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Project management: the start of the project journey
Project management: the start of the project journey

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1.1 What is a project?

Projects and project work are often contrasted with operations, which describe the normal day-to-day activities of an organisation, whereas the word project is often used to describe something outside normal day-to-day work. Of course, in some fields, such as construction, research and software design, the normal day-to-day work is carrying out projects. What then is a project?

Projects vary so much that they are difficult to define concisely, but the general view is that projects are concerned with bringing about change in an organised manner. From an academic perspective, a project is:

a temporary organisation to which resources are assigned to do work to bring about beneficial change.

(Turner, 2006, p. 1)

Project management is also an established profession in many countries around the world and its practitioners have developed bodies of knowledge. For example, the Association for Project Management (APM) in the United Kingdom defines a project as:

a unique, transient endeavour undertaken to achieve a desired outcome.

(APM, 2006, p. 150)

The net outcome or result allows a broad interpretation of the possible outputs or products for a project. Now that projects take place in just about every organisation in the UK, there is also a British Standard for project management (BS 6079). The current version was prepared by representatives from a cross-section of industrial bodies, such as the Institution of Civil Engineers, government bodies, such as the Ministry of Defence, as well as the APM. A project is defined as:

a unique process, consisting of a set of coordinated and controlled activities with start and finish dates, undertaken to achieve an objective conforming to specific requirements, including constraints of time, cost and resources.

(BS 6079-2, 2000, p. 10)

In order to bring about a desired change, a project has the following characteristics:

  • a project is a unique undertaking: each one will differ from every other in some respect
  • projects have specific objectives (or goals) to achieve
  • projects require resources
  • projects have budgets
  • projects have schedules
  • projects require the effort of people
  • measures of quality will apply.

The uniqueness of projects means that they take place in an atmosphere of uncertainty (for which there may be some risk associated). For our purposes, we will define a project as organised work towards a pre-defined goal or objective that requires resources and effort, a unique (and therefore possibly risky) venture having a budget and schedule. Individual projects can be anywhere in the ‘spectrum of uniqueness’: from an endeavour in which just about everything you do is unique to something that is merely fairly novel. An academic research project, for example, is somewhat different from one that improves the routine operation of existing machinery.

In practice, the primary goal or objective will be broken down into a number of objectives in order to achieve the desired outcome. Once a project has met its objectives, it ceases to exist; therefore project work is also characterised by impermanence.

Quality in the context of projects will be discussed throughout this course. Defining quality is not trivial and there are a number of different perspectives from which quality can be viewed. Our view of quality is based on the following definition:

The degree to which a set of inherent characteristics fulfils requirements.

(ISO 9000, 2005)

Note that ISO 9000 defines a requirement as:

a need or expectation that is stated, generally implied or obligatory.

In ISO 9000 each inherent characteristic of a product, process or system is related to a requirement.

When it comes to the act of initiating a particular project, someone will have to justify the request for the resources needed to realise the intended benefits. Some effort is required to prepare enough evidence to gain approval for the project to go ahead. A business case is the term used for a document that sets out the justification for a project and its strategic rationale (APM, 2006, p. 68). In order to make a decision to invest in those resources, estimates of costs, timescales and benefits are needed even though detailed information may not be available at this early stage. In effect, the business case is the initial project plan with sufficient information in it to answer all the questions that the decision maker might ask – for example:

  • What do you want to achieve?
  • Why do you want to do it?
  • How are you going to do it?
  • When are you going to do it?
  • Who is going to be affected?
  • What resources do you need?

An analogy that is commonly used to describe the concept of a project is that of a journey. The daily trip to and from work by car might be part of your routine, so it’s not really a project. But a special trip to somewhere new could be a real challenge. There will be a reason for that journey, which would require a plan about how to reach the destination and what needs to be done on the way. Additional effort is needed to keep track of your progress and make sure you keep to the intended route. Hence, project management is about the application of knowledge, skills, tools and techniques so that the project can be defined, planned, monitored, controlled and delivered in order to achieve its agreed benefits (APM, 2006, p. 151).

Activity 1

Think about how you might identify whether or not a project is successful. List those items that you would look at to determine a project’s success.


One way to identify whether a project is successful is to ask the following questions:

  • Did the project achieve its time, cost and quality objectives?
  • Does the project meet the customer’s perceived requirements?
  • Does the project’s outcome make the client want to come back to do further business?
  • Has the project been completed leaving the project organisation fit and able to continue further work?

The analogy that a project is a special journey for a particular reason identifies the need to differentiate between project success and product success. For example, a project can meet all of its cost, time and quality objectives, but may fail its business goals and vice versa. We will return to the subject of success in Section 5. But it should be noted that any assessment of success involves both objective and subjective criteria.

Examples of projects

An aircraft manufacturer finds that the nose wheel on the prototype of a new aircraft collapses too easily and institutes a project to strengthen the nose wheel design. (Where designs are the result of a ‘committee’ or ‘concurrent engineering’ approach, as is often the case in the aircraft and automotive industries, what one group does with their part of a design may force another group to redesign. For example, when the wing strut in one aircraft design was strengthened, maintenance to part of the aircraft became impossible – the fitter could not reach existing wiring because the maintenance access shrank to make room for the stronger wing strut! A project had to be initiated to redesign the maintenance access.)

A construction firm may be contracted to construct access roads and a group of small factory units on derelict land in order to generate business and jobs in a depressed area of the country. This may involve surveying, demolishing walls, clearing any rubble, removing trees and shrubs, levelling the site, laying out the access roads and constructing them, constructing foundations and erecting the buildings required by the plans.

A research and development department in a chemical firm may be asked to devote time to exploring the possibilities of developing products using a new polymer. At the same time, some analysis of the potential market and the manufacturing process would be made.

A software development firm may be asked to make modifications to an existing database system in order to allow users to prepare reports directly using the data retrieved rather than having to transcribe it to a word-processing system. This may involve developing an understanding of the database and the word-processing systems, interviewing or observing users, developing specifications, writing and testing code, installing the new version of the software and providing training and documentation.

The marketing group of a company may be asked to prepare the launch of a new product. This may involve market research, planning and executing an advertising campaign, organising promotional events and press releases, and liaising with wholesalers and retail outlets.

A charity working in the developing world may determine in consultation with local people that a well needs to be dug. This may involve consulting people to determine a good site, consulting an expert hydrologist, organising local labour and materials and carrying out the work. It may involve earlier effort to determine the best local materials available and the best ways of using them for this project. It may also involve training local people to maintain the well and working with local groups to ensure that the new resource is shared fairly.

A government body may have to respond to legislative changes. For example, the change in the UK from the old basis of local taxation, the rates (based on ‘rateable value’, which was in turn related to property value), to the community charge (the poll tax, which was a charge on individuals) obliged local government bodies to make major changes to computer systems and undertake a major effort to identify whom to tax. Subsequently, the change from the poll tax to the council tax (which combines a highly modified element of the poll tax with an element of the tax based on property value) required further major system changes and another major effort to assess properties to assign them to tax bands. These formed, in a relatively short period, two separate major projects to institute the changes: one for the poll tax and then one for the council tax.

Sometimes the work needed to achieve a major organisational goal or objective will be far greater than can easily be organised and carried out in a single project. This may mean that the organisation will undertake a programme that consists of a number of interrelated projects. The Association for Project Management defines a programme as:

a group of related projects, which may include related business-as-usual activities, that together achieve a beneficial change of a strategic nature for an organisation.

(APM, 2006, p. 149)

It is also conceivable that more than one programme will be needed in order to achieve a strategic objective. The term portfolio is defined as:

a grouping of an organisation’s projects, programmes and related business-as-usual activities taking into account resource constraints.

(APM, 2006, p. 147)

The Olympic Games is an example of a portfolio that is owned by the country that acts as the host of such a special event. Consequently, a programme is associated with each of the different sports involved as well as one to deal with the changes in infrastructure needed for the Olympic Games to go ahead. It is also possible that a portfolio can refer to a group of projects and/or programmes that have no inter-dependencies other than sharing or competing for the same resources. Our next step is to consider who might be involved in the conception of a project.


Based on the characteristics that we have associated with projects and your own experience, draw up a table to compare project management with managing operations.


The answer is shown in Table S.1.

Table S.1 Project management versus operations management
Significant changeAny changes small and evolutionary
Limited in time and scopeNever-ending
Resources transientResources stable
Goal-oriented managementRole-oriented management
Attempt to balance performance, time and budgetPerformance, time and budget usually fixed and balanced
Need to balance objectivesManagement generally in state of equilibrium
More exciting (perhaps!)Steady as she goes’ feel

You may have listed other aspects.