Examining the ongoing challenges of delivering high-quality, value-added ERP services in Higher Education.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

What is a project?

Two weeks ago I attended a pre-conference seminar at EDUCAUSE 2011 in Philadelphia on Creating Agile Organizations. during the icebreaking part of the day, the facilitators asked us to huddle at our tables over this question: what is a project? There were audible groans. At least twice I heard "I'm a PMP, I know what a project is." Yet across forty project management professionals we struggled.

Let's examine the PMBOK definition: "A project is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result."

Out of fairness to the standards boards across the pond, how about the PRINCE2 definition: "A project is a management environment that is created for the purpose of delivering one or more business products according to a specified Business Case."

And now some of the definitions the seminar attendees came up with:
  • A project is a set of activities that are time bound (start/end dates) with a specific set of objectives (scope). Should have some minimum thresholds (e.g. how much time it takes to complete). May be of interest as a track-able item from management's perspective.
  • A project has discrete scope, defined start/end dates, and meets organizational definitions (hrs, resources, origin) for a "project"; typically outside normal operations.
I look upon these attempts at defining the word and think "Gee, those PMI and PRINCE2 definitions are so much tighter." Their current simplicity reflects untold hours of careful wordsmithing, a painful and unending process as anybody who has ever crafted a mission statement or novel can attest... With such clean definitions out there why is there still so much consternation about "what is a project?"

For some reason (unknown to me) one problem seems to be the lack of precision in the "official" definitions -- they are too broadly applicable, and one must be careful not to treat too many undertakings as "projects" -- thus an interminable attempt to define define "eligibility" for the gravitas-laden title "project".

Consider these thoughts from other groups in the same EDUCAUSE seminar:
  • It is usually about something large and new (not incremental). (Anything larger than 80 hours.)
  • Needs approval; needs funding; typically align to strategic vision.
  • A set of functions to be implemented in a set period of time, that requires more than a defined number of hours.
  • A request that takes more than one day to complete. Usually involves more than one person.

We could imagine so many potential gating criteria:
  • 8 hours
  • 40 hours
  • 80 hours
  • 200 hours
  • 2,000,000 hours
  • Has a budget
  • Has budget > $X
  • Has more than one resource
  • More than five resources
  • Not involving Group X or Group Y
  • Has IT involvement
  • Ordained as a project by the governing board
This is beyond wordsmithing; we're talking philosophy now. Every time I find myself in such conversations, i want to tear my hair out. At first I think this differentiation is about reducing red tape--not wanting to burden a small project with the baggage of process and procedure. Sometimes it seems as if the evil root cause is the "cult of project managers" looking at smaller projects as somehow below their station and wanting to maintain the purity of their profession. Other times I think that it is the parochialism of individuals grounding their rules in those witnessed at current or past employers or clients; too often these rules are presented as points of fact. There is no one reason, and no explanation makes the debate all that meaningful to me. More time is sometimes wasted debating whether or not something is a project than just moving on and managing it like one. Why is that such a horrifying proposition for some?

For me, a project is anything that has these characteristics:
- Defined start and end
- Would benefit from a codified strategy mapped on a timeline
- Can be conceived as a series of inter-related actions

In other words: if it smells like a project, it is probably a project. And this: almost any undertaking would benefit from project management. Yes, even those pesky "operations." Just ask my wife: I basically have a GANTT chart for Monday supper! (And definitely had one for our honeymoon, collected in a beautiful green three-ring binder).

What do you think? Hit me via Twitter (@jasonshaffner) or e-mail with your perspective!

Labels: , , ,