South East Training - The Project Management Toolkit

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Is it a Project?

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Is it a project? This is an important question. If it isn’t a project we would just get on and complete the task without further ado. On the other hand, if it is a project, we need to take a step backwards and consider to what degree we need to take a ‘project approach’.

There are as many definitions of the word 'project' as there are management books on the subject of project management. Sunny and Kim Baker, in their excellent book, 'The Complete Idiots Guide to Project Management' (don't be put off by the title, it really is superb), define a project as:

"A sequence of tasks with a beginning and an end that is bounded by time, resources and desired results."

This is as good a definition as any I’ve come across. However, how does that fit with say, running the monthly payroll? This:

  • Invoves a sequence of tasks
  • Has a beginning and an end
  • Is bounded by time, resources and, desired results.

But, clearly this isn’t a project.  It's a process.

If you think about it, we can hardly call any repetitive series of tasks a project. These are actions that we don’t need to think about too much as the way to do them has already been considered, the risks are known and, quite likely, we have had plenty of practice.

A project, on the other hand, is usually a one-off. It is something we haven’t done before. We haven’t had the practice and, consequently, we don’t know all the risks. And, it is precisely because we haven’t had the practice and we don’t know all the risks that we need ‘project management’.


So, examples of a project might be moving the office to a new location, starting up a new product line or service, installing a new computer system or running a staff away-day. Something we haven’t done before.

A Better Project Definition

A better definition of ‘a project’ might then be:

"A unique sequence of tasks with a beginning and an end that is bounded by time, resources and desired results."

This would capture the essence of a project.

What About Repeating Events?

Just wait a moment, we ran a staff away-day last year, so that can’t be a project. We’ve had practice at that and we can just do the same as last year. Well, no! The likelihood is there will be differences - different topics, different staff, different location, different speakers and so on. It will be a different event, with different challenges and different ways in which it could go wrong. It’s a project and we need project management to make sure we get it right.

So, consider, is it a unique sequence of events? If yes, you need to read the rest of 'Easy Project Management'.

What About Scale? 

So, if we have a unique sequence of tasks we have a project, but what about scale? Surely we don't need project management if the tasks are few and relatively simple - say, researching a topic online and writing a brief for your boss, or contacting a number of suppliers to see who can offer the best price for a product or service. This is true. It might be a project but do we need to take a project management approach? Isn't there a danger that we will spend more time scoping and planning our project than actually doing the work?

The decision to take a project management approach is more to do with the risk of things going wrong than the number of tasks or the ease with which they can be completed. One Government department used the following list to help make this decision. It advised its staff to take a project management approach if three or more of the following applied:

  • It would take more than six weeks to complete
  • It would involve more than one person
  • It would affect more than two teams
  • It would involve another Government department
  • It had a fixed end date
  • It significantly impacted other areas of work
  • It would cost more than £5000
  • It would have a significant impact on the organisation's reputation
  • It would have significant Ministerial interest or involvement
  • It would require regular reporting to senior staff
  • It involved procurement of IT resources.

Some might believe this organisation set the threshhold quite high. It might be worth considering taking a project management approach whenever:

  • The aim of the activity is clear (this is essential, otherwise you do not have a project)

and one or more of the following applies:

  • You have not done this before
  • It will involve more than one person, team or department 
  • It will involve outsourcing or procurement
  • There are fixed timescales, resources and budget
  • There is a risk to reputation
  • There is a risk to health or the environment
  • There is a risk to other business activities
  • There is a risk to your investment in the project.

In the end, it is worth considering a project management approach whenever you perceive a risk.

Is it a Programme?

What about the other end of the scale?  What happens when there are numerous objectives, some of which are not clear at the outset. Perhaps your organisation has made the decision to expand its operations internationally over the next five years through a combination of acquisition, diversification and organic growth. Clearly there is a need for an organised approach, but is it a project? Here we need to make a distinction between a programme and a project. The two are often confused. The Office of Government Commerce (OGC) in their publication, Managing Successful Programmes, define a programme as:

'A temporary flexible organisation structure created to coordinate, direct and oversee the implementation of a set of related projects and activities in order to deliver outcomes and benefits related to an organisation's strategic objectives; a programme is likely to have a life that spans several years.'

In short, a programme is a collection of related projects that delivers benefits and might span several years.  By contrast, a project delivers outputs and is considerably shorter.  To put that into context, preparing for the 2012 London Olympics might have been considered a programme while building the athletics stadium was a project.

More on programmes later.