliverable. A deliverable could be a tangible product, a service or achievement of a required outcome. stakeholdermap.com
One of the best ways to differentiate a project from say operations or business as usual is to look for a clear start and end. A project's delivery dates may move, but the project will have a defined end either because the project produces the defined product or deliverable or because the project is agreed to be closed.

Characteristics of a project

What is a Project? 4 characteristics of a project

1. It has a start and a finish

To be temporary there must be a clear start and end to the project. A point when the project commences and a point when the project can be agreed to done, in other words the point when the project's objectives have been realized, or a point at the project is terminated because the objectives won't be achieved. In agile project management this is expressed as a 'definition of done'.

2. It creates something new

Because projects result in unique deliverables there is unlikely to be a template or tested approach for completing the project. Once the project is complete it won't need to be repeated at least not in the same way as any related deliverable will require a different approach.

For example multiple customers may require a software upgrade. Elements of upgrading the software will be the same across projects, but the customer configuration, customisations and integrations will be different thus each upgrade project deliverable will be unique.

Upgrades provide an interesting example of the difference between projects and BAU activities. As companies increasingly move to a SaaS model upgrades are becoming pre-defined and repeatable parts of BAU. This means that with many SaaS solutions upgrades no longer require a project approach for delivery. This is similar to the updates to the operating system on a smart phone. The creation of the new version of the operating system will likely be a project, but the rollout may be predefined and part of business as usual as the update is simply pushed to customers.

3. It starts with an idea, which is turned into something

A Project is simply a set of tasks which turn an idea into something – a deliverable. That might be something you can hold, use or work with or it might be something less tangible like a project to change behaviour.

At first the details of the deliverable are not vague, the project will start with a goal or set of objectives and the detail will be developed over the course of the project usbr.gov describe this process as progress elaboration. Project Management methods are designed to help get us from the idea to the deliverable, by guiding us through a lifecycle:

Idea >> Detailed look (feasibility) >> Design >> Build >> Test >> Close

4. It isn't business as usual

Delivering projects might be the business of a consulting company, but each project is unique. BAU activities or Operations are repetitive - a person or process will follow a set of steps the same way to get the same result. Two classic examples would be the process to pay staff each month or the process of paying invoices. Some more examples are shown in the table below.
Project Business as Usual
New payroll system Payroll processing each month
New buildings or extensions Building maintenance
Designing a new car The car production line
Developing a new version of software Supporting the new software version e.g. answering tickets.

Projects still follow processes

Projects are not the same as Operations, but they do still follow a set of processes. These processes can be split into two categories: project management processes and product focussed processes.

Project Management Processes

Project management processes guide the management, control and monitoring of the project. Multiple tools and techniques are used in the project management processes for example project planning techniques support the planning process and reporting tools support the directing and reporting processes. These processes can be applied regardless of product type or industry and defined and supported by Project Management governing bodies like the Project Management Institute.

Product Processes

Projects also have processes that are designed to ensure the project's products meet the agreed specifications. These will vary depending on the product, so a process to build a new house will be very different from the process followed to design a new car.

Examples of Projects compared to operations or business as usual

Railway Project example - Crossrail

Crossrail is a new railway designed to speed up journey times around London and the South East. The new railway will be called the Elizabeth Line and will enable faster and simpler travel across London with fewer changes.
What is a Project? Crossrail example of a project

Railway Operations example - Running stations, maintaining tracks

. Network Rail own and run Britain's railways. Day to day running of the railway is split into nine routes each headed by a managing director responsible for running the network in their area.
What is a Project?r railway maintenance example of what isn't a project

Project - Designing a new car

Projects follow a lifecycle in that they are broken down into phases or in the case of agile projects into sprints. Skoda follow an 8 step project lifecycle when designing a new concept car.
What is a Project? Example of designing a car
They start with drawings and a digital design, then a clay model is built and interior and exterior features are designed in detail. Lights, colour and materials are decided until finally the final concept car is developed. Cutting edge technology is used to visualize the final car allowing the Skoda team to 'sit in the car' and see how the components look, feel and work together.

Operations – The production line building the car

Honda's first car plant opened in late 1992, it produces 150,000 cars per year including the CR-V, Civic 5 Door, Civic Tourer and the Civic Type R. The product line operates on a two shift basis, and consists of seven departments Weld, Paint, Assembly Frame, Material Logistics and Vehicle Quality.
car production line example of what isn't a project
The focus is on repeatable processes that operate together to produce a final product that meets a pre-defined design using consistent materials to an strict quality standard.

Summing up - a project is….

In short a project provides something unique for example, a product, a service or a result.

Because projects are unique they are structured and managed using acknowledged standards, skill sets, processes and procedures. These are created, supported, improved and maintained by organisations dedicated to the Project Management profession like the Association of Project Management and the Project Management Institute.

Read more on Project Management

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