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4 Reading 3 Projects and project teams

4.1 Types of projects

Formal projects are a familiar part of nearly all work situations and are often a staple part of some organisations. Because of this it is worth looking at some of the features of formal projects and their management, as they have some different characteristics from other ongoing activities.

To write about projects, we have to define what they are and describe how they arise. Projects and project work are often contrasted with process: 'process', in this sense, describes the normal day-to-day activities of an organisation, while 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 involves carrying out projects. What then is a project?

Projects vary so much that they are difficult to define. What follows are some definitions offered by writers about projects.

A project is a unique venture with a beginning and an end, conducted by people to meet established goals within parameters of cost, schedule and quality.

(Buchanan and Boddy, 1992).

A project is a set of people and other resources temporarily assembled to reach a specified objective, normally with a fixed budget and with a fixed time period. Projects are generally associated with products or procedures that are being done for the first time or with known procedures that are being altered.

(Graham, 1985, pp. 1–2 quoted in Buchanan and Boddy, 1992).

[A project has] dedicated resources, a single point of responsibility, clear boundaries across which resources and deliverables move, limited duration, [it is a] one-off task and [has] objectives. It is a useful way of organizing work. Projects don't arise without deliberate intervention.

(Gray, 1994).

The simplest form of a project is a discrete undertaking with defined objectives often including time, cost and quality (performance) goals. All projects evolve through a similar 'life-cycle' sequence during which there should be recognised start and finish points. In addition the project objectives may be defined in a number of ways, e.g. financial, social and economic, the important point being that the goals are defined and the project is finite.

(Association of Project Managers, 1993).

Key features of these definitions are that 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 apply.

The uniqueness of projects means that they take place in an atmosphere of risk and uncertainty. For our purposes, I will define a project as organised work towards a pre-defined goal or objective that requires resources and effort, a unique (and therefore risky) venture having a budget and schedule. A project's success can be measured in terms of how closely it comes to meeting the goal or objective (and this is an issue of quality) within the parameters of its budget and schedule. Once a project completes, it ceases; therefore project work is also characterised by impermanence.

Let's look at some illustrative 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 its 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 couldn't 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 asked 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, demolition of 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 new products using a new polymer.

  • A software development firm may be asked to make modifications to an existing database system in order to improve the ability of 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 Third 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, at one point UK local taxation changed from its old basis: 'the rates' (based on 'rateable value', which was related to property value) to a new basis: 'the community charge', or 'poll tax' (which was a charge on individuals). This 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 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 of Project Managers defines a 'programme' as:

… a specific undertaking to achieve a number of objectives. The most common examples of programmes are development programmes or large single purpose undertakings consisting of a series of interdependent projects. Examples include product and economic development programmes where the programme follows a concept/design/development life cycle before moving into implementation of multiple projects.

(Association of Project Managers, 1993).

There are many ways to organise projects.

  • tTey can be entirely within an organisation ('in-house' projects): one group can be deputed to carry out the project on behalf of the whole organisation, a division or a department.

  • Parts of the project work can be put to tender for bidding. Organisations interested in taking on the work will prepare an estimate and use it to develop a bid which they will submit, with the successful bidder making a contract with the client organisation. In other words, the successful bidder becomes the 'contractor'.

  • All the project work can be put to tender and contracted for. The contractor can do all of the project work, or can divide it and let parts be done by subcontractors.

  • Part or all of a project can be tendered for by consortia (this is particularly so in the case of projects such as the Channel Tunnel, which require such large amounts of cash and other resources that they cannot be financed by a single contractor).

We need to make a distinction between contracting and subcontracting on the one hand, and putting together a consortium of companies that will bid for a contract on the other. The major difference is in the process of putting together a bid or tender. A potential contractor may put subsets of work out for formal tender by potential subcontractors before, during or after making its own bid to the client, or even after the bid has been accepted and a contract drawn up. A consortium initially comes together in a more informal way, as interested organisations seek each other out and determine a strategy for bidding. A consortium will also choose an 'umbrella' name for itself and develop a more formal organisation. The Channel Tunnel was an example of a project that both involved a consortium and used traditional contractual arrangements.