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I have this struggle in my mind, on how to define projects, and how much can I (we) stretch the definition of a project.

A rough, simplistic definition of a project would be "an endeavor taken in order to achieve a certain goal". And this kind of definition (somehow) implies the idea that a project always has an end (date).

However, running a business is done with "the same" knowledge of management, but at another scale. And all the activities of the business can then be seen as sub-projects (especially including the activities which are projects undoubtedly).

So, the bottom line question is, is it OK to consider that some projects have no end (date)? Or, with different words (or different point of view), is it OK to consider that some special projects have a (forever) sliding end (date) intentionally?

I am especially interested the "why not" explanations. My attempt is to mentally "unify" project management and business management in a way that makes sense. They are both based on the same science of management after all.

Note: to give a sense of time-framing, the farthest milestone can be considered the "end of the project". A company without clear milestones will end quite soon, I guess, anyway - so they are out the scope of the question. As long as new milestones and targets are added, the project's end moves ahead in time.

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  • A "project" that is intentionally indefinite is not a project. From your comments, it seems like you want to engage in a debate about why business operations aren't projects. 1) PMSE is for Q&A that allow for canonical answers, not open-ended discussions or opinions. 2) A project by definition has a beginning and an end; ongoing business operations aren't projects. 3) Asking questions that boil down to "Why can't I call non-project a project?" basically forces people to point you to the definitions or to point out that calling a jack-in-the-box a power turbine doesn't make it one.
    – Todd A. Jacobs
    Commented Oct 10, 2022 at 10:17

5 Answers 5

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The PMI's definition of project, from "A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, 7th Edition" is:

A temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result.

I don't see an implication of an end date, but there must be an end because a project is a "temporary endeavor". I don't see why you can't define the end as being when a particular goal is reached (or becomes obsolete or impossible to reach), expending a defined level of effort regardless of how many calendar days it takes to expend that effort, or a fixed date.

I would struggle with a definition of a specific project that did not have some defined end point, whether it's a date, a goal, a level of effort, or something else. If you cannot say what event or condition causes a project to conclude, I don't know if that meets the intention of a temporary endeavor.

If you don't have a temporary endeavor, you may want to start looking at product management and service management instead of project management. At a high enough level of abstraction, it may appear that project management, product management, and service management share a lot of the same activities and processes but going into more detailed views will show differences in practices, techniques, and tools.

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  • I understand your words, but I do not really understand your point. What I understand from your explanation is: running a business is not a project ONLY because PMI used the word "temporary" - and there is no other relevant difference otherwise. And if this is the case, then running a business is just a special kind of (complex) project. And one can use all science and all the tools and all experience of running projects to running a company, as long as they understand the new project and what is specific to it. ("new project" = running the business)
    – virolino
    Commented Oct 3, 2022 at 11:47
  • @virolino, sure but what do you want to achieve by labelling all business activity a "project"? Many of us manage quite well to deliver business value without using the p-word at all.
    – nvogel
    Commented Oct 3, 2022 at 12:42
  • @nvogel: that is exactly my point, there is a lot of "literature" insisting that "running a business" is not a project just because it does not have a clear end. I do not understand the difference between "run a business" and "design a car" from a management POV, except the fact they a re different types of projects requiring different types of (technical) knowledge. My attempt was to unify the concepts by calling everything a project. You unify them by not using any word at all. So: why the difference? Is it real, or it is just perceived and enforced?
    – virolino
    Commented Oct 3, 2022 at 12:48
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    @virolino I would not consider "run a business" to be a project. When you launch the business, you probably aren't anticipating a temporary endeavor. The business is a container for products, services, and projects. Some of these may exist inside of other containers, like portfolios and programs. Understanding the tools and experiences related to managing projects, products, and services (along with portfolios and programs) essential, but insufficient, to effectively run a business. Managing toward achieving an objective is different than sustaining an entity indefinitely.
    – Thomas Owens
    Commented Oct 3, 2022 at 12:57
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    @virolino Building software may be a project, but it could also be building a product. A product management is inherently different than project management, which is something that the PMI recognizes when defining project management. There is a lot of overlap between product management and project management as well, but they are different disciplines. The tools and techniques once you get into more detailed levels of abstraction are very different. So just because at some level of abstraction the activities are the same, that doesn't hold when carrying out those activities.
    – Thomas Owens
    Commented Oct 3, 2022 at 14:24
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What is important about language and your choice of words is how your audience interprets and understands what you are trying to communicate. It matters far less what your interpretation is as you encode a message. If in your mental model you equate projects with operations, tasks, and activities, have at it; however, if your audience is confused, you might want to change your language.

In my view, an operation has an indefinite finish. There are certainly milestones and there are similarities to managing operations as one would manage a project but the indefinite finish is what separates it from a project in my interpretation.

A project has a finite finish, a definition of done.

But at the end of the day, it only matters how your audience decodes your message.

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  • Just to be sure I read your answer correctly: you say that the work of project / business managers is (or might be seen as) similar, but the main difference is the end - hard vs. who-knows-when ?
    – virolino
    Commented Oct 3, 2022 at 14:08
  • In my opinion, yes. An operation runs in perpetuity. It runs until it is no longer viable. A project has an end because the work produces a planned product or service. Commented Oct 3, 2022 at 14:20
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Projects ultimately matter very little. The products / value streams that they create, adapt or influence are what matter. Manage the product, not the project, would be my advice. End the project at the point where it becomes a distraction from delivering value - which may be even before the project has started.

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  • Will you please re-word your answer in a way that is related to my question? I did not ask about endeavors which are killed before being born.
    – virolino
    Commented Oct 3, 2022 at 12:43
  • @virolino You misunderstood. I'm not talking about endeavours ended before they were born. I'm talking about endeavours that simply aren't called "projects" (i.e. the vast majority of useful development work done in any business)
    – nvogel
    Commented Oct 3, 2022 at 12:48
  • And that is exactly what I ask: why is it wrong to call them projects, as long as they are organized as such? My point is that the "temporary" part in the PMI definition should be optional in some cases, even if it is important in most of them (projects).
    – virolino
    Commented Oct 3, 2022 at 12:50
  • @virolino sure, but the problem is the term project comes with a lot of other inconvenient baggage. i.e.: project management rather than BAU line management; scope rather than priorities; predictive planning rather than empirical and adaptive management; phased delivery rather than continuous delivery, etc.
    – nvogel
    Commented Oct 3, 2022 at 13:01
  • please see the other answer I gave to Thomas Owens - just trying to not answer twice :) pm.stackexchange.com/questions/34369/…
    – virolino
    Commented Oct 3, 2022 at 13:47
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It is "your company" that has no end date, the projects of your company should have end dates. The sprints in Scrum have end dates as well.

If "project" is not the right form of your increments, you can use Kanban methodology for example; Kanban does not enforce time-boxed increments.

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  • Unfortunately, you misunderstood the question. I do not want projects without end, I just try to understand why "my company" is not a project (simplifying the discussion, of course).
    – virolino
    Commented Oct 4, 2022 at 9:53
  • Chicken & egg :) Your company does not have an end but projects do; that's why your company can not be a project. Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 2:08
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Words have meanings, so if you accept the normal definition of a project as being having a defined outcome, then by definition it must have an end. If you want to create an alternative definition that is used within your business to mean an ongoing task or set of tasks, then that's fine - but don't expect people from outside your business to understand it.

I once worked in a business where each financial month end was considered to be a project, as it was defined, had a clear outcome, and was time-bounded. In that sense, that was a valid use of the word "project" in my opinion.

Moving into a different area, most people think of a car as a mode of transport for (normally) up to 5 people - with a few exceptions for large cars. But if you choose to define a car as any mode of transport for people, regardless of the number - and that definition is accepted within your company - then as long as you are clear about the definition and don't try to use it outside the company, then a bus, a train or a motorcycle could be considered (by your definition) as a car. It really does come down to what you and your colleagues understand, and whether you want to use that definition more widely elsewhere.

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